At the July 5 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana member states agreed to request a deadline for ending the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, now that the situation in neighboring Afghanistan has stabilized (see EDM, July 6). This request inevitably concerns Kyrgyzstan not only because the U.S. military has been stationed at the Manas International Airport in Bishkek since 2001, but also because many analysts think that the increased U.S. influence on the country’s political life made the March 24 revolution possible.
The influence of the SCO’s major members — Russia and China — on the Kyrgyz government is evident. Russia’s wish to increase its military presence in Kyrgyzstan became public this May after Interim President Kurmanbek Bakiyev met with Andrei Kokoshin, the chairman of the State Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States (see EDM, May 24). The two men discussed an additional Russian military base in Osh, among other issues. Shortly after the SCO summit Bakiyev first stated that it is necessary to know the approximate duration of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan (Akipress, July 18).
The government’s sudden demand for the United States to set a deadline sparked a mixed reaction among Kyrgyz experts.
Atyrkul Alisheva, director of Institute for Regional Studies in Bishkek, writes in Obshestvenny reiting (July 14) that it is not a question of “to be or not to be” that is relevant in the current situation, but the way the Kyrgyz government posed its request on the U.S. presence. Alisheva questions Bishkek’s diplomatic acumen in raising such questions and their ability to predict long-term effects. She thinks that today Kyrgyzstan’s stability is important not only for the local population or the Central Asian region, but for the greater world: “Any instability might be used by extremists, non-state terrorist organizations for terrorist acts and to capture control.” Alisheva thinks that the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan represents a response to a global challenge of terrorism and drug trafficking.
Ishenbai Abdurazakov, co-chairman of the Justice and Progress party, told Radio Azattyk that the request for a deadline conveyed the SCO’s desire for the American troops to leave the county. This inevitably will affect Kyrgyz-U.S. relations, and he warned that established bilateral ties might deteriorate fundamentally.
As Joomart Otorbayev, leader of the Moya Strana party, points out, the presence of the U.S. Manas military base did not harm anyone; instead, it brought a sense of stability and paid millions of dollars into the state budget. “At its expense we were able to repay [our] Japanese loans,” Otorbayav told the Kabar news agency (July 12).
Otorbayev and other Kyrgyz experts agree that the U.S. has been a most generous investor in Kyrgyzstan. The United States supported civil-society development by allocating numerous grants to independent media outlets, opening a non-governmental publishing house, and financing the local Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty service. The U.S. government finances Kyrgyzstan’s most active NGO, the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society led by Edil Baisalov, through the National Democratic Institute (New York Times, March 30).
However, despite such intensive assistance to civil society and the political opposition before and after March 24 events, Bakiyev clearly favors Moscow. Many members of the government support the newly elected president’s views on the U.S. military presence in the country. The Kyrgyz Ambassador to Moscow, Apas Jumagulov, insists on increasing the Russian influence in the country at the expense of the U.S. presence.
Acting Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva says that the Kyrgyz government’s request must not be considered as an ultimatum. Similar to Bakiyev, Otunbayeva thinks that today the base is not important in Kyrgyzstan or regional security politics, and it is only natural to ask for a clarification on the duration of the Manas installation (Azattyk, July 13).
Orozbek Duisheev, leader of the Communist Party, has adopted the most radical stance: “This base is not needed in Kyrgyzstan. Since its establishment the CIS and Chinese attitudes towards us have been changing. There was more harm. Compared to the U.S., Russia and China are more helpful. With China, for example, once relations were enhanced, discussions began immediately on the problem of railway construction” (Azattyk, July 13).
Whereas the question of a foreign military presence in Kyrgyzstan might be a government-level issue, on the societal level, both the U.S. and Russian presence clearly improved the job market. Dozens of locals work at Manas and the Russian base. Local trade and services are boosted along the perimeter of the Manas airport and in the city of Kant, near the Russian base. Contrary to speculation by international and local experts, there is no strong anti-American mood among the locals because of the foreign military presence.
Earlier this year, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, commented that the United States had “developed good relationships and good partnerships in this part of the world, not only in Afghanistan,” also noting the U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (newsobserver.com, March 17). As to Bishkek’s recent request for deadlines, General Myers criticized Russia and China for pressing Kyrgyzstan, which is much weaker than either regional power, to make decisions on security. He made it clear that the U.S. military presence is a stabilizing factor that benefits Central Asia far more than the United States (Gazeta.kg with reference to RIA-Novosti, July 15).