Strategic Interests at the Empire’s Periphery

The conflict in Kyrgyzstan has ushered in one of the most pressing humanitarian crises that Americans aren’t hearing about.  There’s been relatively little attention to Kyrgyzstan - a mountainous, landlocked Muslim country in Central Asia – by either the Obama administration or the press.  The conflict has been relegated to the periphery of American political discourse, as is typically the case in regards to political and military issues in the former Soviet republics.  For those who haven’t followed the conflict, ethnic violence between the Kyrgyz ethnic majority and the Uzbek minority has plunged the country, including the city of Osh, into chaos.  The violence reportedly exploded after the onset of clashes between rival Kyrgyz and Uzbek gangs, which led to rioting throughout the south of the country.  As many as 400,000 Uzbeks were reportedly displaced in southern Kyrgyzstan by mid to late June, forced into refugee camps along the Uzbekistani border.  The death toll from the conflict is thought to be in the hundreds, with Kyrgyz troops allegedly responsible for numerous cases of sexual assault, beatings, and for refusing to prevent Kyrgyz gang violence that’s been responsible for much of the killing and looting.  As of June 20th, Al Jazeera reports that thousands of Uzbeks have begun returning to the country, but thousands more are leery of returning until security improves.

The central government, under the control of Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, has reportedly lost control of much of the south throughout the conflict, raising concerns about the fragmentation of the country along ethnic lines.  Furthermore, humanitarian aid has been slow to arrive, in large part because humanitarian crises are of little priority to the wealthiest countries of the world.  Such aid, however, is badly needed at a time when food and other basic commodities are in short supply.

The crisis has also threatened the political process, as Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks (making up 15 percent of the population) may find it difficult to participate in the upcoming June referendum election on constitutional change due to concerns about violent retribution and coercion.  Continued violence and the specter of Civil War may also threaten the upcoming October Parliamentary election if violence continues, unless the country is stabilized or international peacekeepers intervene to protect minority Uzbek voters. 

Instability is not a recent development for Kyrgyzstan.  The country was plunged into chaos in April of 2010 when former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was expelled from the country’s capital of Bishkek after the government headquarters was seized by protesters, and as political power fell to his political opposition.  Bakiyev was opposed by much of the population because of his authoritarian, repressive rule, and because of his support for the unpopular U.S. military base located just outside the country’s capital.

U.S. officials were angered at the time of the April uprising after opposition leaders temporarily shut down the Manas air base, which is considered a major transit point for the shipment of supplies and fuel for Obama’s Afghanistan “surge.”  The base has long been seen as unpopular among the people of Kyrgyzstan, who generally oppose the U.S. military presence. 

Public opposition to the U.S. arose in great part as a result of the United States’ cynical support for what the Obama administration openly admitted was an autocratic government (under Bakiyev) – but a government that was admired because it provided an important strategic function in the “War on Terror.”  The Manas base has been re-leased to the U.S. under great pressure from American officials, despite the instability it is causing throughout the country. 

Opposition to the U.S. is not surprising when one considers the brutality Americans have encouraged in Kyrgyzstan.  According to the State Department’s own reports, Kyrgyz police and security forces are implicated in using torture against detainees to produce confessions, and in detaining government critics under false charges so as to obtain bribes in exchange for their release.  The judicial branch is also implicated in corruption, as it’s been charged with restricting freedom of speech and the press, and being open to bribes.  Kyrgyzstan’s government has banned any protests near legislative and executive offices, schools, military installations, roads, and other public facilities.  Human trafficking is also a large problem, with the government implicated in black market operations.

The U.S. has consistently come down on the side of corruption in Kyrgyzstan.  It pursues a Machiavellian realist policy that pits strategic considerations against concerns for human rights and democracy.  Obama’s cynical commitment to power politics has continued throughout this most recent conflict.  Its commitment to providing humanitarian supplies is pitiful.  Obama pledged $30 million in humanitarian aid – just one half of that granted to the country each year by the U.S. to lease the Manas air base.  Obama sees Kyrgyzstan as an important contributor to the “counterterrorism” campaign in Afghanistan.  However, its importance is dwarfed by U.S. interests in the Middle East – the true material prize in light of its massive oil reserves.  U.S. leaders don’t care so much who is running Kyrgyzstan, so long as its officials side with U.S. military interests over those of the citizenry (which, again, opposes the U.S. military presence).  As James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow explains in light of Kyrgyzstan’s recent instability, “Our [America’s] interests are to have good relations with the government of Kyrgyzstan – whatever that emerges to be” (emphasis added). 

The United States’ most disturbing behavior relates to its support for executive cronyism.  The last two Kyrgyz presidents have been thrown out of office in light of corruption charges that implicated them in redirecting state funds toward the enrichment of their families.  At question are various contracts granted by the United States for jet refueling at the Manas air base.  Bakiyev and his family are thought to have transferred as much as $200 million from the country, part of it through siphoning funds from the refueling contracts.  Alexander Cooley, an expert on Central Asia and an observer to the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan explains that “it is not surprising that the U.S. military presence has become intertwined with allegations that the U.S. supported the repressive and corrupt rule of former president Bakiyev.”  The Manas base is “a source for rental payments and service contracts that have tended to serve the private interests of powerful Kyrgyz elites.”  Americans should remember this when (and if) they reflect on how taxpayer “aid” dollars to Kyrgyzstan are being used.

Sadly, Americans remain largely unaware of what’s going on in Central Asia.  U.S. officials are refusing to make violence in Kyrgyzstan into a major public policy issue.  The press, as always, is following suit, since it largely serves as an echo chamber for official propaganda.  American journalists look toward Kyrgyzstan with Orientalist eyes as a strange, exotic place.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a recent New York Times article, which frames Kyrgyzstan as “an obscure country with a coveted location in Central Asia.”  What makes Kyrgyzstan more obscure than any other country is not explained, although readers are left with the impression that the Times is only bothering to report on the country because of its strategic value to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. 

Violence in Kyrgyzstan has been a lead story in Al Jazeera English, but is relegated to secondary status in the U.S. corporate press.  Two trends are immediately discernible in American media: 1. Coverage of the crisis is not a priority for journalists, despite the humanitarian crisis, when compared to attention to conflicts in other countries throughout Central Asia and the Middle East; 2. when stories on Kyrgyzstan do appear, they focus heavily on the country’s strategic value, rather than on humanitarian questions.  As the chart below shows,  a Lexis Nexis database search finds that surrounding countries throughout Central Asia and the Middle East – including Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, were referenced between five to fourteen times more often than Kyrgyzstan from the period of April (when the first Kyrgyz uprising began) through June (during the outbreak of ethnic conflict). 



(April 1 – June 20, 2010)

# of Articles

NY Times

Wash Post





























In short, the “anti-terror” campaign in Afghanistan receives priority in reporting and public attention; U.S. conflicts – real (in Iraq and Afghanistan) or imagined (in Iran) are not far behind, while attention to Kyrgyzstan is minimal at best.

Another search of Lexis finds that from April 2009 (when President Bakiyev was overthrown) through June 2010, discussion of the Manas “military base” appeared in twice as many New York Times and Washington Post articles (in 30 and 40 stories respectively) as did discussion of “human rights” (appearing in 17 and 20 stories respectively).   In other words, Kyrgyzstan does retain some relevance for U.S. officials and reporters.  This interest, however, is because of strategic concerns, rather than concerns over democracy and human rights. Americans with a genuine interest in humanitarianism should pay close attention to the dire problems in Kyrgyzstan.  Sadly, most will have a difficult time getting much information of use at a time when the U.S. government and media are only mildly interested in the issue.  The Obama administration should be pressured to make human rights, rather than imperial politics, the primary concern in Central Asia.  But this can only happen if the public pushes for a dramatic reordering of foreign policy objectives.


Anthony DiMaggio is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com).   He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and When Media Goes to War (2010). He can be reached at: [email protected]

 Coverage of Conflicts in Kyrgyzstan and Surrounding Countries of Strategic Interest to the United States

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