On August 4 Kyrgyz police confiscated a weapons cache from U.S. citizens living in a rented house on the outskirts of Bishkek. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek immediately responded, confirming that the weapons were sanctioned by the Kyrgyz government as part of the anti-terrorism training regularly held between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz side called in the U.S. military and protected the house holding the weapons, the Embassy reported.
The event quickly drew the attention of local mass media outlets, with Deputy Minister of the Interior Temirkan Subanov giving a press conference the next day (Akipress, August 5). According Subanov, although the U.S. citizens did have the Kyrgyz government’s permission to keep the armament, it was nevertheless necessary to investigate the details. At the time the weapons were impounded, several U.S. diplomats and service personnel were inside the house. Subanov argued that U.S. citizens broke the law that requires storing weapons in special cases, such as metallic cabinets and weapon storage. The Kyrgyz government has confirmed that the weapons cache was indeed sanctioned and intended to be used in joint anti-terrorism training.
In total, the cache included several large caliber machine guns, assault rifles, 12 caliber Mossberg shotguns, sniper launchers, handguns, ammunition and other armament (Akipress, August 5).
The armament was discovered as part of the Interior Ministry’s special “Arsenal” campaign that is aimed at ridding Bishkek of illegally stored weapons. According to Subanov, the weapons were found thanks to the help of residents living close to the house rented by the U.S. citizens. Kyrgyz persecutors have begun an official investigation of the incident.
The ministry’s activities were harshly condemned by former Secretary of the Security Council Miroslav Niyazov, who expressed doubt that the U.S. was trying to plot intrigues in Kyrgyzstan by hiding the weapons (www.akipress.kg, August 5). Relying on his own experience, Niyazov said that these weapons were likely brought into the country under the Kyrgyz government’s oversight. Moreover, he argued, since the house was occupied by diplomats, the Kyrgyz side was not allowed to search it without first consulting with the U.S. Embassy. The Interior Ministry acted without proper legal procedures, causing an international scandal, Niyazov concluded. Most Kyrgyz experts agree, however, that the ministry would not have been able to act without the approval of the top political leadership.
The incident took place a day after the arrival of Senator Harry Reid, Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, Senator Jeff Bingaman, Senator Bill Nelson, Senator Johnny Isakson, and Senator Robert Menendez, who were visiting Kyrgyzstan to discuss U.S.-Kyrgyz relations and anti-terrorism cooperation (bishkek.usembassy.gov, www.gazeta.kg, August 5). At an August 6 meeting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev praised the long-term relations with U.S.
The incident also took place shortly after Kyrgyzstan’s participation at the Rubezh-2008 training exercise within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The training took place in July with the participation of more than 4,000 troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz government’s capturing of the armament thus spread negative information about the U.S. presence in the country against the backdrop of generally popular CSTO training.
In the past, the Kyrgyz government has used similar techniques prior to summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In 2006 two U.S. diplomats were deported from the country. Kyrgyz experts believed that the expulsion of the diplomats served the Kyrgyz government’s efforts to please Moscow.
Unlike incidents with representatives of other countries, those involving U.S. citizens receive broad public attention in Bishkek and beyond. The Russian Vesti claimed that since these serious weapons were stored in a private house, they were unlikely to be used for legal purposes (August 5). Izvestia erroneously reported that U.S. Embassy officials had refused to comment on the incident (August 5).
Some members of the Kyrgyz political and business communities have also learned strategies of using mass media outlets to their own benefit. For instance, the local media are used in the process of the future privatization of Manas Airport. The airport hosts the U.S. military base, is the major international connecting port in Kyrgyzstan and is a source of abundant revenue. A former employee of Manas has told Jamestown that the airport’s management plans to declare bankruptcy in the coming months to move it into private ownership. Prior to the fictional privatization, interested parties are using local mass media to report on the high cost of new construction at the airport. Top political officials are involved as well as the airport management.
The Kyrgyz police’s exposure of the weapons cache fits the Kyrgyz government’s desire to question indirectly the United States’ motives in the country, while openly maintaining close relations with Russia. Kyrgyzstan’s top brass refrains from publicly voicing concern over the U.S. military presence by inventing new methods to cultivate the suspicions of the public.