Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 78

On April 19, five days before his scheduled visit to Russia, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev threatened on national television to close the U.S.-led Manas air base by June 1, unless the United States agrees by that date to sign a new agreement on terms demanded by Kyrgyzstan. While conceding that the Manas base had contributed to stabilization in Afghanistan and overall international security, Bakiyev noted, “Our partners in regional and other organizations have expressed certain concerns over the presence of the U.S. base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan” — an allusion to Russia within the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as well as Russia and China within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Bakiyev claimed that U.S. procrastination on Kyrgyzstan’s demands since last July to change the terms of the basing agreement “causes concern to Kyrgyz public opinion” — an oblique warning that the authorities may start propagandizing the alleged public concern (Kabar, Interfax, April 19).

Bakiyev did not specify the conditions to signing a new agreement on the Manas base. However, on April 18, Minister of Foreign Affairs Alikbek Jekshenkulov stated in a Russian media interview that Kyrgyzstan is asking for a “hundredfold increase” in the rent paid by the United States for using the base (Interfax, April 18; see EDM, April 20).

The demand for a time limit to the U.S. military presence in Central Asia was raised by Russia and China at the July 2005 SCO summit. The rent issue has been under bilateral Kyrgyz-U.S. discussion since autumn 2005, when Bakiyev raised it at Moscow’s instigation. Bakiyev and other Kyrgyz officials let it be known publicly that they were demanding rent and other compensation payments “dozens of times higher” than those stipulated in the December 2001 agreement with the United States on the Manas base. In December 2005, Bakiyev publicly asked for $200 million per year from the Pentagon (see EDM, September 22, 29, 2005; November 17, 2005; January 26, February 21).

Most recently, “dozens of times” escalated to “hundredfold increase” in the rhetoric. At present, a Kyrgyz working group is preparing yet another “economic substantiation” to submit to the United States for the increase in the overall compensation package. The Pentagon-paid rent is said to have been shared since 2002 among the Manas airport company, the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry, and local authorities for the rented land plot. Apart from rent, payments for services to the base have also been made to various local and foreign contractors (Interfax, April 18).

The timing of Bakiyev’s and Jekshenkulov’s announcements, practically on the eve of their scheduled visit to Russia, seems to indicate continuing close coordination. Bakiyev and Jekshenkulov have displayed a deep subservience to Moscow since coming to office in 2005. Airing the “hundredfold” demand and invoking a potential June 1 deadline on the U.S. presence at this particular moment seems designed to signal that Moscow ultimately holds the key to Kyrgyz consent to prolongation and the terms of the U.S. access to the Manas base.

Moscow’s tactical intentions regarding the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan are not fully clear. Its public assurances that the Manas base is a matter for Kyrgyzstan and the United States to settle bilaterally — as General Yuri Baluyevsky, Chief of Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, has just declared (Interfax, April 19) — cannot be taken literally.

From any rational standpoint, Moscow has no reason to feel uncomfortable with the U.S.-led coalition’s base in Kyrgyzstan. Russia may choose to utilize this issue as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States, “allowing” Kyrgyzstan to continue hosting the base in return for some U.S. concession elsewhere. For its part, Beijing might feel uncomfortable with the presence of U.S. tactical aviation in the proximity of strategic missile sites in Xinjiang. Thus, Moscow can use this issue as a bargaining chip with Beijing as well.

Moscow will probably seek to place limitations on U.S. forces and operations at Manas if the United States retains access under a new agreement with Kyrgyzstan. Russia is also making certain that Kyrgyzstan as sovereign host country disallows any use of the Manas base for U.S. missions other than those in Afghanistan. Thus, both Jekshenkulov and the Kyrgyz ambassador in Tehran, Avazbek Atakhanov, have repeatedly ruled out the use of Manas by the United States in the event of conflict with Iran (Interfax, Itar-Tass, March 6, 19). Geographically, the Manas base is not necessarily suitable for use in that contingency. The lost Karshi-Khanabad base of the United States in Uzbekistan seemed, geographically at least, clearly more suitable than Manas for use in Iran-related scenarios.

With Russia held partly responsible for instigating Uzbekistan to terminate the U.S. access to Karshi-Khanabad, Moscow will not want to be seen as pressuring the United States out of Kyrgyzstan too obviously or too soon. Russia may, rather, opt for a “decent interval” to mitigate Washington’s possible reaction to a Moscow-instigated Kyrgyz squeeze on Manas.

Meanwhile, Russia is augmenting its own air base in Kyrgyzstan at Kant, which is situated some 30 kilometers from Manas and has the ability to interfere with flight plans of the U.S. and allied force at Manas. The Kant base is billed as a “collective” CIS/CSTO undertaking, and it supposedly provides security for Kyrgyzstan (whereas Manas is officially barred from that role). On those pretenses, and in contrast to Manas, the Russian base pays no rent or other forms of compensation to Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan itself pays the bills for services it provides to the Russian base. In this situation, Kyrgyz officials are trying to milk the Pentagon with Moscow’s encouragement.

Kyrgyzstan regards the U.S. compensation package for use of Manas as a vital source of revenue. The $200 million in annual compensation it seeks is equivalent to the country’s annual budget (RIA, April 20). However, U.S. economic leverage on Kyrgyzstan in this issue has diminished since December 2001 when the basing agreement was signed, and is rapidly shrinking this year because of Russia’s return as a powerful economic patron to Kyrgyzstan.

On the day when Bakiyev aired his warning to the United States on television, Rosatom head (and former prime minister) Sergei Kiriyenko arrived in Bishkek in his capacity as Russian co-chairman of the Russia-Kyrgyzstan intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. Previewing Bakiyev’s visit to Russia, Kiriyenko held out prospects for $1 billion worth of investments in developing Kyrgyzstan’s hydropower (the country’s main resource) as well as reviving uranium mining in the country. Russia-Kyrgyzstan trade is set to reach almost $1 billion in 2006, double the 2005 level. Kyrgyz migrants’ remittances to the country from Russia were recorded at $200 million in 2005 and seem set to grow (Interfax, April 19, 20). The Kremlin will undoubtedly announce some massive projects during Bakiyev’s upcoming visit there. Against this backdrop, U.S. payments for the presence at Manas are no longer as crucial to Kyrgyzstan as they previously were.

Irrespective of how the base issue is resolved in the short term, the Kyrgyz squeeze on Manas as well as the Uzbek eviction from Karshi-Khanabad should lead to a recalibration of U.S. policy priorities in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries. With the major exception of Kazakhstan, the U.S. strategic gains and political influence achieved after 9/11 seem to be eroding in the region, and direct Western access to the region’s energy resources does not seem to advance.