Pro-Russian circles in Kyrgyzstan have begun rearguard political actions to create difficulties for the American forces deployed there. While the American and allied troop presence and infrastructure continue to grow, the obstructions appear designed to slow that growth, render that presence unpopular, erode its legal basis, make it politically difficult for President Askar Akaev to prolong that presence for a second year when the first expires, or pressure him into attaching strings that do not now exist.
The anti-U.S. political sniping began in a coordinated manner toward the end of February in the Russian-language press, with the largest-circulation political daily Vecherny Bishkek leading the campaign. The themes seemed to be the same day after day in most of the newspapers involved. News stories and editorials complained that the U.S. air force station at Manas airport takes up too much space (32 hectares), that checkpoints around the station inconvenience and “humiliate” local residents (those aggrieved and interviewed being mostly local Russians), that the American planes are too noisy and spoil the environment, that the U.S. Air Force does not fully pay the agreed-upon US$7,000 fee for each landing or takeoff, that U.S. military vehicles damage the roads, that the Americans don’t spend money on local goods and services, and that the U.S. military station attracts prostitutes.
At this stage, the complaints were generally nonpolitical and appeared designed to instill resentment among ordinary local Russian readers, rather than the politically active public. Although almost a dozen European countries allied to the United States are deploying military units at Manas, the ostensible complaints targeted the Americans only. The slogan “Yankee Go Home” did occasionally rear its head in these newspapers. The U.S. embassy in Bishkek and the public relations office at Manas air force station called news conferences and debunked the allegations without difficulty, but it seems far from certain whether the rebuttals could register with those segments of the public that the newspapers had targeted.
A number of pro-Moscow politicians joined in the sniping or turned obstructive, and so did certain opponents of Akaev who are not pro-Russian but whose idea of opposition is to resist almost any presidential policy. Some opposition deputies–mainly but not only leftist and Russian-oriented–absented themselves from parliament or obstructed its work in order to delay parliamentary ratification of status-of-forces agreements with several Western countries, allied to the United States and deploying their forces at Manas. As a result, some Western units were deployed after the parliamentary foreign relations committee, rather than the parliament itself had approved the respective status-of-forces agreements.
From the prison cell in which a flawed trial had placed him, Akaev’s rival Feliks Kulov criticized the president’s decision to host U.S. forces and called for the deployment of Russian forces in Kyrgyzstan to offset the American presence. Kulov’s stand accords with his political profile as a former Soviet police general, dyed-in-the-wool Chekist and ally of leftist groups in Kyrgyzstan. By the same token it shows the futility of Washington’s efforts during the Clinton administration to treat Kulov not simply as a victim of political justice, but to recast him as a pro-democracy figure, place his case at the top of the agenda of U.S.-Kyrgyz relations, and at times turn the Kulov case into an acid test of those relations.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, the radical Islamist underground movement Hezb-e Tahrir has disseminated some leaflets denouncing the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan. But these actions have been sporadic and seem ineffective. Apart from local Russian newspapers and Islamist radical tracts, few if any sources would take a negative view of the relations between the U.S. contingent and the host society. On the contrary, many independent reports show that the American military has begun working with local subcontractors, buying goods and services, and hiring local residents for dollar-paid civilian jobs in this high-unemployment economy. Political sniping in the local Russian press seems unlikely to become a major irritant, unless Moscow and its local supporters decide to make trouble for Akaev when the status-of-forces agreement with the United States comes up for renewal (Roundup based on recent reporting by Vecherny Bishkek, Kabar, Kyrgyzpress International, Argumenty i Fakty Kyrgyzstan).
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