On August 15, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev promised he will end the contract with Washington on the US Transit Center in Bishkek in 2014, when the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. “The contract for the Transit Center will expire in 2014. Our position is the following: we will notify in six months the US side of the termination of the contract in full compliance with assumed obligations and from 2014 there will be the first major civilian international transport junction,” the prime minister said (www.24.kg, August 15).
Atambayev’s statement raised a fresh wave of speculation in international media about the future of the US presence in the region, attracting attention to his persona as a pro-Russian hardliner. However, what most analysts have missed is that such media frenzy is exactly what the prime minister sought by making such a statement ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for October 30. Over the past few weeks the politician has been engaged in a number of populist projects as part of his presidential campaign, such as erecting new statues in Bishkek, subsidizing labor migrants’ travel to Russia, and promising to join the Russian-led Customs Union.
This is not the first time Atambayev has threatened to oust the transit center. In a similar populist mood shortly after the April 2010 regime change, he promised to reduce the US presence in the country while also praising Russia’s positive involvement in the country. “Russia has been our stable partner, but what did the United States do?” Atambayev asked during a press conference in April 2010 in Bishkek. Since that event, he has rarely touched upon the issue.
Atambayev is frantically seeking to boost both his domestic and regional popularity to prevail over other presidential candidates. Securing Russian support has always been the easiest and safest strategy for Atambayev. The prime minister knows how to leverage the Russian political leadership in times of crisis. During his trip to Moscow earlier this year, he said that Russian fuel exports were a “present” for Kyrgyzstan. To which his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, replied: “This was not a present, but an element of [Russia’s] support” (http://www.ann.kg, July 21). In a symbolic gesture shortly before his trip to Moscow, Atambayev named one of the country’s mountain-peaks in honor of Putin.
Unlike the country’s President, Rosa Otunbayeva, who maintains a balanced approach in foreign policy, Atambayev has neither the skill, nor experience to engage with his Western partners. For him it is easier to broker deals with the Russian leadership than learning new modes of communication with his Western counterparts.
While it is difficult to predict the presidential elections’ outcome, Atambayev hopes to secure victory in the first round. His main competitor is likely to be the leader of the Ata-Jurt Party, Kamchybek Tashiyev. Both Atambayev and Tashiyev are members of the ruling coalition in parliament and have considerable political influence in the country. Atambayev enjoys greater popularity in northern Kyrgyzstan, while Tashiyev’s supporters are concentrated almost entirely in the southern areas of the country.
At this point, a second round seems almost inevitable in the presidential election. Both potential frontrunners will be challenged by other candidates who will be unable to win the election, but may succeed in diminishing their share of the vote. Overall, 83 candidates have registered to run in the elections. Most of them will likely drop out before the vote, since they are unable to meet the requirements to become an official candidate.
Contrary to Atambayev’s stance on Manas, defense ministry officials are showing greater interest in engaging in international security cooperation. On August 16, during a meeting with CENTCOM’s Lieutenant-General Vincent Brooks, the Kyrgyz Defense Minister Abibulla Kudaiberdiyev said that Kyrgyzstan is ready to send its troops to participate in UN military operations across the world (www.24.kg, August 16). The minister also noted that Kyrgyzstan’s Armed Forces have been actively collaborating with the international community and are eager to contribute to the international peacekeeping efforts and continue collaboration on Operation Enduring Freedom.
Kudaiberdiyev’s warm welcome reflects the Kyrgyz government’s search for greater international military assistance, as well as its readiness to collaborate with the West on security issues. The US Transit Center certainly offers opportunities for greater engagement with Bishkek’s international partners. Atambayev’s harsh statement blasting the US presence in Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, should be seen merely as a campaign move by an insecure politician.