The violence that gripped Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, last week quickly turned into a dictator's worst nightmare when the snowballing riots forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee for his life. But by week's end most pundits agreed that the biggest loser was the United States. Kyrgyzstan is home to the Manas air base, a logistical hub for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan. Ever since Bakiyev came to power in his own 2005 coup, the U.S. has plied him with money and access to keep the runways at Manas open. That support, which came despite allegations of the regime's endemic corruption and human-rights abuses, did not endear Washington to the opposition leaders who have now seized power.
Further complicating matters is Russia, which has long wanted U.S. troops out of Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev cleverly played the two off each other, extracting hundreds of millions of dollars from both. In recent months, however, Moscow turned against Bakiyev and sided with the opposition. The U.S. now looks to have backed the wrong side of a high-stakes wager.
Happily for Washington, the former opposition doesn't seem to hold a grudge. Their self-proclaimed leader, Roza Otunbayeva, quickly reassured American officials last week that the new government had no plans to shut Manas, and she has close ties to the West, having served as ambassador to both the U.S. and Britain. The money doesn't hurt: the $60 million annual rent the U.S. pays for the base is equivalent to nearly 5 percent of the government's budget, and comes on top of a $117 million aid package. Manas also employs large numbers of skilled Kyrgyz workers. As a result, America remains popular in many quarters; a U.S.-funded radio station is the most trusted source of news for the majority of the country.
Washington is thus likely to keep its vital Kyrgyz base--but the close call should serve as a lesson. "Over the last few years, the West has posited a trade-off between stability and governance," says Prof. Alexander Cooley of Barnard College. "But that's a false trade-off." As last week's events show, repressive and corrupt rulers can be much weaker than they pretend--and when they collapse, people remember who supported them.
Aside from maintaining the country's ties with the U.S., the new government will likely be more legitimate than the kleptocratic Bakiyev regime. The opposition is led by several outspoken pro-democracy figures. Kyrgyzstan now has the potential to become the first stable democracy in Central Asia. And Washington has reasons both idealistic and practical to help make it so.