As part of an effort to cement Moscow’s relations with newly elected Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has offered a significant increase in the quality of bilateral military assistance Russia’s affords to the country. Ivanov’s comments were made ahead of his trip to Bishkek on September 26. He also offered to hold bilateral anti-terrorist exercises with Kyrgyzstan in 2006. As Moscow builds on its presence in the country, through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) airbase at Kant, extending and deepening the scope of its assistance efforts to its Central Asian neighbor will entail allowing a degree of control over the nature of future aid to shift into the hands of Kyrgyz officials. Moscow has now clarified that though it is willing to budget for increased aid packages to help its ally, the decisions on the details must come from the Kyrgyz Ministry of Defense (Interfax, September 26; RTR Russia TV, September 21).
“For 2006 we will definitely include in the budget of the Russian Federation funds for military-technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan, whereas it will not be us who decide what should be supplied. Our policy of principle is that Kyrgyzstan will decide which items it will get,” Ivanov admitted. Kyrgyz defense officials have often lamented the lack of such procedures in the past; making specific requests always fell on deaf ears. Such policy shifts, incremental as they may be, represent a recognition within Russian defense and security circles that Moscow’s approach to its Central Asian neighbors must take into account the realities of the post-9/11 security environment and the entry of the U.S. military into the region.
The changes themselves seem small, but should not be ignored. In terms of military exercises, the Kyrgyz have benefited in the past from Russian involvement in exercises, though aimed politically at upholding the multilateral bodies favored by Moscow including the CIS and CSTO. Now Ivanov’s approach is more conciliatory and open to the needs of client security benefactors. Anti-terrorist exercises may be crafted more specifically to address Kyrgyz security concerns. Russia’s justification for its base in Kant not only rests on the security threats to the Kyrgyz state, but Ivanov almost juxtaposes the divergent handling of the military presence in the country with the U.S. base Manas. Ivanov explained that Russia is investing in the infrastructure at Kant, and contributing in a positive way to the local economy, “Russian officers receive monetary allowances there. We employ the local population and purchase locally manufactured food products for our servicemen,” he suggested (Interfax, September 22).
Bishkek, perhaps more importantly, assesses its bilateral military relations with Russia in a slowly developing context. Bakiyev, for instance, shares Ivanov’s assessment concerning the strategic significance of Kant, but wants more from Moscow. On September 21 Bakiyev stated rather predictably, “I have always regarded Russia as a strategic partner. All the bilateral agreements signed before will be fulfilled, and all our commitments will be met by Kyrgyzstan in full. I hope military and technical cooperation between our countries will continue to develop dynamically and effectively in the interests of the security of Russia and Kyrgyzstan.” (Itar-Tass, September 21). While seeking to allay fears of the color revolutions among critics in Moscow and to establish his credentials as a reliable partner for the Kremlin, Bakiyev is equally sending out feelers for the potential escalation of assistance from Moscow in future.
Bakiyev is especially interested in the prospect of joint peacekeeping capabilities with Russia. “Our servicemen, jointly with their Russian fellow servicemen, will increase their military preparedness to maintain peace and security not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in the Central Asian region,” Bakiyev highlighted. Joint peacekeeping exercises with Russia are as high on Bakiyev’s agenda as anti-terrorist exercises, again targeting local security needs. He believes this could in theory extend to the whole region, though in practical terms the difficulties involved in deploying joint peacekeeping forces elsewhere within Central Asia would be great (Kabar News Agency, September 21).
As Kyrgyzstan is already deeply interconnected with Russia for trade and assistance, as well as security support, bilateral plans now seem focused on moving beyond Russia’s attempts to steer Bishkek away from the West. Clarifying its long-term commitment to the Kant base, and reaffirming Russia’s security interests in the region in general, Bakiyev wants more Kyrgyz-tailored Russian security assistance. Bakiyev will utilize existing economic ties with Russia, seeking to stimulate these and promote his own security agenda; he would like to secure Moscow’s help in reviving the former Lenin machine-building plant to manufacture military products. “Russia’s potential for investing in Kyrgyzstan is being used insufficiently. We will begin to draw up projects in the next two or three days to come. Our country’s economy needs reviving,” he explained (Kabar News Agency, September 21).
At the geopolitical level, Moscow understands well that it required little effort to gradually draw Uzbekistan away from its apparently Western orientation. A similar policy would fail in dealing with Kyrgyzstan, therefore the Russian Ministry of Defense will exact the precise requirements for building the type of bilateral military relations desired by Bishkek. It will take time to formulate, but it supplies a cheap alternative to the enormous costs should Bishkek transform its military and security structures into something recognizable by Western organizations.