Posted by: Roncevert | April 13, 2010

From Kyrgyzstan to Montcoal

For the past two weeks world headlines have focused on news from two distant places – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Montcoal, West Virginia.  In Bishkek, opposition protesters overturned the increasingly authoritarian government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the leader of the 2005 Tulip Revolution.  In Montcoal, at least 25 miners died following an explosion at the Upper Branch Mine owned and operated by Massey Energy Company, which is dominated by Don Blankenship.

Like Southern West Virginia, Kyrgyzstan is an isolated, landlocked and mountainous corner of the world with a struggling economy.  Revolts, insurgency, exploitation, and corruption are part of the history of both the steppes of Central Asia and the hillsides of Appalachia.  Whereas regional powers court Kyrgyzstan due to its strategic location on the modern Silk Road, outside economic interests dig through Southern West Virginia to access its strategic coal reserves.  In both instances, life is hard and often cheap.


Make no mistake, the folks of Montcoal have a higher standard of living, reside within the world’s greatest democracy, and have a striking sense of community.  Yet, common (if relative) denominators remain such as failures in the rule of law and economic dependency on foreign powers with narrow interests.

In West Virginia, the issue is of regulatory failure, specifically the lack of meaningful oversight by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.  The indifference of Massey Energy, based in Virginia, to the working conditions of West Virginia’s miners is well documented.  [Massey’s environmental record is also troubling.]  President Obama has pledged a thorough investigation of the accident, which in a cruel twist occurred almost forty years after passage of mining reform in the U.S.  The Coal Act was passed in the wake of the 1968 mine disaster at Farmington, W. Va., that killed 78 miners, including the uncle of current West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.

In contrast, in Bishkek the issue is the near absence of law.  According to early analysis, the coup in Kyrgyzstan is a result of Bakiyev’s corrupt and unresponsive regime.  From its incorporation into Russia in the 19th century to its post-Soviet independence, Kyrgyzstan has struggled to develop a centralized government and lacks the energy and mineral resource wealth of its neighbors such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

I strongly suspect the role of an outside power in the process, especially given the speed and organization of the opposition in taking over prominent government offices.  It should be noted that Bakiyev acted against Moscow’s overt wishes when renewing the U.S. Manas Air Base lease last year. The latest reports indicate that Russia through its media played an indirect role in fermenting opposition to Bakiyev, especially regarding the use of Russian subsidies, which were granted last year in an effort to thwart U.S. influence.  As David Trilling of reports in Foreign Affairs, Moscow delivered the coup de grâce on April 2, when Prime Minister Putin announced a 100 percent tariff increase on Russian and Kazakh oil exports to Kyrgyzstan.

KK2 Route of the Northern Distribution Network

KK2 Route on Northern Distribution Network

The U.S. media has focused on the role of the Manas Air Base in the supply-line to Afghanistan.  However, this focus on Manas misses the additional importance of Kyrgyz rail and  road system to the “Nothern Distribution Network,” the alternative logistical routes developed by the U.S. military in 2009 in response to Taliban attacks on lines of communication through Pakistan.   The so-called “KK2 Route” (Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan)  of the Northern Distribution Network passes through the country.

The potential loss of access to Afghanistan through Kyrgyzstan is not so much a logistical roadblock for U.S. as much as it is a commercial opportunity for other states in the region on the Northern Distribution Network like Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.  Given the remaining $120 million U.S. rent check at stake (the lease runs from 2009-2011 at $60M a year), it is doubtful that the temporary government will seek to terminate the lease.  The true setback is efforts by the U.S. to use the Northern Distribution Network as a counterinsurgency tool for developing regional stability and buy-in for ISAF and U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  Indeed, opposition leaders are accusing the U.S. of being complicit in Bakiyev’s corruption through fuel payments related to the Manas Air Base. (Nickles and dimes as opposed to hearts and minds.)

The Beautiful and Troubled Ferghana Valley

In the meantime, deposed President Bakiyev has  retreated to his home territory in the Ferghana Valley, a fertile and strategically-placed basin divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.  The Ferghana is a traditional staging ground for basmachi protests, Islamic extremism, and ethnic strife.   For example, the hazardous Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operates there.  Ironically, it was Uzbeki President Karimov’s crackdown on protests in city of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley in 2005 that led to the U.S. development of Manas Air Base as a gateway to Afghanistan.  U.S. statements condemning the killing of protesters led Karimov to kick the U.S. off the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base and forced the U.S. military to find an alternative air base.

Each policy path in Central Asia is seemingly linked and interdependent, fraught with unknown unknowns — a lesson the U.S. knows all too well.  As the U.S. and Russia (and China) engage in a modern Great Game for influence in Central Asia, countries such as Kyrgyzstan will continue to be like a river between mountains, twisting and turning to adjust to the landscape.  In such isolated mountainous terrain, like in the hills of Southern West Virginia, the guiding channels of law and governance take years to build.



  1. As an idealistic medical student at West Virginia University School of Medicine from 1970 through 1974, I participated in a debate with the engineering school over coal mining. I wanted to save the water, the wild flowers, the forests and the over all beauty of West Virginia. Dean kelly of the Engineering school decided we both debated well but he informed us that the energy needs of the nation meant that all the coal in West Virginia would be mined. Our only ultimate say would be what the land looked like after the coal was gone. I feel like the people of both regions remain pawns with little ability to decide their fate. To me that is a sad reality.

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