On June 23, the Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that his government had reached a new agreement with the U.S. government on the status of Manas airbase in Bishkek. According to the president’s statement, the U.S. will pay $60 million for renting space at Manas airport. The price has jumped 3.5 times, from $17 million a year. The base will serve as a transit point for U.S. cargo to Afghanistan.
The announcement was anticipated by many in Kyrgyzstan and the U.S. Yet, Bakiyev’s ability to secure both the Russian $2 billion loan as well as this increase in payment from the U.S. came as a surprise. In addition, Bakiyev is the most likely winner in the upcoming July 23 presidential election.
Contrary to some reports, this was not the Russian government’s decision to allow Bakiyev to retain the U.S. base. Several Russian newspapers reported Moscow’s negative reaction. The Kremlin was surprised by Bakiyev’s decision, according to Kommersant and Vesti (www.akipress.kg, June 24).
Whether relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan will be affected by Bakiyev’s recent move remains to be seen. On June 24 the Kyrgyz online newspaper Akipress speculated that Kyrgyz labor migrants working in Russia might suffer from the two states’ disagreement over the U.S. base. The newspaper drew parallels with Russia’s worsened relations with Georgia, when thousands of labor migrants were deported in 2006.
Throughout his four-year reign, Bakiyev was able to raise the level of payment for the Manas base. The rent payment swelled in 2005 and 2006. Each time Bakiyev threatened the U.S. government with ending cooperation, and in turn Washington increased the compensation. Moreover, Bakiyev always presented himself as being the victim of regional pressures, stemming from both Russia and China. This year Bakiyev’s trick went as far as having the parliament vote on the expulsion of the base.
Bakiyev’s "pocket" parliament, dominated by the pro-regime Ak Zhol bloc, played along with the president’s bluff. In February the parliament agreed with Bakiyev that his decision to expel the base was explained by the improving security situation in Afghanistan. Two days ago, however, the president told the parliament that Kyrgyzstan must facilitate the international anti-terrorist efforts in the neighboring country.
The regime was able to play the game with both Russia and United States knowing that Washington is interested in retaining the base in the long-term. According to Jamestown sources, shortly after Bakiyev announced his decision to expel the U.S. base, members of the regime were already looking for a better offer from the United States. The leaders knew the risks they took, while gambling on Manas. The negotiations between the two sides took place behind the scenes. The Kyrgyz government denied that any negotiations were taking place. However, the Kyrgyz government showed signs in April that it was overturning its decision on Manas. The information leaked to opposition forces as well, with some leaders claiming that that base will remain in Kyrgyzstan for the next few years.
Unlike previous years, no high level U.S. official visited Kyrgyzstan to negotiate a new deal. In 2005, for instance, then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Bishkek twice. Kyrgyzstan’s about-face on Manas might be raised during the summit in Moscow between the U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev next month.
In the meantime, the U.S. government has increased its assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. According to one U.S. official, the increase in assistance was planned long before Bakiyev’s February decision. Washington will also invest $36.6 million into the reconstruction of Manas airport (www.24kg, June 24).
Retaining the Manas airbase is essentially in the interests of Bakiyev’s regime. In addition to providing Bakiyev with geopolitical leverage, it offers multiple financial benefits to regime affiliates. Controlling supplies of fuel to Manas and rental payments invigorates a small circle of business elites in Bishkek.
It is clear that Bakiyev would have won the presidential elections without the recent deal with the United States. Bakiyev was able to secure cash inflows from the Russian government prior to the upcoming presidential elections. However, few NGO leaders in Kyrgyzstan had hoped that the U.S. would exert greater pressure on Bakiyev over the worsening record on human rights.
According to one U.S. analyst who spoke to Jamestown, the United States government sees the Central Asian region as an important part of its security agenda -as well as energy cooperation. However, the recent negotiations with the Bakiyev regime to retain the base shows that Washington is yet to formulate how it sees Central Asia’s development.