Kyrgyzstan’s new president-elect Almazbek Atambayev has once again hinted that he wants the US Transit Center at Manas out of Kyrgyzstan by the time coalition forces leave Afghanistan. “In 2014 the United States will have to withdraw its military base from the ‘Manas’ international airport,” Atambayev said on November 1 (www.regnum.ru).
Instead, Atambayev proposed that the United States revamp the center into a civilian cargo transfer point. The new leader also said that he will continue talks with the Pentagon on the center’s future to ensure that Kyrgyzstan abides by all its international commitments. Atambayev’s statement should not be seen as a direct threat to the US military presence in Bishkek, but rather as part of his strategy to establish himself as the nation’s new leader capable of decisive foreign policy. In the October 30 elections, Atambayev won the presidency with 63 percent support. His strongest competitors, the leader of Butun Kyrgyzstan Adakhan Madumarov and the leader of Ata-Jurt Kamchybek Tashiyev, each earned approximately 14 percent (www.shailoo.gov.kg, October 30).
Under Atambayev’s leadership, Kyrgyzstan will indeed prioritize Russian-led initiatives and mimic Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s political course. But keeping the West interested in Kyrgyzstan will help Atambayev retain his bargaining chip against Moscow’s pressure for even greater integration. Moscow has been reportedly insisting that Atambayev prolong the contract on the Kant airbase for another 49 years. So far, Kyrgyz political leaders have avoided making this commitment.
Atambayev’s predecessors – Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Askar Akayev – faced similar challenges of maintaining a balance between the Unites States and Russia. Trying to bargain for the best deal, Bakiyev spoiled the country’s relations with both Russia and the United States. Akayev, in turn, ended up blaming the West for turning against him and found refuge in Russia after being ousted in 2005.
The tides of external influences on Kyrgyzstan often reflect the direction of US-Russian relations. For a brief period when Washington and Moscow seemed to be genuinely “resetting” their relationship to a post-Cold War mode, the status of the US Transit Center was not contended within Kyrgyzstan. The center’s future depends, therefore, more on how US-Russian relations play out before 2014 rather than on Atambayev’s personal decision.
By cherishing closer ties with Russia, Atambayev also reflects his constituency’s preferences. The majority of Kyrgyz welcome greater cooperation with Russia mostly because it is the main source of revenue for many families who shuttle trade to Russia or whose relatives work there as labor migrants. This strategy has proved to be efficient for Atambayev and he sees little incentive to change this pro-Russian course now. If either Madumarov or Tashiyev had won the presidential race, they, too, would have shifted the country’s foreign policy closer to Moscow. Only a very limited number of Kyrgyzstanis in fact see the United States or other Western powers as viable or trusted partners.
According to the International Republican Institute’s opinion poll results, 91 percent of people in Kyrgyzstan believe that Russian-Kyrgyz relations are “good” and around 70 percent tentatively support Kyrgyzstan’s prospective membership at the Russian-led Customs Union (http://goo.gl/1SnyA). Similar to perceptions in Russia, ties with Washington and Moscow are often seen as a zero-sum game in Kyrgyzstan.
An Internet poll by M-Vektor conducted last year showed that 89 percent of respondents consider that Russia is Kyrgyzstan’s most important political partner (http://goo.gl/sWmbC). Only 0.8 percent of respondents said that Kyrgyzstan must prioritize ties with the United States. Cooperation with China and Kazakhstan scored stronger support in this poll than the US. More importantly, according to the poll, only 17 percent consider that the US Transit Center should remain in Kyrgyzstan, compared to 87 percent supporting the Russian airbase in Kant.
Atambayev is a populist leader and built his presidential campaign largely based on public opinion. In the run up to the elections, Atambayev exploited his contacts with Russia as part of his campaign. He met both with Putin and Kyrgyz labor migrants. The strategy paid off, establishing him as “Kyrgyzstan’s Putin” in some parts of the country.
From Moscow’s point of view, by having Atambayev as president, the Kremlin has one single actor within Kyrgyzstan to work with. To date Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy did not have one source but multiple bodies, the president, parliament, and prime minister prioritized different interests. Atambayev is yet to demonstrate if he can do a better job of balancing the country’s ties between Moscow and other international partners.