Suspicions Hamper U.S. Access To Kyrgyzstan Air Base

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The Obama administration has been reaching out to the new interim government in Kyrgyzstan, in hopes that the U.S. will continue the use of an air base there to supply troops in Afghanistan. But the opposition leaders now in power in Kyrgyzstan complain that their ousted president's son was enriching himself from contracts at the airbase. The U.S. says it will review the contracts, but the same allegations of cronyism occurred the last time there was an uprising in Kyrgyzstan.


In the small central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, an interim leader is trying to maintain stability. The former president quit and fled the country, following a bloody uprising. And the United States is trying to be a good partner with the woman now in charge. Kyrgyzstan is important to the U.S. because it houses a military base used to support coalition troops in Afghanistan.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the U.S. has some fence-mending to do in the former Soviet republic.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The opposition figures who have taken control of the government in Bishkek complain that the ousted president's son, Maxim Bakiyev, was enriching himself off Pentagon contracts to provide fuel to the Manas Air Base. The same exact allegations emerged the last time a Kyrgyz president was ousted just five years ago.

Kyrgyzstan's new interim leader is Roza Otunbayeva. She says a top State Department official has promised her that the U.S. will be more transparent.

Interim President ROZA OTUNBAYEVA (Kyrgyzstan): He said that it would be absolutely open. It was difficult to work with the previous government but we are happy to provide you with the whole accountability of this project. So we will wait for that.

KELEMEN: Otunbayeva, who was speaking in a teleconference, is not the only one looking into this. Massachusetts Congressman John Tierney, who chairs a House oversight and government reform subcommittee, has been seeking information from the Pentagon, the State Department and a prime contractor, Red Star Enterprises.

Representative JOHN TIERNEY (D-MA, Chair, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs): The bottom-line is that Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions in five years, and both of them have allegedly been linked to corrupt deals with the Red Star/Manas Air Base. So we need to get to the bottom of that.

KELEMEN: Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake told reporters in Kyrgyzstan that the U.S. would rebid the fuel contracts if necessary to ensure that there is full transparency and a respect for Kyrgyz's law.

Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on the region for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says even if there were no laws broken, the U.S. needs to rethink how it doles out contracts, so it doesnt just favor big businesses with good connections.

Dr. MARTHA BRILL OLCOTT (Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Even with outfitting Afghanistan with a base has not been an unusual flexibility in looking for local vendors who dont meet our normal profile. And, of course, a sitting president who has connections to the Russian oil industry, which the Bakiyev family established, is going to have an advantage in a competitive bidding process.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. OLCOTT: But you try to explain that to the Kyrgyz public.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. could used defense procurements in a way to stimulate small and medium size businesses, giving them technical assistance to compete. That, she says, would help empower the people the U.S. claims to be supporting.

Dr. OLCOTT: Thats part of the anger that you hear from the opposition - the former opposition now-government in Kyrgyzstan - is that the U.S. did not serve as a popular empowerer; that we talked about democracy building but we didnt yell loud enough in the human rights abuses.

KELEMEN: Olcott said that was one striking thing in the teleconference Carnegie organized with Kyrgyzstan's interim leader. Roza Otunbayeva has complained that the U.S. was too silent when the former regime was cracking down on dissent. And she told the diplomats and journalists gathered at Carnegie that it was the Russian media that highlighted the alleged abuses and corruption of the Bakiyev regime.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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