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Kyrgyzstan: Talk of US Base Closure Fizzles Out

Moscow may be unhappy with the American military presence but does not seem to have pressured Bishkek to end it.
By Mirgul Akimova
Recent suggestions that Kyrgyzstan was about to close a United States military airbase near the capital has been interpreted both as a sop to Russia, which is about to offer a major loan package, and as a way of extracting more money from the Americans.

However, analysts say the Kyrgyz government cannot really afford to say goodbye to the Americans at this point, not least because of the large amounts they pay in rent. And it seems unlikely that the mere promise of getting rid of the base would sway the Russian loan deal either way.

The US-led coalition secured the use of land at Manas International Airport in 2001 to provide logistical air support for military operations in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.

Soon after the current president Kurmanbek Bakiev came to power in 2005, following the ousting of Askar Akaev as head of state in a popular uprising in March that year, he suggested that the existence of the base should be subject to a deadline. The Kyrgyz authorities later retreated from this position, and this set something of a pattern. Rumours would periodically surface that the government was about to ask the Americans to leave, followed by a flurry of debate accompanied by demands for more rent for the base. (See, for example, Renewed Focus on US Base in Kyrgyzstan, RCA No. 497, 13-June-07.)

The latest round of speculation, which began as a Russian newspaper story on January 12 which was soon picked up by Kyrgyz news outlets, cited unnamed officials in Bishkek as saying their government was drafting documents to abrogate the airbase agreement ahead of President Bakiev's upcoming visit to Moscow.

The rumours were dismissed by the US military’s top commander in the region, Central Command chief General David Petraeus, when he visited Bishkek on January 19. After talks with top government officials, he said they denied any intention to close the base at Manas. He said Prime Minister Nikolai Chudinov, who had just returned from Moscow, gave him “assurances that the issue of Manas was not raised during his discussions in Russia”.

Petraeus said a US delegation would be visiting Bishkek in February to discuss a possible increase in rent payments for the base.

He noted that Kyrgyzstan currently receives 150 million US dollars a year from the American government, including 63 million dollars to cover rent, service and maintenance contracts, and local staff wages at the base. The US government has allocated an additional 25 million dollars this year to assist the Kyrgyz military in the fight against terrorism, extremism and drug-trafficking, he added.

The general was on a week-long tour of Central Asia – excluding Uzbekistan – to review supply arrangements for Afghanistan. The Americans plan to double their troop commitment in the country to 60,000 this year, but land supply routes from Pakistan have increasingly come under attack from the Taleban.

The Kyrgyz base, which the Americans call Ganci, provides air refuelling and other services for operations in Afghanistan, and is used a stopping-off point for freight and personnel transporters. There are over 1,000 US military personnel at the base, servicing nine military transports and refuelling planes.

Some observers say the financial benefits reaped by Kyrgyzstan are too great to be missed out on – and losing them would pose political risks to the regime.

The leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, Bakyt Beshimov, believes there base is needed for security reasons given the general instability in close neighbour Afghanistan.

In addition, he says, closing the base would cut off an important source of steady revenues at a time when donors and lenders were likely to be tightening their belts. A sudden shortfall in income could be a political threat to Bakiev’s presidency, if the opposition uses the cash shortage as a basis for a protest campaign.

Some commentators believe the spectre of closure might be a useful way of extracting a better rental deal from Washington.

“The documentation that would be required to close the airbase really has been prepared, and most probably the information was leaked to draw the Americans into an intrigue and raise the issue of a rent increase,” said Alexander Knyazev, director of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute in Kyrgyzstan.

Beshimov said it was disappointing that the leaked story had led the Americans to dismiss the affair as a typical Kyrgyz way of driving a hard bargain.

“Petraeus referred to the rumours surrounding about the airbase as ‘certain negotiating tactics peculiar to Central Asia’,” he said. “It’s a pity we are judged on that. Primitive bargaining makes us a laughing stock…. Given our national interests, the interests of regional security, and the long-term US-Kyrgyzstan relationship, one should behave in a serious and dignified manner.”

Could a promise to pressure the Americans to leave be a ploy designed to seal an important loan agreement with Russia?

Moscow has never asked the Americans to leave, but it has always been suspicious of what it regards as an unprecedented encroachment in a region it regards as its back-yard. In 2003, the Russians created a kind of counterbalance by setting up their own military airbase at Kant, also near Bishkek.

A Kyrgyzstan-based analyst who asked to reman anonymous said that rather than direct pressure from Moscow, it was more likely that the “Kyrgyz side wanted to do Russia a favour so that Bakiev’s visit carried more weight. The initiative comes from bureaucrats – Kyrgyz and Russian – who have been whispering that [Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev might like the idea.”

Political analyst Nur Omarov downplayed the importance of the airbase in the loan discussions with Moscow. “Russia is not making it [the closure] a central condition for receiving the credit,” he said. “It’s largely talked about by Russian analysts.”

Bakiev’s trip to Moscow visit, now scheduled for February 3, is expected to result in a 300 million dollar loan to support the budget plus a pledge of 1.7 billion dollars of investment in the Kyrgyz energy sector.

Kyrgyzstan could certainly use the money. Its foreign debt has been coming down in recent years and is now equivalent to around 40 per cent of gross domestic product, but the burden is more of a concern given the global financial crisis. Meanwhile, the economic downturn has only compounded a chronic energy crisis in which the authorities are unable to supply electricity 24 hours a day.

Bishkek-based economist Zalkar Kamalov says that while the Russian loan and investment package is being offered on purely commercial terms, it has the benefit of being long-term.

“I don’t think the entire amount will take the shape of money,” he said. “Some will be used to build the Kambarata-1 and -2 hydroelectric power stations. Another part will cover the budget deficit, and the rest will be used by the government to support social programmes and key industries.”

Knyazev agrees it is the right kind of assistance at the right time.

“Russia offers credit to the real economy, for rebuilding infrastructure. No one apart from Russia gives money for that,” he said. Furthermore, “one of the conditions set by the Russians is that they should have a high level of involvement in managing the credit, and that should ensure that the money is used for the purpose intended.”

Omarov said Moscow had its own agenda in underwriting energy projects in Central Asia.

“Kyrgyzstan does not carry a lot of weight and is not Russia’s main partner. But Russia wants to control Kyrgyzstan’s electricity generating potential,” he said. “In Tajikistan this process has already started. Kyrgyzstan represents stage two. This will give Russia an important lever of influence in the whole of Central Asia.”

Mirgul Akimova is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kyrgyzstan.

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