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Tough Talk From Kyrgyz Leader on US Base

Analysts say President Bakiev’s ultimatum to the Americans is designed for consumption in Moscow.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
The Kyrgyz president’s announcement last week that he has set the United States a deadline to agree on the continued use of a military airbase in his country is really a tactic to show Russia he is in charge, analysts say.



The televised speech on April 19 came just five days before President Kurmanbek Bakiev is due in Moscow - which has been uncomfortable with the airbase ever since it was opened to service the US-led Coalition operation in Afghanistan.



There have been nine months of discussions on the amount the Americans should pay for the facility, dubbed Ganci, which is located next door to Bishkek’s civilian airport. Shortly before senior-level US Defence Department officials visited Bishkek in November, Bakiev urged them to hurry up and sign a new agreement, which he promised would entail “major expenditure” for them.



Now he has given the US government 40 days to agree to the deal his government is offering.



The future of the base is a cause for “concern”, he said, “because of the lack of clarity surrounding the issue”.



“If the discussion process is not completed by June 1, Kyrgyzstan will have the right to cancel the agreement,” he warned.



In a nod to his desire to keep Moscow as well as his western partners happy, the president noted that when the base first opened in late 2001, “partners in regional and other organisations expressed certain concerns over an American airbase being stationed in Kyrgyzstan”.



The November talks ended with an agreement to review terms for Ganci. The official Kyrgyz position has not been made public, but foreign media reported that the government was asking for 200 million US dollars a year compared with the 40 million it received in tax and rent in 2005.



Defence Minister Ismail Isakov told IWPR that a second US delegation is expected in Bishkek soon to continue the negotiations.



Some analysts believe Bakiev is doing the right thing. “I can understand him,” said Valimjan Tanyrykov, a lecturer at the International Diplomatic Academy in Bishkek. “The Americans have not said anything for nine months now and are just delaying matters. He’s going to meet [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and he needs to bring some explanation with him.”



However, the stark manner in which President Bakiev presented the ultimatum has shocked many politicians, in a country whose location and small size has forced it to tread a delicate path as it creates partnerships with rival powers – the Russia, the US and China. Some believe that Bakiev is in danger of derailing this policy in his haste to keep Moscow happy.



“This ultimatum may have highly undesirable consequences,” warned Omurbek Tekebaev, a former speaker of parliament who is now an ordinary member. “This statement, made shortly before a visit to Moscow, was somewhat rash. Now this awkward situation needs to be smoothed over.



“Yes, I want Kyrgyzstan to adhere firmly to its position on any issue, but it needs to be done more sensitively. I’m a hot-blooded man myself. It seems, though, that the president is a lot more hot-blooded than I am.”



Another deputy, Kubatbek Baibolov, thinks the ultimatum presented to the Americans reflects a consistently pro-Moscow line that, in his view, Bakiev has pursued since coming to power after last year’s March revolution.



“He evidently doesn’t want to go empty-handed on his first official visit to Moscow, especially as he has pursued a pro-Russian policy from the very beginning,” said Baibolov.



In the aftermath of the Kyrgyz uprising, Russia was concerned that yet another regional leadership – following Georgia and Ukraine – had been overthrown in its sphere of influence. But soon after he was formally elected in early July, Bakiev signalled his desire for close ties with Moscow by suggesting it was time for the Ganci base to close, a proposal later softened to a demand for better terms.



“There’s a saying that a parting friend can ask for a lion-skin,” said Baibolov. “So our president is asking the US for lots of money without any embarrassment.”



But he warned, “Since we are a small and weak nation, our policy vis-avis large nations needs to be conducted with tact.”



Begish Aamatov, a leading politician and public figure, told IWPR, “You shouldn’t sacrifice relations with a major power for the sake of one visit to Moscow. Western countries can see right through our president’s selfish ambitions. He is following a very naïve policy here.”



Edil Baisalov, the leader of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, recently recovered from an attack many believe was inspired by his activism, agrees that Bakiev is making a mistake. “Because of the president’s wrong-headed policy, we are turning into a plaything among these countries. I think he’s basing many of his foreign policy decisions on pro-Russian interests,” he said.



Reaction from America has been muted so far. A statement from the US embassy in Bishkek the day after Bakiev’s TV statement said, “We are ready for a swift conclusion of talks with the Kyrgyz authorities on the further use of the Manas airbase.”



The same day, the embassy responded to another arch comment, this time from the Kyrgyz foreign ministry, which urged Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch to refrain from commenting on internal matters. The ambassador had spoken in favour of a proposal currently being mooted by the Kyrgyz government to sign up to a World Bank debt reduction scheme.



The embassy response was that “the US government will continue to talk openly and frequently about the need for reforms in the Kyrgyz Republic”.



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

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