Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 99

On May 20, Estonia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry announced that the Kyrgyz government has refused to allow the planned deployment of Baltic soldiers, as part of the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom, in Kyrgyzstan. The ministry stated that the country maintains its readiness to join the operation, depending on whether other countries persuade the Kyrgyz government to consent to the planned Baltic deployment.

Kyrgyzstan had turned down Latvia and Lithuania in April, amid clear indications that Russia stood behind Bishkek’s procrastination and ultimate refusal. The three Baltic states had, with U.S. approval, planned to deploy a thirty- to thirty-five-strong unit to the U.S. air station Peter Ganci and Manas airport outside Bishkek for a one-year period. The Baltic unit was to perform logistical missions as a component of the Danish contingent. The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian parliaments had in February already approved the deployment. The three squads–composed of ten to fourteen soldiers each–underwent advanced training at the Karup air base in Denmark, preparatory to the mission. May 20 was the planned deployment date.

The three Baltic states had as early as January/early February proposed to Bishkek to sign the necessary status-of-forces agreements (SOFAs) with the Kyrgyz government, for subsequent ratification by the Kyrgyz parliament. All the countries that deployed their troops at Peter Ganci and Manas–beginning with the United States, and including Denmark–have followed this legal procedure. The Kyrgyz government had been remarkably cooperative with the other countries in the U.S.-led coalition, but gave the Balts the bureaucratic runaround. The three Baltic states sent special envoys in March, April and May to Bishkek in vain attempts to move the procedure forward.

Otherwise amiable Bishkek officials hinted at the reasons behind the deadlock. They would tell the Baltic envoys that certain unnamed countries were objecting to the participation of “former Soviet republics” in the American-led force in Kyrgyzstan, or in a “NATO operation”–as Enduring Freedom is commonly and erroneously described by Moscow. The officials in Bishkek would also refer to “negative thinking in a certain big country” about Baltic soldiers being deployed with Western troops in Central Asia.

Ultimately, the Kyrgyz government told the three Baltic states in April and May that they had missed a February deadline for the signing and ratification of the SOFAs. This claim is not only wrong and belated, but also runs counter to the purposes of the antiterrorist coalition. Countries cannot be arbitrarily barred from participating in ongoing antiterrorist operations on the retroactive pretext that they had missed some presumed deadline some time ago. The Balts made this objection to the Kyrgyz officials. But the real addressee of this objection has to be Moscow. The Kyrgyz government had already welcomed some 2,000 U.S. and other Western soldiers, and is pledged to accommodate more than 3,000. Rejecting only the thirty or thirty-five Balts was clearly not Bishkek’s own idea.

The hesitation and delay in conveying the rejection suggests that Bishkek may have attempted to resist the pressure from Moscow. After September 11, Moscow had to accept both the fact of U.S. deployments in Central Asia and the prospect of the Baltic states’ admission to NATO. But it must have regarded the idea of a Baltic deployment alongside “NATO forces” in Central Asia as an intolerable symbol of Baltic emancipation.

Since April, Moscow has been applying pressure on Kyrgyzstan to limit the duration of the coalition forces’ deployment and to join in Russian countermeasures. The pressure takes the form of activating pro-Moscow political groups in Kyrgyzstan, orchestrating hostile press coverage of the U.S. presence, linking Kyrgyz debt rescheduling with time limits on the coalition forces’ presence, and corralling Kyrgyzstan into the newly created CIS Collective Security Organization, which is designed to place member countries’ militaries under Russian control and allow the entry of Russian troops on the territory of member countries. This is the political context in which Kyrgyzstan finally had to notify the Baltic states that they may not deploy their soldiers to serve with the antiterrorist coalition forces there (BNS, May 20; see the Monitor, January 2, 16, March 7, April 23-24, 26, May 1, 15; Fortnight in Review, May 17).