Before Kyrgyz Uprising, Dose of Russian Soft Power

nytimesShortly before the uprising in Kyrgyzstan two weeks ago, online news sites posted a series of hard-hitting exposés accusing the family of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of skimming money from the public coffers, an allegation that touched a nerve in this poor country and galvanized opposition to his government.

When the authorities responded by blocking the Web sites on local servers, complaints came in from the usual places — the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House — but also from an unlikely advocate for free media in the wired world: the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Rather than a change of heart on press freedoms, still stifled at home, Russia's stance in Kyrgyzstan appeared to be a new tactic in dealing with the former Soviet republics it regards as within its sphere of influence. Backing freedom of expression — in this case to oppose a leader with whom it was unhappy — was just one element of a wider, behind-the-scenes role in the uprising that may help Russia win influence in the new government.

Russia and the United States have been dueling for the upper hand in this small but strategically important Central Asian country, where the United States maintains an air field outside the capital as a logistics and refueling hub for the war in Afghanistan.

But Russia appears to have learned well the lessons of the so-called color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the past decade. In those uprisings, which overthrew governments allied with Russia but that had become alienated from their own populations, the West provided open support for opposition elites and free media.

This time, the Russians staked out a remarkably similar position and used it to their advantage. In Kyrgyzstan, an American diplomat said, the Russians "had a color revolution of their own color."

Russia's use of so-called soft power mirrored a long policy of American support for civil society in the former Soviet republics, under programs like the Freedom Support Act and financing for nongovernmental groups. Just five years ago that support, including United States financing for a publishing house in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, which produced reports of corruption, was credited with preparing the ground for the previous Kyrgyz uprising, the so-called Tulip Revolution.

Russia's newfound influence is likely to affect elections scheduled in six months to establish a permanent government in Kyrgyzstan, and it could also ripple throughout the region as the authorities in Moscow have cultivated ties with opposition figures in Georgia and Belarus.

In Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Bakiyev had been trying to play the Russians and the Americans against each other for his own benefit. He had particularly angered the Kremlin by accepting $450 million in Russian aid tacitly linked to an agreement to close the American base at Manas airport but then allowing the base to remain, renamed as a "transit center."

In July, the same month the Bakiyev government concluded the base renewal agreement with the United States, Kyrgyz opposition leaders began to get audiences with leaders in Moscow, according to Aleksandr A. Knyazov, then director of a Russian-backed nongovernmental group in Bishkek, the CIS Institute.

Mr. Knyazov said he brokered the meetings, which he said began with relatively unimportant members of the Russian Parliament but evolved into audiences with influential figures, whom he declined to name.

In March, Roza Otunbayeva, now the head of the interim government, traveled to Moscow to attend a conference of former Soviet political parties and to meet Sergei M. Mironov, speaker of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament and a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin. According to Mr. Knyazov, she warned the Russians that popular discontent in Kyrgyzstan was exploding and that a mass protest would soon take place.

While it is not clear whether she received any explicit commitments from the Russians, Moscow was already applying pressure on the Kyrgyz government.

That month, Russian state television and local opposition media in Kyrgyzstan stepped up the publication of incriminating stories about the Bakiyev government, which responded by blocking access to the news Web sites Ferghana and Bely Parus and the blog site LiveJournal, and by seizing the print runs of two newspapers.

The Russian Embassy in Bishkek then issued a statement saying that it had "heard from a large number of Russian and Kyrgyz citizens who had trouble accessing Russian Internet sites because they are blocked" and that the Russian government was "concerned" about online censorship.

On April 1, Russia raised tariffs for refined petroleum products exported to Kyrgyzstan, causing a spike in gasoline prices and inflation that further fanned discontent. Russia also shut down some banking transactions with Kyrgyzstan, and Russia's allies Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan tightened their borders, curtailing Kyrgyzstan's lucrative trade in smuggled Chinese consumer goods.

With these tactics gaining traction, the United States was at a loss for how to respond, according to the American diplomat in Bishkek, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Though the negative reporting on Mr. Bakiyev dovetailed with a Russian agenda, to counter Russian influence would have required the United States to publicly support the closing of newspapers and blocking of Internet news sites.

To have thrown support behind the president, no great friend of the United States anyway, would have meant "we would have been seen as aiding in the repression" of civil society and the free press that the United States had spent years and millions of dollars building, the diplomat said.

By early April, the role reversal for the United States was clear when one of the leaders of the Kyrgyz opposition walked into the American Embassy and told a political officer, "The revolution begins on Wednesday."

The diplomat said he replied by saying, "Really?"

On Wednesday, April 7, protests broke out around the country to protest the government's brutality and corruption, as well as the increase in utility rates. Within 24 hours, the government had fallen.

But it was hardly a clean sweep for Russia, producing an interim government that includes members with close ties to Russia and the United States.

Since then, both countries have actively courted the new leaders, resuming the contest for influence in this rugged, landlocked country of about five million people. The United States has offered support for the new government, which has promised to extend the lease on the American air base. Russia has offered $50 million in aid and subsidized fuel in the future.


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