Russia Drums Up Support for Its Airbase in Kyrgyzstan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 236

Five years after its establishment, Moscow will more than double its spending on the Russian military airbase in Kyrgyzstan’s Kant city. In 2009 and 2010 Moscow will spend 1.7 billion rubles ($60 million) compared with the 640 million rubles ($22.7 million) spent from 2003 through 2008.

This development comes shortly after the Kyrgyz government concluded that the airbase had been abiding by the bilateral agreement between Russia and Kyrgyzstan and was of strategic importance for the country (, December 5). The hike in the funding comes after Kazakhstan agreed to provide military airfields for NATO’s forces in Afghanistan (see EDM, December 5). With the new support, the airbase might soon attain a new status, becoming Russia’s major military hub in the region. This decision comes at a time when U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to expand involvement in Afghanistan, which is likely to increase the role of the Central Asian states in assisting NATO and U.S. forces.

Furthermore, Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has been warily observing China’s growing interest in becoming involved in Afghanistan as well though the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Russia is also a member. Traditionally, Russia has been the main player in protecting the borders between Afghanistan and the post-Soviet Central Asian states and in generating a collective approach toward fighting insurgency from the south.

Talk that the SCO might develop a joint strategy in Afghanistan has been bandied about both informally and at official summits. Pan Guang, head of the SCO Studies Center in Shanghai, argues that it is only logical for China to participate in building security in neighboring Afghanistan, since Beijing has been involved in distant places such as Sierra Leone and other African states (presentation at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, May 22).

The increase in funding will boost Russia’s popularity in Kyrgyzstan further. Most Kyrgyz officials agree that the airbase is a guarantor of security in the country and will offer protection should there be a repetition of clashes similar to those in 1999 and 2000 in Batken Oblast, when the Kyrgyz military had to fight guerillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The airbase is officially a strategic component of the CSTO’s Collective Rapid Reaction Forces, along with the Russian-controlled 201st Motor Rifle Division in Tajikistan.

What began as a group of 25 to 30 Russian officers in 2003 has grown to a 700-men contingent with 100 Kyrgyz military personnel, and more troops are likely to be stationed there in the future (, October 24). In March 2005 the airbase helped ousted president Askar Akayev and members of his family escape from Kyrgyzstan. Other than this, the airbase has never been used for strategic purposes.

Local journalists must obtain a special permit from the Russian Defense Ministry to be able to enter the airbase, and few public reports are available about developments there. Mostly positive news about the airbase is transmitted through the local Russian-speaking mass media outlets, thereby favorably influencing public opinion about the airbase.

Most of the extra funds will be spent on reconstruction and upgrading the airbase. Since its establishment, the airbase has stimulated the local economy in Kant, providing jobs for many local residents. The infrastructure around the airbase is rapidly expanding. New residential buildings and a kindergarten are planned to be constructed in the coming months. A few other public facilities, such as schools and hospitals, have been built as well.

The substantial increase of payments for the airbase will most likely transform the status of the airbase both in Kyrgyzstan and the CSTO (, December 5). It remains unknown what the new status will be, but it will probably be used for greater involvement in Afghanistan. For Moscow it remains imperative to retain its status quo as the main player protecting Central Asians from terrorism and drug trafficking coming from Afghanistan.

The airbase’s potential role in Kyrgyzstan’s political scene also remains unknown. Whether it will support incumbent President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in his bid for reelection in 2010 or collaborate with the opposition forces will become clearer next year. Unlike Akayev, Bakiyev allowed the spread of anti-Western rhetoric in Kyrgyzstan, especially with his demand after the SCO summit in August 2006 for deadlines on the U.S. military base’s presence in Kyrgyzstan and after the accidental killing of a Kyrgyz truck driver by a U.S. serviceman. In both cases Russia emerged as a positive partner. By offering greater funding, Moscow is becoming an even more attractive partner for the Kyrgyz ruling regime.