On February 20 the Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a bill into law to close the U.S. military base at the Manas airport. The United States will have to leave Kyrgyzstan within 180 days after the Kyrgyz government officially passes the decision on to the U.S. embassy in Bishkek.
The Kyrgyz parliament voted almost unanimously in support of Bakiyev decision to close the base. The pro-regime Ak Zhol party and Communist MPs gave the president their instant support. Only one MP from the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) voted against the move (www.akipress.kg, February 19). Bakiyev called the vote a sign of constructive and effective collaboration with the government.
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev insisted that Kyrgyz-U.S. relations were in no way threatened because of the negotiations over the base. Furthermore, contrary to a statement by the U.S. embassy in Bishkek, the minister denied that official communications had been taking place between the two sides (www.24.kg, February 18). There are reports that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will offer Kyrgyzstan an increase in rent for the base, saying that Bakiyev’s decision could be changed. Gates also stated, however, that the Manas base was not irreplaceable.
Bakiyev’s decision to oust the U.S. base received the support of many people in Kyrgyzstan, as the United States’ image has been deteriorating since the mid 2000s. Most people agreed, however, that the decision on the base was linked to Russia’s $1.7 billion investment in the Kambarata-1 hydropower station and the significant financial assistance it is giving Kyrgyzstan to cope with the economic crisis. Bakiyev and Prime Minister Igor Chudinov, however, denied any link between the Kremlin’s investment and the decision on the Manas base. Both depict Russia’s investment simply as a sign of friendly relations.
All MPs from Ak Zhol supported the presidential decision to close down the U.S. base, claiming that it had caused vast ecological damage and that the situation in Afghanistan was stabilizing, so the base would no longer be needed. Those who admitted that the base would play a more significant role in the coming months openly expressed their doubt that the United States would be able to stabilize Afghanistan. Kabai Karabekov, a member of an inter-parliamentary committee, argued that U.S. actions in Afghanistan would, in fact, lead to the country’s further destabilization (www.24.kg, February 17).
One Ak Zhol MP, Zainidin Kurmanov, admitted that double standards were being used with regard to the U.S. base and the Russian base in Kant. While reports about ecological damage from U.S. airplanes were frequently mentioned by the local mass media, similar problems caused by the Kant base were never discussed (www.akipress.kg, February 18). Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan had failed to use the full potential of the U.S. presence on its territory to strengthen bilateral cooperation
Direct support for the U.S. base is rarely shown by politicians, and anti-American attitudes are often equated with patriotism and bravery in Kyrgyzstan. As one NGO leader told Jamestown, "As in Russia, anti-U.S. sentiments often fulfill a clear state function in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. is blamed for all the instability across the globe, manipulation of oil prices, and the current economic crisis." Such perceptions among the Kyrgyz public foster confidence that Russia is playing a key role in the country’s economic, political, and cultural development.
The few people who support retaining the base in Manas argue that Kyrgyzstan should cooperate equally with all its major partners—Russia, China, and the United States. Ironically, almost no public official has questioned Moscow’s intentions in investing in Kyrgyzstan at a time when it is going through a severe financial crisis itself.
According to Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group, the February 19 vote by Ak Zhol is not final and in the coming 180 days a chance remains to change the decision (www.uznews.net, February 19). The parliament is under Bakiyev’s control and could therefore reverse its decision according to his position. Bakiyev is notorious for frequently changing his mind.
Baktybek Beshimov, an SDPK member of parliament, said that the vote against the base had been held too soon. The uproar about closing the base, he said, had damaged Kyrgyzstan’s international image (www.24.kg, February 18). He also openly criticized Bakiyev for his intention to run for president with Moscow’s support in the next elections. Beshimov directly linked Bakiyev’s desire to prolong his presidency to the decision to close the base.
A series of laws restricting freedom of assembly and freedom of speech adopted throughout 2008 and control of security structures allow Bakiyev to preempt mobilization by opposition forces. Furthermore, thanks to the warm winter, which helped alleviate the energy crisis, the public mood is less aggressive that was anticipated in 2008. Should the president hold early elections, these factors will help him assure continuity of his power.