The two-day summit in Moscow between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev failed to attract significant attention among the Central Asian states. The summit was seen in Central Asia as a purely U.S.-Russia affair. The event did not promise any drastic changes in either U.S. or Russian policy in any of the region’s countries. Obama talked about the U.S. and Russian disagreement over Georgia, however the U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan was not mentioned. Any implications of the event are therefore more likely to be seen in the long-term, should both countries continue their efforts to find points for collaboration.
Most in Central Asia watched the Obama-Medvedev summit on Russian TV channels. Moscow-controlled delivery of the news conveyed a positive image of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who agreed to "help" the U.S. anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. Russian language newspapers regarded Moscow’s consent to allow U.S. use of its airspace for cargo to Afghanistan as well as both countries’ pact to decrease their nuclear arsenals, as primarily a Russian achievement in the negotiations (www.lenta.ru, www.vesti.ru, www.gazeta.kz, July 7-8).
Furthermore, most Russian newspapers described Obama as "easy-going," though unsuccessful in introducing "Obama-mania" to Moscow (www.lenta.ru, July 8). Some newspapers even mocked Obama for accidentally referring to Putin as president.
Obama’s visit to Moscow was eclipsed by other issues which are important for the Central Asian states. Kazakhstan’s media is discussing the possible implications of the ongoing unrest in Xinjiang and what this might entail for the country. Several Kazakh experts raised concern over the safety of ethnic Kazakhs living in western China. Kyrgyzstan is currently absorbed in discussions centering on the upcoming presidential elections. In Tajikistan, rumors about the Tajik government’s negotiations with the United States on the use of Aini airport has preoccupied local experts. The closure of Moscow’s major market Cherkisovsky has caused widespread anxiety within Central Asia. Many migrants from the region work at the market and are worried about losing their jobs.
In the meantime, the Kyrgyz press is actively discussing what the new status of the Manas airbase means for the country. Two weeks ago the Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, after four months of bargaining on the status of U.S. troops at Manas, announced that the base will become a transit center for the United States. The international community’s approval of the Kyrgyz government’s decision to retain Manas was highlighted in local newspapers. However, no commentary links the new Kyrgyz-U.S. deal with the prospect of greater U.S.-Russia collaboration in Afghanistan.
Russia’s increased support for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan might have a long-term impact on Kyrgyzstan’s relations with both the United States and Russia. Should collaboration between Washington and Moscow strengthen further in this area, it will strip Bakiyev of his bargaining power. Previously, Bakiyev was able to present his regime as a victim of Russian pressure and he consequently tried to increase Washington’s payment for renting Manas. In the new dynamics, however, Bakiyev will be compelled to follow more closely the logic of U.S.-Russian cooperation. Likewise, should Moscow and Washington stumble over collaboration in Afghanistan, Bishkek will regain its modest, yet distractive geopolitical leverage.
Other Central Asian states’ relations with Russia might change, should Moscow play an enhanced role in the Afghanistan campaign. Any possible changes within the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Sino-Russian dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) might prove pivotal. Both organizations have seen Afghanistan as a potential area of engagement for their anti-terrorist structures. Afghanistan represents an opportunity for the CSTO to minimize the importance of the U.S. within Central Asia. Whereas, for the SCO, which includes Afghanistan as part of its contact group, the stability of the country has become an important element in the organization’s agenda. Moscow, with its new commitment to support the diversification of U.S. military and non-lethal transit routes will most likely push for greater cooperation over Afghanistan among its Central Asian partners.
In effect, within Central Asia, the Obama-Medvedev summit was of little concern. Since the new deal over the Manas base was reached two weeks before the meeting, the Central Asian countries were only the passive observers of the U.S.-Russian efforts to improve their bilateral relations. Russian media outlets broadcasting in Central Asia have already shifted their attention to the G8 summit in Rome.