Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 141

U.S. Defense Secretary to revisit basing issue on visit to Bishkek

On July 20, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Defense announced that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to arrive on July 25. Rumsfeld will discuss the future of the U.S.-led air base Manas with the new Kyrgyz leadership, in the wake of Moscow- and Beijing-inspired demands to set a deadline on the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces in Central Asia. Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Michèle Aliot-Marie is arriving in Tajikistan on July 22 hoping to firm up the arrangements for French use of the Dushanbe and possibly also Kulob airports.

For its part, on July 20 Moscow again urged the Central Asian governments, through Collective Security Treaty Organization Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha, to raise with the United States the issue of a deadline to the U.S.-led coalition’s presence, in line with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) declaration at the July 5 summit in Kazakhstan (see EDM, July 6).

“Bullied by two big countries” [Russia and China], as General Richard Myers, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan now seem to be trying to wiggle out of a Russo-Chinese vise. In the wake of the July 5 summit, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Minister of Foreign Affairs Roza Otunbayeva toed Moscow’s line and repeated, on Kyrgyzstan’s behalf, the demand for a deadline to the U.S. presence. Other Kyrgyz officials, however, have begun finessing that demand, even reinterpreting it to permit continuation of the status quo.

Thus, Bakiyev’s press spokesman, Avazbek Atakhanov, argues that the SCO summit’s declaration only referred to coalition bases in Central Asia as a region, without naming any country. The implication is that Kyrgyzstan is not bound by that document. The spokesman’s interpretation in effect reverses Bakiyev’s acceptance of that document with a public bow to “Vladimir Vladimirovich” [Putin]. Atakhanov stated that he was speaking on Bakiyev’s behalf. The president himself, however, has yet to adjust his position. (Interfax, Kyrgyz Radio, July 18).

Some key members of the ruling circles seem inclined to approve the further operation of the American air base without significant changes. They signal such a preference as part of larger calculations to continue Kyrgyzstan’s established policy of balancing among Russia, China, and the United States. “This is where the interests of the three great powers intersect. We have to ensure that our security and economic interests are protected,” said Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council Secretary, Miroslav Niyazov, citing the government’s intention to “do its best to avoid spoiling relations with Washington.” In a similar vein, Bakiyev’s adviser Bolotbek Shamshiyev went on record to rule out any significant change of policy toward the United States, including on the issue of the air base (AFP, July 16; Institute on War and Peace Reporting Report no. 396, July 15).

The prospective Kyrgyz Prime Minister, Felix Kulov, went on record early on as favoring both the continuation of the status quo regarding the American air base and the introduction of a Russian military “presence” (as distinct from base) in Osh. “Kyrgyzstan should conduct a multi-layered policy, to become a country where relations between the great powers meet and harmonize.” Along with some other officials, Kulov cites the ongoing, worldwide terrorist attacks as an argument for the continuing operation of Manas: “Events in London show that international terrorism can not be defeated any time soon. The issue of a time-line [for Manas] is closely linked with such events that are taking place not only on our continent, but also elsewhere” (Kyrgyz TV Channel One, July 14; AFP, July 16).

Kyrgyzstan’s Acting Defense Minister, General Ismail Isakov, met with U.S. Ambassador Stephen Young on July 20 in preparation for Rumsfeld’s visit. The Ministry’s press release — and local reports based on it — seems to contain the outline of a solution. The United States would be expected to continue financial and security assistance to Kyrgyzstan for an extended period, in return for open-ended American use of the Manas air base (Kabar news agency, Interfax, July 20).