Kyrgyzstan Bets on Air Base, Woman Reformer in UN Election

Kyrgyzstan may seem like an underdog in its bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The impoverished former Soviet state, which has no credit rating or international bonds, has been criticized by the U.S. and UN for corruption and a range of human rights abuses, including the abduction of girls for forced marriages.

Still, it has two cards to play in seeking a place in the UN’s most powerful group: a woman leader and air bases.

The land-locked country has Central Asia’s first female president and is unique in having both Russia and U.S. use military bases on its territory. The U.S. relies on the Manas Transit Center to support operations in Afghanistan after Uzbekistan evicted U.S. military from its airfield in 2005.

“We clearly understand the role and significance of Manas,” said Kyrgyzstan’s envoy to the UN, Talaibek Kydyrov, in an interview. “There is no doubt that, during its 10-year existence in Kyrgyzstan, the Transit Center considerably contributed in strengthening the security in Afghanistan and the region.”

Roza Otunbayeva, a 61-year-old divorced mother of two, took over as interim leader in April 2010 to enact much-praised constitutional changes to pave the way for free elections. A former foreign minister, who will step down after voters pick her successor on Oct. 30, she has said “Kyrgyzstan needs to make good friends.”

Seeking Western Votes

Otunbayeva “is certainly going to do her best to ensure the maximum number of Western votes for the only democracy in that part of the world with a valuable transit military base leased by the U.S,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight.

There are five rotating security council seats in play. Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan are competing for the “Asia” seat, now occupied by Lebanon under a unwrittten rule which has an Arab nation rotate in and out of that group to ensure representation.

For the U.S., the choice of which Muslim country replaces Lebanon on the 15-member body is between two historically errant allies. Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan are lobbying for support among the 193 members of the General Assembly, which on Oct. 21 will elect five new Security Council members for a two-year term starting January 2012.

If successful, Kyrgyzstan would be the first ex-Soviet Central Asian nation to serve on the Security Council.

Democratic Aspirations

Following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to shake its dependence on remittances from workers in Russia. Unlike its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has few energy resources to attract foreign investors. Its 2010 estimated gross domestic product per capita ranked 186, just above Cambodia, out of 227 nations, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Land-locked Kyrgyzstan is the “best hope for a democratic breakthrough” in Central Asia, according to Thomas Melia, deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The U.S. State Department cited observers who described the Oct. 2010 parliamentary elections as “generally free and fair.”

“It happens to be the place where Manas Air Base is and where we have access to Afghanistan,” Melia said at a July 26 hearing of the Europe and Eurasia Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I think we need to demonstrate that we’re interested in Kyrgyzstan and not just because of their strategic location, but because we care about the people of Kyrgyzstan.”

Clinton Visit

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in December 2010 as part of a broader Obama administration campaign to promote democracy and human rights and to broaden ties. In July 2010, the U.S. pledged $45 million in aid to Kyrgyzstan at a donors’ conference.

American relations with Pakistan, which has served six times on the Security Council, have soured since the May raid in which U.S. SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. The relationship deteriorated further after Pakistan’s main spy agency was suspected of involvement in the Sept. 20 killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leading Afghan envoy seeking peace talks with Taliban insurgents.

“Pakistan is one of the biggest contributors to UN peacekeeping, but has gotten in deeper and deeper distemper with a number of other countries,” Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research group, said in an interview.

Regional Rivals

The world body also might not want Pakistan and India serving at the same time, given their tense relations, he said. The neighboring Asian foes, both possessing nuclear weapons, have overlapped at the Security Council three times, most recently in 1984.

Stacked against Kyrgyzstan is a legacy of abuses against girls and women highlighted in a report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, who visited the country in November 2009 before deadly riots last April unseated former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

The kidnapping of girls, some of whom are raped to be forced into marriage, is known as “ala kachuu,” which literally means “take and flee”. Though outlawed, bride kidnapping is still widespread, especially in rural areas, and rarely persecuted, according to Manjoo.

Many women believe they have no rights. More than a third of urban women don’t think sexual violence is a crime and 38 percent of women between ages 15 and 49 believe that a husband has the right to beat his wife, according to Manjoo.

‘Human Rights Problems’

The U.S. State Department 2010 human rights report, issued in April 2011, cited a range of “human rights problems” including arbitrary killings, torture, and abuse by law enforcement officials; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of judicial independence; pressure on independent media; pervasive corruption; discrimination against women and ethnic minorities; child abuse; trafficking in persons; and child labor.

Kyrgyzstan, which has a population of 5.4 million, has also proved politically fickle.

In 2009, former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev decided to evict the U.S. Air Force after receiving a $2 billion Russian aid package. He reversed that decision when the U.S. agreed to pay more rent. Bakiyev, who came to power during a 2005 uprising dubbed the Tulip Revolution, was ousted last year.

Looking to 2014

The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana C. Gfoeller, said in an October 2009 dispatch that the “the Kyrgyz want to feel like partners, and not simply landlords,” according to confidential diplomatic cables obtained by, a website that publishes classified documents.

Still, with Obama accelerating a pullout from Afghanistan by 2014, U.S. interest in Kyrgyzstan may wane. This may be Kyrgyzstan’s year to play its cards to win a Security Council seat. It’s also willing to consider an extension of the lease.

“If the U.S. government officially requests prolongation of our bilateral agreement, we will certainly consider it,” said Kydyrov. “Transit facilities and infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan could play an even more effective role after 2014 for the security and stability in the region.”

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