On October 17 during a visit to Bishkek, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher reiterated Washington’s commitment to preserving the Ganci Air base at Manas. Replying to a question from a Kyrgyz correspondent who suggested that America was no longer interested in Manas, Boucher said:
“The air base is important. It is important to us, and it is important to every country in the region, to the other countries that use it, and also to the other countries that are affected by terrorism coming out of Afghanistan. We are very engaged, and we are going to stay engaged to help build a stable Afghanistan that can be an asset to the people in the region and not a threat. That is the purpose of the air base; that is the value of the air base; and it is a value to all of us, to help us stop this threat of terrorism and the threat of narcotics coming out of Afghanistan” (AKIpress News Agency, October 20).
What makes his defense of the base so significant is the timing and context in which it was given. Several factors suggest that any justification of continued American military deployment in the Kyrgyz Republic needs to be vigorous: the NATO operation in Afghanistan is coming under severe scrutiny, proving to be a running sore within the Alliance in terms of troop levels and the commitment of member states; British generals are saying that at some stage it will be necessary to negotiate with the Taliban; NATO-Russia relations are strained; and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is actively promoting his vision for developing a new European structure. Boucher appears to have sought a longer-term commitment from Kyrgyzstan and held out the prospect of a stable Afghanistan in the future as the main incentive for Bishkek to manage internal and foreign pressure over the base:
“You will be able to sell energy to the south, you will be able to sell vegetables to the south, you will be able to buy and sell products to India and Pakistan through a stable Afghanistan. And that is why we are involved in Afghanistan, and that is why we all still have an interest in the air base” (AKIpress News Agency, October 20).
The trouble is that the controversy surrounding Manas never quite leaves the public eye and resurfaces unexpectedly and suddenly. Only four days after Boucher’s comments, the leader of the Dzhoomart People’s Patriotic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Nurlan Motuyev, burnt an American flag and an effigy of U.S. President George Bush in protest against the Manas base, which he said was being used to bomb Muslim countries. He said that, “The Kyrgyz government and parliament should decide the issue of the air base’s presence,” and that the movement he heads intended to start collecting signatures “for the withdrawal of the base. We will submit them [the signatures] to the president in order for [the officers of the air base] to leave here,” he said. Motuyev’s protest, however, must be understood in relation to his exclusion from the U.S., though he denies conducting these initiatives on any personal basis (Interfax, Moscow, October 21).
On the other side of the capital, on October 24 the CSTO’s air base at Kant marked its fifth anniversary. CSTO Secretary-General Nikolay Bordyuzha offered his congratulations: “The Kant air base is a guarantee of collective security for CSTO states in the Central Asian region. There has been success in setting up a well-organized team of military pilots, like-minded people, and professionals in their work over a short period of time,” he said. Yet, while thanking the military personnel for “selflessly serving their country,” Bordyuzha suggested that their work was “aimed at strengthening Russia’s military might and ensuring the collective security of CSTO states and stability in the Central Asian region.” He perhaps overstated the case for a largely inconsequential military deployment, which analysts have questioned in terms of it official, anti-terrorist justification, since it purportedly only offers air support to the CSTO Collective Rapid Deployment Forces. In reality, it is a relatively cost-effective way of keeping the Russian flag flying in the former Soviet Republic; but Bordyuzha could have had something else in mind when he used the phrase, “strengthening Russia’s military might,” as Moscow plans to increase its presence at Kant and may be contemplating future heavy deployments at the base (www.24.kg, October 24).
The combat potential of the Russian airbase at Kant has, in fact, been increasing almost imperceptibly. “The airbase has seen a stage-by-stage build-up of military aviation; the number of Sukhoi Su-25 and Su-27 aircraft, special equipment, and personnel has increased,” the airbase commander, Colonel Vladimir Nosov, remarked recently. Nosov believes that the current level of deployment ensures that the base can carry out its task of “ensuring security in the Central Asian region.” Nonetheless, he noted plans to increase its potential further during the next two years: “Large-scale construction work is planned at the airfield in 2009 and 2010. The airstrip, aircraft parking places, and other facilities will be reconstructed. Total investment in the construction work will exceed 1.3 billion rubles [$47.6 million],” he said (Interfax, Moscow, October 22).
When the Russian air force (VVS) first deployed to Kant in 2003, the airstrip was modified and strengthened to receive the Russian aircraft earmarked for the base. Further work on the airstrip suggests, however, that consideration is being given to deploying heavier aircraft, such as transport aircraft, either for emergencies or to increase the overall strength of the base. Recent statements by Medvedev about plans to improve the Russian military by 2020, coupled with Russia’s current financial crisis and early signs that it may be returning to a period of net outflow of foreign capital as well as sliding oil prices, lend credibility to the suggestion that cost-effective options are being sought in Central Asia. In any case, construction work at Kant may be a signal that future changes to the mandate of the base are also under consideration.