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

US Visit Designed to Cement Ties With Kyrgyz

Secretary of state’s travel itinerary was a political statement in itself – be nice to the Kyrgyz, and snub the Uzbeks.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

It was perhaps no surprise that United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chose Kyrgyzstan as her first stop on a whistlestop tour of Central Asia this week. Not only is the republic home to a strategically important US airbase, but the relationship is one the Americans clearly think needs a boost.

No less significant was the decision not to include Uzbekistan on Rice’s itinerary. The country – centrally located and with the largest population of any Central Asian state – became a key US ally when it offered the use of its Khanabad airbase near the southern city of Karshi shortly after the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001.

But the relationship soured after the violence in Andijan in May 2005, as the Uzbek government was angered at US calls for an independent investigation and demanded that the American military leave the base.

Arriving in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on October 11, Rice described the country as the regional leader when it came to democratisation.

“I came here to say that you have a constant friend who believes in democratic reforms,” she said in Bishkek. “As democratic reforms become stable here, relations with the US will only strengthen.”

Kyrgyzstan’s present government is the product of the March “tulip revolution” which ousted President Askar Akaev and caused shockwaves throughout the region.

Rice told a meeting attended by politicians and civil society activists that the revolution, the July presidential election which confirmed Kurmanbek Bakiev in office, and the current discussions about constitutional reform, had made a big impression on her.

“In the Central Asian region, Kyrgyzstan compares favourably with the other countries in terms of democratic changes,” Rice said at the meeting, in translated remarks.

The major outcome of her visit was a joint declaration to underpin the continuing US military presence in the country. The statement said both sides wanted to see US-led Coalition forces stay in Kyrgyzstan until “the mission to fight terrorism in Afghanistan is completed”.

The agreement was more than symbolic: over the summer the Kyrgyz leadership appeared to wobble on the US presence, and Bakiev suggested that the airbase should not remain indefinitely. This position was echoed by a July summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, SCO, a regional security grouping that brings the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks together with Russia, China, Kazakstan and Tajikistan, which called for a timetable to be set for closing the US Central Asian bases.

Bakiev’s aim may have been to demonstrate to his partners in the SCO, particularly Russia, that the Kyrgyz revolution did not herald an alarming lurch towards the West, as was the case in Georgia and Ukraine, and that he wanted to remain just as good friends with them as his predecessor Akaev.

A quick visit by US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld at the end of July repaired any damage a Kyrgyz change of heart might have done to relations, with an agreement that the Americans could stay on for the immediate future.

Rice’s visit therefore seemed designed to firm up the terms of the security arrangement, which became all the more important after the Uzbeks demanded the Americans wind down operations at Khanabad. The Kyrgyz airbase, located at Bishkek’s international airport, is much further away from Afghanistan than the Uzbek site, but is still convenient for cargo planes.

“Central Asia is a very valuable region for the US,” said Jypar Jeksheev, leader of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan. “Uzbekistan has already rejected the American airbase on its territory, and apart from Kyrgyzstan there is no other territory suitable for the US. The US [therefore] has to come to terms with Kyrgyzstan.”

A second clear objective of the secretary of state’s visit was to ensure the US remains on good terms with a government whose record to date makes it a much more suitable partner than Uzbekistan for a White House administration that says it is committed to helping democracy flourish abroad.

“The US wants just one thing – for us to develop,” said Ar Namys party leader Emil Aliev. “They do not have selfish motives. Of course, they do not want to lose their influence in Central Asia. But they only want good things for Kyrgyzstan.”

Other politicians are less sure that Kyrgyz democracy is the Bush administration’s major concern. Many see their small republic as a playground for the regional ambitions of Moscow and Washington – not to mention a third world power, neighbouring China.

Rice used her visit to stress that Washington is not trying to lure Kyrgyzstan away from Moscow. “We know that Russia has firm relations with these countries, and that there are very strong economic and political ties,” she said during one meeting.

Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, the country’s human rights ombudsman, believes that the US simply wants to be present in Central Asia so as to have an outpost close to Russia and China. Security interests, he says, determine who the Americans focus their interest on, “For example, Uzbekistan demands the closure of the military base. So now a payment of 20 million US dollars that’s been denied to Uzbekistan will be given to us. It’s a carrot-and-stick policy: the US hands out carrots in those places where it has interests.”

A leading member of the Communist Party, Orozbek Duisheev, is even more suspicious, believing that Kyrgyzstan is being used as a tool for world domination and that it should instead devote itself wholly to Russia, which he says has no ulterior motives.

“They are maintaining an airbase in Kyrgyzstan under the guise of democratisation. Their aim is to keep China, Russia and Pakistan in a state of fear, with our help,” he said. “I’m a supporter of a close alignment with Russia, which does not have this malicious intent, these predatory plans.”

Such a policy does not seem one the Kyrgyz leadership would sign up to. Instead, all the signs are that it will continue trying to maintain good relations with both Moscow and Washington, although the Russians will remain the key economic partner. This is broadly in line with the approach President Akaev took in his 14 years in office. After all, it was Akaev who invited the US to set up an airbase in the wake of September 11, only to even things up by allowing a Russian military base shortly afterwards.

The Secretary of State crammed her trips to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan into just one day. In the Kazak capital Astana, Rice was diplomatic about political developments there, ahead of a December election in which President Nursultan Nazarbaev will be elected, again. The key US interest in Kazakstan remains its immense oil and gas reserves.

Later that day, Rice flew to Tajikistan, where she met President Imomali Rahmonov, who is also predicted to have an easy win in next year’s leadership election. Tajikistan retains a substantial Russian military presence, and the US leverage appears limited. According to local political analyst Shokirjon Hakimov, “Russia, Iran and China have a well-established and growing influence on Tajikistan, so the only area for cooperation with the United States is economic.”

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. Anora Sarkorova, a BBC stringer in Dushanbe, also contributed to this report.