The "freedom agenda" is officially a bust. Goerge W. Bush’s effort to organize and support opposition movements in former Soviet republics, and to install pro-Western governments in what Russia jealously regards as its sphere, was the policy expression of the global democratic revolutionary goals asserted in his Second Inaugural Address. It has failed every test posed by geopolitical reality.
Last month, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev formally resigned from office after being overthrown in an uprising in which dozens of protesters were killed by Bakiyev’s security forces. Five years after Kyrgyzstan’s "Tulip Revolution" brought him to power, Bakiyev’s downfall was just the most recent repudiation of the "freedom agenda." The deposed Kyrgyz president now joins the discredited Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine and Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia as leaders of "color" revolutions who either brought misrule or misfortune to their countries.
Like the governments of Yushchenko and Saakashvili, Bakiyev’s regime was marked by human rights abuses and corruption; it was even worse than the government it replaced. Yet even more than the "Orange" (Ukraine) and "Rose" (Georgia) revolutions, Kyrgyzstan’s "Tulip" Revolution was transparently a coup driven by regional rivalries and elite hostility to the incumbent president. Of the three presidents brought down by color revolutions, Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan was the least offensive, having attempted to maintain a balance between Moscow and Washington. The physicist-turned-president had his flaws. But he was a relatively humane and harmless ruler who had made Kyrgyzstan something of an island of democratic government in a sea of dictatorships. Nonetheless, when allegations of electoral fraud led to street protests against Akayev, Washington and most Western observers were happy to support the fall of another regime and promote the apparition of rising U.S. influence.
Western media romanticized the color revolutions as true expressions of "people power" against corrupt regimes. In fact, the revolutions consisted largely of replacing one group of apparatchiks with another -- the difference being that the latter group was more hostile to Russian influence. Russia’s hand was apparent in encouraging the counter-uprising that unseated Bakiyev. But Russia’s successful rollback was made possible by the genuine strength of its relationships in Kyrgyzstan, which should finally make clear the futility of trying to limit Russian influence in its own backyard.
The color revolutions were costly to all three nations, but also to U.S. interests. U.S. relations with Moscow are only now beginning to recover from the severe strain created by U.S. support for anti-Russian regimes. What’s more, the collapse of the color revolutions in all three ex-Soviet republics has identified "pro-American" orientations in each place with political disaster. Whatever legitimate interests the United States maintains in post-Soviet lands, they have been dealt sharp setbacks.
Fortunately, all is not lost for the U.S. in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan gained great strategic importance for the U.S. in the past nine years. Like its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan provided facilities for supplying military operations in Afghanistan after 9/11. But by the time President Obama was sworn in, it was the only Central Asian state still willing to cooperate with the U.S. mission. Popular discontent with the U.S. military presence at Manas air base pushed the Kyrgyz government to try to end the U.S. lease in February 2009. Only a last-minute increase in U.S. rent payments preserved the arrangement.
When Bakiyev was ousted last month, there was a real fear that his successor would reject the U.S. presence, making it more difficult to supply U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But so far, the provisional government under acting Prime Minister Roza Otunbayeva, a former ambassador to the U.S., has allowed continued use of the base – a significant step considering her resentment of Washington’s indifference to Bakiyev’s abuses.
For all of the rhetoric extolling democracy promotion and the "freedom agenda," Washington failed to take account of the most obvious and relevant element: the wishes and best interests of the people. According to a Gallup poll from July 2008, large majorities in all three countries either preferred good relations with Russia or wished to have good relations with both the U.S. and Russia. There was never much popular support in any of these countries for becoming anti-Russian U.S. satellites.
The change of power in Kyrgyzstan offers America a chance to make up for its previous short-sightedness. America also has an opportunity to continue "resetting" relations with Russia by recognizing that Russia will always have significant economic and political ties to former Soviet republics. No one is served, least of all Russia’s smaller neighbors, by treating these ex-Soviet states as pawns on a chessboard.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why the West should let Russia have eastern Ukraine
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- 9 Harvard dropouts who became fabulously successful
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- How China sparked an Asian frenzy for killer submarines
- The real reason conservatives should be outraged that police killed a white youth
- The dangers of our passionless American life
- What is Molly? Everything you need to know about the party drug
- The next pandemic
Subscribe to the Week