The Cable

Trouble in Kyrgyzstan

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev talks to his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiyev on February 3, 2009

As the Kyrgyz Republic threatens to kick the United States out of its Manas air base, which it has been using as a major logistics and supply point into Afghanistan, sources familiar with developments say the back story has to do with payments the United States previously made that did not make it into the Bishkek government's coffers, but rather, to subcontractors controlled by the family of the previous ruler Askar Akayev.

In 2006, NBC reported that the U.S. government had paid subcontractors controlled by the former Kyrgyz ruling family more than $100 million:

The U.S. military steered more than $100 million in sub-contracts to the Akaev family's fuel monopoly, according to U.S. contractors who oversaw the payments and transactions."

An FBI report obtained by reporter Aram Roston "suggests that the [Kyrgyz] ruling family ... oversaw a vast international criminal network that stretched all the way to a series of shell companies in the United States."

"Basically this has always been about money," says Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College and an expert on U.S. military bases. After the March 2005 Tulip Revolution led to Akayev fleeing for Moscow, the new government looked to the United States for payments for the base. "The new guy comes in, Bakiyev, and gives the right line, predictably, that the base benefited Akayev personally and he should renegotiate basing charges in a way that benefits Kyrgyzstan."

UPDATE: A source involved with the negotiations for the Kyrgyz side told The Cable that the Obama administration was inheriting the brewing Kyrgyz base crisis, which he said had been neglected for years by the Bush administration.

"The U.S. government could have avoided this if they would have been receptive to Kyrgyz complaints," said the source. "When the new government came into power [in Bishkek] and the [payoff] scheme was uncovered, they approached the Americans and asked them to compensate it for the losses. But the Americans were reluctant to acknowledge that there was anything wrong."

The source said the matter had been raised by the Kyrgyz government with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State Condi Rice, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"Gates, to his credit, said he was not familiar with this matter and he would get back to them. But he never did."

A Defense Department spokesman said, "The actual original negotiations and now modern discussions [on the base] were all done by the State Department. ... As far as I know, [the Pentagon] doesn't normally talk to government institutions like that. We defer to the State Department, and the embassy."

Last month, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus was in Bishkek, but was denied a meeting with the Kyrgyz president, although he met with people in his office who raised the payment issue again.

The source said the Kyrgyz ambassador to Washington had held a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the issue last week. He suggested that several options were being considered, that would be "face saving" for all parties involved. Among them, perhaps, that the United States could announce that it would plan to depart the base after a certain number of years. Presumably some form of payment is also being considered. (Sources said the Kyrgyz had previously been requesting $150 million per year for use of the base, but the cost for staying was expected to go up.)

A State Department spokesman said he would check on such a meeting. In the meantime, he said, the U.S. government position is that it had not officially been notified by the Kyrgyz that they want to close the base.

UPDATE II: More on this from Alexander Cooley in Tuesday's International Herald Tribune, "How the U.S. lost its Kyrgyz air base." 

The Cable

What is David Plouffe doing in Azerbaijan?

Today, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe is giving a paid speech to a pro-government NGO in Azerbaijan, according to media reports (RFE/RL, Ken Silverstein, and Ben Smith).

The journalist in Baku who broke the story of Plouffe's visit, of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, told a contact that she and other journalists tried to attend Plouffe's speech Monday at Baku's Gerb (Western) University but were not allowed in. Plouffe was also scheduled to have a meeting with the president of Azerbaijan.

The visit comes "on the eve of a referendum abolishing term limits which will leave the president in power for as long as he wants," a former U.S. oil executive who worked in Azerbaijan writes The Cable. "This visit will be represented inside Azerbaijan as a sign of President Obama's personal support for Ilham Aliyev. ...The runup to this referendum has seen the government shut down Radio Liberty, VOA and BBC and also harassing/arresting/beating anyone who tries to campaign against it."

A White House official said "Plouffe is traveling as a private citizen. The Embassy is not setting his schedule. Any questions should be directed to him." Efforts to reach Plouffe at Baku's Park Hyatt hotel were unsuccessful.

Last week, Plouffe sent an e-mail on behalf of Barack Obama's campaign organization, "Obama for America," to promote the president's economic stimulus package. "Friend -- President Obama recorded a video to speak directly to you about his economic recovery plan," the e-mail began.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service Monday, Plouffe said, "I'm here as a private citizen, so all I am doing is talking about elections and the Internet and democracy and how to -- you know, talk about our election [and] how great it was so many people participated in it." Isa Gambar, the head of the opposition Musavat party, told RFE/RL "If he is here to meet the members of the government and to talk about the promotion of civil society, then it would be useful for him also to meet the representatives of the civil groups and political parties, too."

UPDATE: Plouffe now plans to donate his $50,000 speaking fee to pro-democracy groups, the WSJ reports.

Photo: FILE; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images