The Beef in Kyrgyzstan, Vol. II: Russian Edition

After a day of bloody riots and chaotic looting, the dust seems to have settled in Kyrgyzstan today. That's not to say the fat lady has sung; ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev told the BBC that he was still in southern Kyrgyzstan and had "no plans" to leave. But even he admits that he doesn't "have any real levers of power." In the meantime, city-service employees in Bishkek are going about the business of cleaning the capital, while residents stroll through the city surveying the clutter; it's a scene almost eerie in its mundane similarity to Times Square on New Year's Day.

But while the capital may be settled, Russia's role in the whole affair is most certainly not. "Russia played its role in ousting Bakiyev," Omurbek Tekebayev, an opposition leader working in the new transitional government, told Reuters. "You've seen the level of Russia's joy when they saw Bakiyev gone." Such ecstasy in Moscow would not be out of place if it were derived purely from the ouster of a corrupt, ineffective leader. But Tekebayev doesn't stop there. He adds: "So now there is a high probability that the duration of the U.S. air base's presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened." And so, it seems, the U.S. air base at Manas, a major stop-off point for troops and supplies on their way to and from Afghanistan, is back on Moscow's agenda.

What is it about those Central Asian bases that gets Russians so worked up? They tried to tempt Bakiyev into given U.S. personnel the boot last year, offering a lucrative aid package. (No sap, Bakiyev took the money, then turned around and hiked the Americans' rent.) Back in 2005, they exerted similar influence in Uzbekistan, with success. Resident autocrat Islam Karimov evicted the United States from its base, then barred NATO from using its airspace, and finally welcomed a Russian air base onto its territory. Even the war in Georgia can be seen as Russia's allergic reaction to having NATO on its doorstep. But for all this anti-NATO maneuvering, the opposition makes little strategic sense. Moscow has no good reason to want to sabotage the NATO effort in Afghanistan. At the same time, Russian leaders have been tremendously eager to frame their problems in the Caucasus in terms of global Islamist terrorism; following their own logic, they should welcome a like-minded partner in the region equally committed to rooting out malicious Islamist networks.

The only remaining explanation, in that case, is lingering Cold War paranoia. As NEWSWEEK's Russia correspondents pointed out a few weeks ago, Moscow's favorite word to say to the Americans these days is nyet. At every turn, they write, Russia has been pushing the U.S. further and further from its borders:

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Exhibit A is Russia's continued blocking of U.S. missile-defense plans. Last year, as a good-will gesture, Washington bowed to Moscow's objections and scrapped designs for a defense shield based in Eastern Europe. Last week, it announced a less-threatening alternative: interceptors in the Black Sea, eveaarther from Russia's borders—a solution that the Kremlin itself suggested a year ago.So has Russia agreed? Nyet: the new offer is "even worse," says Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, despite the fact that the interceptors pose no threat to Russia's nukes.

It's still unclear whether Russia meddled actively in Kyrgyzstan or simply sat back and let the coup unfold without a word of protest. Either way, their interest in the U.S. base at Manas should be seen as yet another case in point of the same old neo-Soviet nonsense.

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The Beef in Kyrgyzstan, Vol. II: Russian Edition | News