Russia has moved to boost security ties with Kyrgyzstan in a perceived bid to guarantee the loyalty of the Central Asian state, once considered to be among Moscow’s most trusted allies in that strategically important region.
Russia and Kyrgyzstan held joint anti-terrorism exercises October 2-5 in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. Some 350 special force troops, combat vehicles, artillery, Su-25 jetfighters, and Mi-8 helicopters took part in the maneuvers.
Officially, the South-2006 exercises were aimed at practicing coordination of combat units in a joint operation against suspected terrorists, the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry said. The drill was also supposed to improve the combat skills of military personnel operating in mountainous areas.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Felix Kulov, and Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov attended the exercises. During the drill, Isakov reiterated the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a military-political institution. “The CSTO was set up so that [members] can help one another in action rather than dealing with military or terrorist threats on paper,” he explained (RIA-Novosti, October 5).
Ivanov said that the anti-terrorism exercises in Kyrgyzstan were designed to practice interaction between special force units against a backdrop of increased activity by radical Islamic groups in Central Asia. He urged the two countries to “effectively join forces in countering terrorism and extremism” (RIA-Novosti, October 4).
Ivanov also said Russia was ready to provide military-technical assistance to all its allies but did not want to force anyone to accept the aid. So far, Russia has provided military equipment worth 15 million rubles (about $560,000) to Kyrgyzstan as part of their military cooperation agreements (RIA-Novosti, October 5).
Ivanov praised military cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and said Russia would continue to develop the Kant base. He assured Bishkek that Moscow is committed to the facility, declaring, “We will continue making major investments in the development of the Kant base” (RIA-Novosti, October 4).
In October 2003, Russia set up an airbase in Kant, about 20 miles west of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The base is supposed to enable Russian combat aircraft to provide close air support for the ground units of CSTO member states.
The base is also seen as being capable of protecting Russia’s economic interests in Kyrgyzstan. For example, in 2002 Russia and Kyrgyzstan formed a $10 million uranium joint venture. The venture’s Kara-Baltinsk processing plant in Kyrgyzstan is intended to process raw uranium from the Zarechnoye field in southern Kazakhstan, where reserves are estimated at 19,000 tons.
Economics remain a significant factor in Moscow’s relationship with Kyrgyzstan. At a summit meeting in Moscow on September 5, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev agreed to boost economic cooperation, including energy-sector projects and greater investment. Moscow also agreed to restructure Kyrgyzstan’s $184 million debt and extended the repayment period up to 33 years.
During Bakiyev’s official visit to Moscow in April 2006, Moscow and Bishkek reiterated their allegiance to the bilateral friendship and cooperation treaty of June 1992 and the “eternal friendship” declaration of July 2000.
Trade between Russia and Kyrgyzstan increased by some 20% in 2005, according to official figures. Bilateral trade has nearly tripled since 2000 to reach $514 million last year. As Kyrgyzstan’s top trade partner, Russia is responsible for roughly one-third of Kyrgyzstan’s total foreign trade turnover.
Kyrgyz authorities have indicated economic cooperation with Russia is a government priority. Kyrgyzstan was particularly interested in Russian companies assisting the construction of the Kambaratin-1 and Kambaratin-2 hydropower plants.
In terms of security cooperation, Moscow and Bishkek have long pledged to combat international terrorism within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and reiterated the importance of the Russian air base in Kant as “an important factor of peace and stability in Central Asian region.”
As one of the SCO founding members, Bishkek officially recognizes the regional bloc as one of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy priorities, Bakiyev announced last June. The SCO is an important and efficient tool of confidence building in the region, he noted (Interfax, June 13).
In the meantime, the Kyrgyz leadership has been careful to avoid giving any impression that it is drifting toward Beijing. In September 2005, Bakiyev announced in Moscow that there had been no contacts with China concerning the alleged creation of a Chinese military base in Kyrgyzstan.
In addition, during the security drill in Kyrgyzstan, Russian Defense Minister Ivanov dismissed rumors that Russia and China were planning an anti-Western military alliance. He described Russia and China as “strategic partners,” adding that Moscow sought to develop bilateral cooperation with China as well as multilateral ties within the SCO. This cooperation “does not threaten other countries and does not aim at creating a new military-political union in Eurasia,” he said (Interfax-AVN, October 5).
Subsequently, both Russia and Kyrgyzstan have been keen to avoid claims that their security cooperation could have any anti-Western overtones.