Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan Tells US to Pay Up for Air Base

The United States needs Kyrgyzstan more than ever, but authorities in Bishkek are telling the Americans to show them the money.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

If Kyrgyzstan ever felt geo-strategically sidelined by the world’s only superpower, it need do so no more.


A US Defence Department delegation arrived in the capital Bishkek late last week, led by Rear Admiral Robert Moeller, US Central Command director of department for plans and policy. His group came hot on the heels of the commander of Central Command, General John Abizaid.


They followed a month after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with President Kurmanbek Bakiev, cementing an agreement to allow US forces to remain on Kyrgyz soil for the foreseeable future.


Discussion centres on the Gansi military base just outside the capital at Manas Airport, which the Americans began using for Afghan operations in 2001. But since US forces were shown the door in neighbouring Uzbekistan in July, the Kyrgyz base suddenly represents far more to Washington than a humble rear supply base.


Talks are likely to be more complex than the smiling photo-calls suggest. The Kyrgyz are demanding more rent and tax for the facility, and unresolved allegations linger around massive misappropriation of base revenues by the previous government.


Furthermore, the US military stands accused of causing environmental damage and domestic suspicions are surfacing that Bakiev is selling out the country’s long-standing alliance with Russia.


Rice secured a joint declaration that both sides wanted to see US-led Coalition forces stay in Kyrgyzstan until “the mission to fight terrorism in Afghanistan is complete”.


The Kyrgyz government agreed, despite calls at the July meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO – a regional security grouping including Russia and China – that US Central Asian bases should be phased out.


But Bakiev, who swept to power in the so-called “tulip revolution” in March, has made it clear that a continued American presence will cost them.


He told a news conference on November 2 that a new draft agreement was being prepared on the Gansi airport, which “requires major expenditure from the Americans. The US will have to pay for each metre of land used at world prices. Inflation and other circumstances should be taken into account”.


The day before the conference, Bakiev had told General Abizaid to resolve the issue and “not put off taking a decision”.


The Kyrgyz foreign ministry said on November 8 that the latest talks had yielded an agreement on changing the terms of the lease of the base, including an increase in payments of rent and taxes.


But a US embassy spokesman in Bishkek played down the meeting, saying the defence department visit was aimed at “sharing information” and not at striking a new deal on the base. “There’s a mismatch of perspectives here,” he said.


“The US is used to inflated expectations in the hope that they will give in and pay more.”


Nevertheless, Washington will not want to lose Gansi, which is set to become its only reliable strategic outpost in Central Asia since neighbouring Uzbekistan served US forces with marching orders from the Khanabad airbase near the southern city of Karshi.


The Uzbek government was angered at US calls for an independent investigation into Tashkent’s bloody suppression of protesters in Andijan in May and has given the Americans until the end of January to be gone. Rice pointedly did not include Tashkent in her recent Central Asian tour.


Kyrgyz defence minister Ismail Isakov rejected the notion that his government was simply exploiting Washington’s strategic requirements to make more money.


“This is not our task at all. The only goal is to attract greater funds to raise the country’s economy,” he said. “The issue of re-examining this agreement is being raised in order to bring greater benefit to the lives of Kyrgyzstan citizens.”


As yet unresolved, however, are allegations that the greater benefit from the base has largely been reaped by family members of former president Askar Akaev, who fled to Russia after crowds of demonstrators stormed government buildings in March.


In June, the general prosecutor’s office announced results of an investigation into a company run by Akaev’s son-in-law, Adil Toigonbaev, who had supplied fuel to US planes at the base.


According to prosecutors, Toigonbaev’s company Aalam Service along with an offshore firm, Merliside LLS, had siphoned off some 16.5 million US dollars from the fuel contract, funds that should have gone to the state treasury.


The Kyrgyz have hired a US lawyer, Edward Lieberman, to track down Askar Akaev’s assets, but has yet to determine whether the alleged fuel scam accounts for any discrepancy in what the US says it has paid and what the Kyrgyzstan authorities say they have received in revenue from the base.


“There is still no precise conformity between our figures and their figures,” said Bakiev.


Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Kyrgyz human rights group Civil Society Against Corruption, said that a far higher level of transparency would be needed in future.


“We know that under the previous corrupt regime, the money from this base went into the pocket of the ex-president. We must not allow this abuse any more,” he said. “So if a new agreement is possible, we must discuss it in parliament in the presence of journalists and representatives of civil society.”


Financial considerations aside, the draft agreement covering the base also contains environmental stipulations, following an incident in October when two US planes allegedly dumped 80 tonnes of fuel over a village near Bishkek.


The US embassy spokesman declined to comment on the allegation, saying only that legitimate complaints of this nature should be pursued through the country’s courts.


Deputy Minister for Ecology Bakirdin Jolchiev said the Americans were going to have to live up to international standards. “As a member of the convention for protection of the atmosphere, we believe that damage was done to the environment,” he told IWPR.


Bakiev has been keen to demonstrate to his partners in the SCO, particularly Russia, that his revolution did not represent a strategic tilt towards the West. Russian forces maintain a standing presence at the Kant base, also near Bishkek, which opened in 2003.


Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov visited the base in September, pledging further funds to upgrade the facility and signing an agreement to supply weapons and equipment to Kyrgyzstan.


But many Kyrgyz politicians still believe that the country is now being used by the US as a tool for regional domination, despite assurances by Rice that Washington is not trying to lure Bishkek away from Moscow.


Kyrgyz deputy Kubatbek Baibolov told IWPR that the government should be treating both countries equally, including demands for payment.


“When demanding an increase in payments from the Americans, we should make the same demand of Russia as well,” he said.


“Russia does not pay a penny for the Kant base. They even have difficult paying for the electricity and gas they use.”


Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.