With two months left before the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) annual summit in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, the Kyrgyz government is experiencing increasing pressure from Russia and the United States regarding the U.S. military base at Manas airport.
In the past 10 days U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Assistant Secretary of State for Central and Southern Asia Richard Boucher both visited Bishkek to discuss U.S.-Kyrgyz relations with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Parliament Speaker Marat Sultanov, and Defense Minister Ismail Isakov. The U.S. officials emphasized the importance of Kyrgyzstan’s cooperation with the United States within the international anti-terrorism framework and stressed that the issue of the U.S. military base in Bishkek should not be raised at the SCO summit.
However, their visit will soon be followed by one from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on July 10, who will likely remind his Kyrgyz counterparts about the importance of the SCO for the country. Even if Kyrgyz government officials would prefer to please both the United States and Russia, the SCO summit will inevitably raise the issue of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan. As one Kyrgyz expert points out, previously the United States had insisted that its military base at Manas airport was established with the consent of neighboring states, as well as the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Today, however, Washington prefers to persuade Kyrgyzstan that although the military base falls under the international fight against terrorism framework, it is, first of all, a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Kyrgyz governments.
Interestingly, while local mass media regarded the recent visits by Gates and Boucher as a response to the increased public anger with the U.S. military base, it associates Lavrov’s visit with Russia’s wish to assist Kyrgyzstan’s political and economic development. The public discourse in Kyrgyzstan today is polarized around either pro-Russian or pro-U.S. views. Both local media and political actors seek to clearly define which geopolitical camp they belong to. New anti-U.S. youth movements are being formed and former prime minister Felix Kulov has declared his intention to collect the necessary 300,000 signatures to initiate a referendum to join Russia as a confederation.
Today, the entire Kyrgyz government is mobilized to prepare for the SCO summit. On July 9 the Kyrgyz cabinet of ministers will gather to approve the summit’s agenda. Various state structures are expressing their concern with the U.S. military base, without any further comparisons with the Russian airbase in Kant city. Recently, the Ministry of Emergencies complained that Kyrgyzstan is not able to assess the real ecological damage caused by the Manas base. Previously, the Ministry of Interior and the parliament spoke against that base as well. As one Kyrgyz analyst told Jamestown, “Given the domestic antagonism against the U.S. military base [in Kyrgyzstan] the SCO summit presents a unique opportunity for all local anti-U.S. political forces to speak collectively.”
As in the past, should the SCO member states manage to push Kyrgyzstan to further distort its relations with the United States, this change in tone would match the interests of the Russian-led CSTO. Ironically, however, Kyrgyz officials rarely receive Russia’s support in bilateral meetings. Moreover, Kulov’s recent proposal that Kyrgyzstan joins Russia has been met with skepticism, even sarcasm, by official Moscow.
Meanwhile, Bakiyev invited Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov to attend the SCO summit as an honorable guest. Although it is highly unlikely that Berdimukhamedov will accept the invitation, Ashgabat’s growing ties with Russia fall under the SCO’s framework, since the organization also has good relations with Turkmenistan’s immediate neighbor Iran.
Since both the United States and Russia will have presidential elections next year, it is difficult to predict the possible changes in both countries’ policies in Central Asia. What remains clear, however, is that the U.S. must emphasize that it sees its cooperation with Kyrgyzstan as more than just an anti-terrorism partnership. Boucher’s offer to support Kyrgyzstan’s reform of its judiciary system is one such possibility. Focusing on hydro-energy, Kyrgyzstan’s main economic sector is another excellent idea suggested to the Kyrgyz government by Tom Adams, coordinator of U.S. assistance to Europe and Eurasia. However, it is also important to remember that Kyrgyz government and society’s attitudes are contingent on Kyrgyz-Russian relations.
(24.kg, Akipress.kg, Bely parohod, Tazar.kg, June 10-13)