Russia and Kyrgyzstan Move Closer

Moscow's support for Kyrgyzstan has prompted some Bishkek analysts to raise serious geo-political concerns.

Russia and Kyrgyzstan Move Closer

Moscow's support for Kyrgyzstan has prompted some Bishkek analysts to raise serious geo-political concerns.

Russia appears to be preparing to make Kyrgyzstan one of its main partners in the Central Asian region, amid concerns among some here that forging closer ties with Moscow may prove to be a strategic error.

"We are pursuing a course by which Kyrgyzstan will provide the main military and political support for Russia in Central Asia, as this corresponds with our national interests," Krygyz president Askar Akaev told Putin during the latter's visit to Bishkek on December 5.

Akaev later backed up his words by offering Russian fighter jets full use of the Kant military air base, 20 km from the capital. It is expected that around 20 planes and 1,000 Russian soldiers will be stationed there by next summer.

Moscow has responded by extending Kyrgyzstan's debt repayments - more than 170 million US dollars - by another 20 years. Additionally, the two parties agreed to direct part of the sum owed towards the reconstruction of the Kant air base.

Sources close to the president told IWPR that that the Kremlin's gesture has delighted Akaev, as his country is currently facing enormous financial difficulties.

Putin was also very appreciative of the fact that Kyrgyzstan is the only one of the post-Soviet republics where Russian has official language status.

The Russian president has now promised to take steps to improve the legal position of Kyrgyz migrants living and working in Russia, the majority of whom were facing deportation.

This is Putin's second trip to Bishkek. He first visited the city in 2000 to attend a meeting of the heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - which includes Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Uzbekistan, Russia and Tajikistan.

According to Erkin Okumaliev, editor of the newspaper Daat, the growth in pro-Russian sentiments among the political elite is linked to the fact that they hope to emerge from their economic and political crisis with Moscow's help.

Alisher Abdimomunov, head of the committee for international affairs in the Kyrgyz parliament, also believes that it is very important for President Akaev to secure Moscow's support, as he is fast losing popularity.

"Akaev has won a small victory by allowing Moscow to station Russian fighter planes in Kyrgyzstan," he told IWPR. "However, he made an unforgivable strategic error. Our small country has turned into a military base for two world powers, which is fraught with unpredictable consequences."

Analysts have long feared that while the Kyrgyz government's decision to forge military ties with Russia and America - US troops are based in Manas airport outside Bishkek as part of the Washington-led coalition fighting Muslim extremism - may bring a number of military and security benefits, it could lead to an intense and possibly dangerous rivalry between the powers.

Ismail Isakov, parliamentary deputy and army general, told IWPR that he believes Bishkek should be wary of forging such close ties with Moscow. He cited the events of 1999, when Kyrgyzstan received no help from Russia to fight off an onslaught by rebels from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

"At that time, Russia was simply a silent observer, while the USA and NATO countries provided significant assistance," he said.

Ethnic Russians, though, are extremely happy about the strengthening of their homeland's position in Kyrgyzstan. In spite of the bitter cold and heavy frost, hundreds of them lined the streets for hours to catch a glimpse of Putin.

However, Putin's visit was overshadowed by an incident in neighbouring Kazakstan when two planes carrying journalists and other members of the president's entourage were forced to make an emergency landing after taking off from Bishkek airport.

The Russian media claimed the planes' kerosene fuel was of low quality. According to several sources, aircraft at the airport are fuelled by firms close to President Akaev's family. Local and Russian law enforcement authorities are now investigating the incident.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek

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