US Base in Kyrgyzstan Renamed but Remains

Terms of new agreement mean airbase officially becomes transit hub for Afghan operation, but some analysts see no real change.

US Base in Kyrgyzstan Renamed but Remains

Terms of new agreement mean airbase officially becomes transit hub for Afghan operation, but some analysts see no real change.

After ordering the United States military airbase outside the capital Bishkek to close earlier this year, the Kyrgyz government has changed its mind and decided to let the Americans stay.

Once a US delegation had signed two agreements covering the new arrangements on June 22, the Kyrgyz parliament swiftly ratified them three days later, ending months of uncertainty for Washington.

“We see it as a very positive step,” said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, speaking in Washington just after the Kyrgyz parliament ratified the deal on June 25. “We welcome the efforts of the Kyrgyz government to continue to play a role in helping the international community bring peace and stability and security to Afghanistan and the whole region.”

Officially, the military base at Manas International Airport ceases to exist and is replaced by what the Kyrgyzstan are calling a “freight transit centre” and the Americans a “logistics and transportation hub”, meaning that the US will continue to use the airfield as a stopping-off point for people and cargo going to support its operations in Afghanistan.

As part of the deal, the Americans will pay much more in rent. Speaking on June 23, Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbaev told parliament that the rent on the Manas base would triple from 17.4 million US dollars a year to 60 million.

In addition, Washington will spend nearly 37 million dollars this year on building new facilities at the base, and 30 million on air navigation systems. Separately, just over 30 million dollars will go towards counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics work in Kyrgyzstan and another 20 million will be placed in the American-Kyrgyz Development Fund, for economic programmes.

The US-led Coalition in Afghanistan acquired the lease of the base in 2001 to provide logistical support for the military operations it launched against the Taleban.

Since then, the base has served as a stopping-off point for transport planes carrying military personnel, weapons and other freight, as well as providing air refuelling for planes operating over Afghanistan.

In February, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to close the base, arguing that there was no longer a real need for it. That decision followed President Kurmanbek Bakiev's announcement that the base was to close, made on a visit to Moscow during which he secured pledges of loans and investment worth two billion dollars. Some analysts argued that Bakiev traded the US base for Russian financial and political support. (For a report on this, see Kyrgyzstan: How Imminent is US Base Closure?, RCA No. 565, 5-Feb-09; and for recent signs of a shift in the Kyrgyz position, US Airbase in Kyrgyzstan Could Stay After All, RCA No. 580, 12-Jun-09.)

In his speech to parliament, Sarbaev indicated that his government now believed there was after all a need to retain the US facility for security reasons.

He cited rumours that intense military pressure on the Taleban militia has forced some of its allies which include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group that conducted raids into Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory in 1999 and 2000, to slip back into Central Asia.

“Following the intensive combat operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan there have been rumours that some armed militants have relocated to the Fergana Valley. And you are aware of the recent explosions in Andijan,” he said, referring to attacks on police and a suicide bombing in May in and around the Uzbek city in the eastern Fergana valley, close to Kyrgyzstan. (For more on this, see Andijan Attackers’ Identity Still Unclear, News Briefing Central Asia, May 27, 2009; and on a related theme, Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains, RCA No. 581, 24-Jun-09.)

Pro-government politicians in Kyrgyzstan are playing up the differences so as to demonstrate that this is a completely new deal. First, the airfield perimeter will be guarded by Kyrgyz rather than American soldiers; second, US military personnel will be granted immunity from prosecution only when they are physically on the airfield, and not when they leave it.

Kabay Karabekov, a member of parliament from the governing Ak Jol Party, insisted the authorities had not executed a U-turn.

“Don’t confuse the terminology,” he told IWPR. “There is no base, and there isn’t going to be one. The decision to close the base is being implemented. It’s [now] a transit corridor.”

As details of the deal become clearer, everyone will be watching to see whether the Americans have to reduce the scope of their transport operations. Kyrgyz officials have said the revamped arrangements mean planes will only be carrying “non-military freight”.

Kubanychbek Kadyrov, a legislator from the opposition Social Democrats, quizzed the foreign minister on this issue in parliament. “Can you guarantee that only non-military freight will be transported?” he asked Sarbaev, who replied that US military aircraft would not be subject to checks.

State Department spokesman Kelly made it clear that army personnel would continue to transit the Manas facility.

“I think what we agreed to is setting up a logistics and transportation hub at Manas International Airport. This is to facilitate the transportation of personnel and equipment that are en route to Afghanistan,” he said adding, that “of course, there will be military personnel who will be transiting there, and there will be military personnel who are helping with this transportation and logistics hub”.

Analysts interviewed by IWPR in Kyrgyzstan take differing views of the extent of the change, with some arguing the change of nomenclature from “base” to “centre” is little more than cosmetic.

Politics expert Mars Sariev describes it as “a change in packaging but not in essence”.

“They’re currently saying it is for the transit of non-military freight, but fuel and army servicemen also count as a sort of non-military freight,” he said. “The format of the base is retained and even expanded through the addition of more aircraft parking and storage areas. So the American military presence is de facto staying.”

Alexander Knyazev, head of the regional branch of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute, predicts further Kyrgyz-US negotiations aimed at widening the remit to explicitly include military freight, given that the Americans already have arrangements in place with other Central Asian states to transport humanitarian freight overland, and have the option of using Navoi airport for the same type of goods under a recent deal in which South Korea will manage the site as a transit hub. (See Uzbekistan Opens Airbase to NATO Freight, News Briefing Central Asia, May 27, 2009.)

Sariev believes this kind of arrangement will be reached once Washington has secured Moscow’s approval.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who is due to meet his American counterpart Barack Obama in July, has welcomed the Manas deal, underlining how different it is from the previous arrangement.

As Sariev pointed out, the two leaders have a lot to talk about – from US plans for anti-missile systems in the Czech Republic to tensions over Georgia, and the Kyrgyz airbase will be one element in that complex mix.

“The question of whether it’s to be military or non-military freight will be decided once and for all at that point,” said Sariev. “I think Russia will give tacit approval to the transit of military freight.”

One important domestic angle to the Manas story that has had less coverage abroad is the question of the diplomatic immunity US servicemen have enjoyed.

This was a focus of concerns in Kyrgyzstan, especially after local man Alexei Ivanov was shot by a US sentry while working at Manas as a driver in December 2006. The American soldier left the country without facing prosecution; US base officials said he had fired in self-defence. However, the incident fuelled demands for the base to close.

Bakyt Beshimov, who leads the Social Democrats in parliament, is concerned that US personnel will still enjoy immunity from prosecution while on base, and argues that the Ivanov case has effectively been traded for a higher rent payment.

“At the beginning of the year they [Ak Jol legislators] unanimously voted to remove the airbase. Now they’ve voted again in one voice to set up the centre,” he said. “The paradoxical thing is that the terms haven’t changed.”

Urmatbek Tashmatov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Bishkek.

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