Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a good article today on the – shock, shock – “Russia connection” to this week’s uprising in Kyrgyzstan. An icky aspect of this tale is that the US is widely perceived to have been bolstering the cartoonishly corrupt regime of ousted president Kurmanbek Bakiev, by paying him big bucks to lease the air base at Manas for support to NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Bakiev, who was approved by Moscow when he seized power in 2005, has been steadily disappointing Russians ever since.  Moscow gave him a long leash when it came to Kyrgyz debt and the inflow of much-needed natural gas, electric power, and infrastructure investment; but everyone has known Bakiev was pocketing pretty much anything in Kyrgyzstan that walked and talked like a commercial profit, and skinning the country’s people and independent businesses to service debt.

Still, he was Moscow’s S.O.B., until he decided in June 2009 – against his own previous announcement and his parliament’s vote in February 2009 – to let the US Air Force keep using the Manas base, so that he could keep raking in the lease money.  The US lease was renewed again, with little fanfare, in mid-March 2010.  Russia’s ambition remains getting the US out of the former Soviet republics entirely, and Bakiev kept heading the wrong direction.  Given the expectations Moscow has for the new government in Bishkek, closing Manas to our forces will now get easier.

A strange late-February incident that has gotten huge play in Asia, but hardly any in the US, may have prompted the Russians to finally tighten the noose on Bakiev.  The leader of the Baluchi opposition in Iran – Abdolmalek Rigi of the group “Jundullah” – was seized by Iran, allegedly in a dramatic episode on 23 February straight out of 24.  Reportedly, Rigi was on a Kyrgyz Airlines flight from Dubai when the plane was forced down by Iranian fighter aircraft and raided by authorities, who seized Rigi.  Kyrgyz leadership lodged a protest with Iran, but later changed its mind about whether the incident had happened.

By the time of the Kyrgyz story change, Iran had announced that Rigi and Jundullah were receiving covert support from the US and Pakistan for the ethnic Sunni insurgency’s attacks inside Iran.  The most recent of those occurred in October 2009, when a gathering of high-ranking Revolutionary Guard officials in Baluchi territory – southeast Iran – was attacked by Jundullah operatives and six of the officials were killed.  According to the Iranians, Rigi confessed to having consulted with US officials at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, and was on his way there when his Kyrgyz Airlines flight was intercepted.

News agencies were on the spot with references to earlier (2008) work by the indefatigable Seymour Hersh alleging that Bush’s CIA was deeply embedded with opposition groups in Iran.  (Be sure to approach Hersh’s July 2008 New Yorker article via this disdainful screed at Counterpunch, which developed the story way earlier and way better than Hersh.)

Meanwhile, reports about the incident included references to a Pakistani diplomat in Dubai who mused to reporters that the seizure of Rigi couldn’t have happened without Pakistan’s help.  Pakistan has long been considered a principal source of support to Jundullah anyway, so this was confirmation rather than news.  Perhaps Pakistan’s ISI cued Iranian authorities in a very unusual deal of some kind; but a PBS Frontline item the day after Rigi’s seizure presents a different possibility:  that Rigi was actually arrested by the ISI in a hospital (location unknown) and handed over to the Iranians.

The calculation of who might be zooming whom in this tangled South Asian drama quickly runs to a head-banging number of permutations.  Whatever ground truth may be, the impression of the US being associated in the region with back-room deals, baksheesh, and sneaky stuff in general is mounting beyond what the paranoid and conspiracist can ignore.  This brings us back to the Russians.

As unrest grew in Kyrgyzstan over the last several weeks, Russia’s state-owned media outlet Russia Today, which faithfully reflects the politically-correct thinking in Moscow, developed the theme that Kyrgyz citizens were sick and tired of the corruption symbolized by the US presence at Manas, and that the Rigi incident – with its suspicious Manas connection – was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  This passage from a 24 March report is classic RT:

What galvanized the situation around the American military base even more was the recent arrest of the leader of an Iranian terrorist group.

Iranian Sunni leader Abdolmalek Rigi was captured by Iranian government forces on his way to Kyrgyzstan, where he claimed he was going to make a deal with Americans.

“One of the CIA officers said that it was too difficult for them to attack Iran militarily, but they plan to give aid and support to all anti-Iranian groups that have the capability to wage war and create difficulty for this Islamic state,” Abdolmalek Rigi says. “They told me to go to Kyrgyzstan, where they had a base called Manas near Bishkek. The Americans promised to give us aid.”

The perceived danger of a training center for terrorists does nothing to ease the concerns of the Kyrgyz people.

“Training center for terrorists” is quite a stretch, but it has the exact ring of Moscow’s security concerns about Central Asia to it.  Russian encouragement to the now-triumphant opposition in Kyrgyzstan is motivated by more than the simple desire to kick the Yanks out of Manas.  The continuing reports of our shadowy involvement with guerrillas, assassins, and corrupt government entities – which, granted, are hard to avoid involvement with in this part of the world – look destabilizing, and way too close to home, from Moscow.

Kyrgyzstan can look forward to more of the fraternal Russian embrace now, and another nail is driven into the coffin of NATO’s logistic latitude in land-locked Afghanistan.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.

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