On August 1 the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his recently re-elected Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that a new Russian military base will open later this year in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. Symbolically important from Moscow’s perspective, since Osh once hosted a Soviet airbase, the message appeared to signal throughout Central Asia that Russia is the region’s security guarantor. Bakiyev’s re-election largely depended on the support of his Kremlin allies, and the recent basing announcement was portrayed in Moscow as a foreign policy success for Medvedev (ITAR-TASS, August 1). However, the agreement confirmed how vulnerable the weak Kyrgyz state has become to Russian diplomatic pressure, mainly as a consequence of the promise to supply $2 billion in loans to prop up its failing economy.
According to the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed during the informal Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) Summit in Cholpon Ata the final agreement on the status and conditions of both Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan will be reached by November 1. The agreement will expire after 49 years, and can be extended at 25 year intervals thereafter. Unlike U.S. basing rights in relation to Manas, all Russian military personnel will have diplomatic immunity. Currently, Russian military cargo cannot be inspected by the Kyrgyz authorities; which allows the uninhibited transportation of highly sensitive prototype designs to the Russian naval testing facility in Issyk-Kul. In addition to the second base, placed under the aegis of the CSTO, there will also be a Russian-led training center open to military personnel from all CSTO member states. Initially it envisages the deployment of up to one Russian airborne (VDV) battalion, though Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested this might be expanded as the negotiations proceed. The MoU states that these details will be resolved at a bilateral level (RIA Novosti, Interfax, NTV, Xinhua, August 1).
The Russian base in Osh is planned as an element of the new CSTO Collective Operational Reaction Force (CORF), which was first announced in February, and agreed at the Moscow summit on June 14. However, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov refused to sign the agreement to establish the new force. Prior to the informal CSTO summit in Cholpon Ata, Russian media speculated that Lukashenka and Karimov might finally agree to become signatories and drop any opposition to a second Russian base in Kyrgyzstan (Kommersant, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 29). Nonetheless, neither leader did so -consequently the new basing agreement remains strongly opposed by Tashkent. Indeed, as it emerged that it might prove impossible to secure such objectives these issues were quietly removed from the informal summit’s agenda.
Russian National Security Strategy until 2020, approved by Medvedev on May 12, prioritizes the CSTO as "a key mechanism to counter regional military challenges and threats" (www.scrf.gov.ru). In this context, Moscow has intensified its efforts to enhance its military footprint in Central Asia, despite reservations within the CSTO over militarizing the region. Since the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008, Russian pressure has also increased on Dushanbe to permit the opening of an additional base at Ayni (EDM, November 18, 2008). Justification for a second facility in Kyrgyzstan has proven weak, ranging from expressing anxiety over possible local Islamic militant activity to "protecting Kyrgyz sovereignty." Medvedev explained: "We met yesterday and discussed the current situation in the CSTO, reviewed its future prospects, explored what we can do, talked about common problems, common plans and common steps. The CORF exercises will be held soon and we are preparing for them together" (www.kremlin.ru, August 1).
CSTO members have been surprised by the manner in which this latest Russian initiative was conducted. Uzbekistan’s objections to the proposed base are rooted in skepticism over its contribution to security and the lack of consensus within the CSTO (EDM, July 28). The new Russian base in Osh will be in close proximity to the Uzbek border, yet remarkably Uzbek diplomats confirmed to Jamestown that Moscow did not consult with Tashkent on the issue. In effect, Russian diplomats merely told their Uzbek counterparts that Russia intends to open a new base. Moreover, with the memory of the Russia-Georgia war still fresh within the region, there are also fears about the precise rules of engagement of these forces. In the event of a crisis in the Ferghana Valley requiring a military response, the risk that Russian forces might pursue militants across the Uzbek border is certainly not allayed by Moscow ignoring the need for Uzbek consent on forming the CORF or opening a base close to its border.
On August 3 the Uzbek foreign ministry confirmed its official opposition to the new Russian base. Tashkent questioned the need for such a facility, and suggested that the initiative might well destabilize the region:
"The implementation of such projects in this rather complex and difficult-to-predict territory, where the borders of three Central Asian republics directly meet, may render an impetus for strengthening the processes in terms of militarization and arousing various nationalistic confrontations, as well as the actions of radical extremist forces that could lead to a serious destabilization of the situation in the greater region" (Uzbek Foreign Ministry Statement, RIA Novosti, August 3).
The Russian vision for the development of the CSTO, its pursuit of an enhanced military footprint in the region combined with its aggressive diplomacy, which pays little respect to protocol or the interests of its allies within the organization, has effectively thrown the whole multilateral project into crisis. Moreover, the speed at which these Russian plans are being implemented in the region partly reflects the belief in Moscow that the first year of Obama’s presidency will provide a window of opportunity to recalibrate the regional security dynamics more heavily in its favor. On July 29 a Russian military delegation arrived in Almaty for negotiations on staging the first CORF exercises scheduled for August 19 to October 24 at Kazakhstan’s Matybulak training range. CSTO leaders are expected to observe the active phase of the exercise, though it currently lacks any legal basis (Kommersant, July 31; Vremya Novostei, August 3).
Medvedev’s plans to use the CSTO to undermine the influence of the U.S. and NATO within Central Asia will now be tested during the next three months, since failure to achieve agreement amongst all member states might precipitate a far deeper crisis.