On May 19, a Russian delegation led by Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the State Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States, met with Kyrgyzstan’s Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Bishkek. A number of Russian news agencies reported that they discussed many bilateral issues, including introducing dual citizenship and stationing a new Russian military base in Osh under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (Regnum.ru, May 20). During his visit to the Russian consulate in Osh, Modesta Kolerov, head of the Russian President’s Department of Interregional and Cultural Relations, noted that a new Russian military base would include up to 1,000 personnel (Akipress, May 23).
However, representatives from Bakiyev’s administration and from the CSTO secretariat deny that a new Russian base in Kyrgyzstan is under consideration (Kabar, May 23). The Kyrgyz interim government likely hopes to delay important decisions such as this until after the presidential election on July 10. Other candidates and voters could certainly take issue with the government’s alleged agreement to allow another foreign military base in Kyrgyzstan.
Bakiyev emphasized that dual citizenship with Russia would benefit Kyrgyz citizens. But in order to reach agreement on this issue, the Kyrgyz government will likely need to allow a new Russian military base on its territory in the future. Felix Kulov, first deputy prime minister, has already indicated that he would support plans for the new Russian base. Kulov has always argued for a multi-directional foreign policy that allows cooperation with Russia, the United States, and China. He was an outspoken critic of the Akayev government’s opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq that undermined Kyrgyz-U.S. relations.
The Russian air force base in Kant, located 30 kilometers from Bishkek, was inaugurated in October 2003 following the increased U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan. The Russian base was instrumental in organizing large-scale regional military exercises in 2004 and 2005 between CSTO member states. The military exercises were organized on the basis of the “Batken-3” scenario, in which Russian combat planes participated in the exercises, allowing many Central Asian soldiers the chance to acquaint themselves with the latest technology. Such military activities were met with enthusiasm from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Several countries, including Uzbekistan, regularly send observers to the CSTO exercises.
However, local experts have criticized the presence of the Russian base for its general incongruity with the security situation in Kyrgyzstan and the Central Asian region, as it has never served any practical function since its introduction. In fact, the only time the military base in Kant has played a political role was to facilitate the escape of ousted president Askar Akayev and his family members on March 24, the day that protestors seized the government headquarters in Bishkek. In addition to symbolizing better international relations, the Russian and U.S. bases have boosted trade in Bishkek and its environs. Hundreds of local residents are employed at the bases.
Many analysts have argued that instead of welcoming more foreign bases, Kyrgyzstan should develop better intelligence-sharing mechanisms with neighboring states and increase the level of professionalism among its border guards to prevent insurgents from entering Kyrgyz territory. Accordingly, local military personnel must be trained for small-scale reactionary activities in mountain ranges as opposed to large-scale military operations involving heavy armament.
Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to see any more border conflicts instigated by small armies, similar to those in Batken in 1999-2000. Military analyst Aziz Soltobayev and others argue that the series of suicide bombers in Uzbekistan last year showed that individual terrorist attacks are more likely to take place across the region (Cacianalyst.org, May 19, 2004). There are reports that religious leaflets are being distributed throughout Bishkek, and already five Kyrgyz citizens have been arrested for promoting the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Akipress, May 23). The number of incidents between Uzbek citizens and Kyrgyz border guards has recently increased at border checkpoints.
Last week, after thousands of Uzbek refugees fled to Kyrgyz territory following the May 13 crackdown in Andijan, the Kyrgyz parliament instructed the government to enhance border security, especially at the southern frontier (Azzatyk, May 23). On May 23 Bakiyev signed a decree to transform the Kyrgyz border guards into border troops (Kabar, May 23). This, according to the acting president, will allow for better protection of national borders. The government likely will launch a more extensive reform of the border regime in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the situation inside Kyrgyzstan appears to be stabilizing after the Bakiyev-Kulov agreement to form a political union rather than compete as rivals in the presidential election (see EDM, May 17). In his speech on May 21, Bakiyev said that the new government would need two or three years to improve the economic wellbeing of the poorest strata of society. Bakiyev and Kulov also mentioned that they had agreed to ban their family members — wives, children, brothers, and sisters — from leading any business activities inside Kyrgyzstan (Kabar, May 23). This move should help prevent the corruption and nepotism that contributed to the downfall of the Akayev regime.