Speculation has recently mounted that Bishkek will agree to a request from Moscow to open a new Russian military base in southern Kyrgyzstan. On July 21 the Kyrgyz ambassador to Kazakhstan, Dzhanysh Rustenbekov, said the decision might be taken at the informal Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit in Issyk-Kul on July 31-August 1. Rustenbekov sought to downplay the issue, referring to Russia as the country’s "key partner" (www.akipress.com, July 21).
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent a high level delegation to Bishkek on July 7, including the Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov. In addition to economic issues, ranging from Moscow’s $2 billion loan to the country and future energy cooperation, security featured prominently on the agenda. Although the meetings were held behind closed doors, with only limited reporting on their content, it appears that the formation of the CSTO’s Collective Operational Reaction Forces (CORF) and the plan to open a new Russian base in either Osh or Batken was discussed. On July 10 at the G8 summit, Medvedev refused to comment on the new base: "Such arrangements cannot be announced in advance, we can neither deny nor confirm anything here," he said (Interfax, July 10).
According to a Kremlin source the informal summit will mainly discuss "all issues of CSTO activity connected specifically, with the situation in Afghanistan and with the CORF." The CSTO Press Secretary Vitaly Strugovets explained that no formal agreements were scheduled to be adopted. One source within the presidential staff in Bishkek, however, disclosed that under the framework of the new CORF, discussions were underway to establish a base for Russian airborne forces (VDV), to be located in southern Kyrgyzstan, and that this might involve only one VDV battalion (www.gazeta.ru, July 15).
Reaction to this development was muted within Kazakhstan. Yerzhan Ashikbayev, the official spokesman for Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said: "Kazakhstan considers the possibility of the opening of a new Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan a matter for the two countries and welcomes any action that contributes to the establishment of stability and security in the region," (RIA Novosti, July 13; www.politicom.ru, July 14). Nonetheless, the Kazakh position appeared to lack transparency, since in order for the Russian VDV battalion to be deployed, supplied and rotated in due course, Astana must first provide over-flight rights through its airspace. In addition, that the matter should be decided within the framework of the informal CSTO summit, placing the Russian forces in southern Kyrgyzstan in the context of the CORF, provides additional evidence that the issue is not restricted to the bilateral sphere.
Other indications of the regionalization of this Russian initiative have continued to emerge, ranging from Uzbekistan’s outright opposition to the plan, to the arrival in Tashkent on July 22 of a high level Tajik security delegation. The Tajik delegation was led by the secretary of the National Security Council, Amirkul Azimov, during a low-key visit which discussed regional water supplies, border security, Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and Moscow’s plan to open additional military bases within the region (www.uzmetronom.com, July 23). Despite the fact that U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns stated that Washington welcomed the prospect of a new Russian base in Kyrgyzstan in terms of welcoming anything that strengthens regional security, neither Dushanbe nor Tashkent share this view. In each capital there are deep reservations over locating a Russian base so close to their territorial borders.
"Tashkent is decidedly against the establishment of new foreign military bases in the neighboring countries," one highly ranked anonymous source in the Uzbek government emphasized. On July 14 the Uzbek Senator Surayo Odilhodjaeva told Radio Free Europe that such military facilities would do nothing to enhance the security of the region (www.ferghana.ru, July 13; RFE/RL, July 14).
Since the CSTO summit on June 14 in Moscow witnessed the signing of the agreement on establishing the CORF, with Belarus and Uzbekistan notably refusing to become signatories, Tashkent’s opposition to the new structure has hardened. Its objections center on the lack of consensus within the CSTO, and how it understands the CSTO charter, which clarifies that in order to form this structure the agreement of all members is first required. Article 12 of the CSTO charter states that, "decisions made by the collective security council, council of foreign ministers, council of defense ministers and committee of secretaries of security councils’ on issues except procedural should be taken by consensus" (www.dkb.ru, accessed July 28).
However, as Moscow pushes through such agreements, Tashkent has also raised similar objections to any further attempt to militarize the region. This is potentially much more serious, threatening to undermine any pretence over the unity of the organization, and could result in Uzbekistan’s future withdrawal from the CSTO. Tashkent’s principled objection to the appearance of a second Russian military base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan rests on the thesis that if the initiative is in fact rooted in the CSTO, rather than being purely bilateral, then it also requires approval by Dushanbe and Tashkent, as well as taking into account the views of other CSTO members.
Moscow might enhance regional security by entering a bilateral agreement with Bishkek to use in an emergency, the former Soviet airbase in Osh (whose infrastructure will only require repair, as the Russian air force carried out in Kant in 2003), by using Kant as a forward operating base. However, permanently basing a VDV battalion in Osh, by ostensibly entering a bilateral agreement that ignores the concerns of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors, and then raising the CSTO flag provides an air of "multilateral" legitimacy. It appears calibrated to display, at least symbolically, that Moscow is the "boss" in the region.
Moreover, as this latest Russian initiative is implemented, despite U.S. policy makers opposing the concept that Russia has areas of "privileged interest," it is increasingly apparent that Moscow is using the "informal summit" mechanism within the CSTO to advance its agenda. This tactic featured in both its major policy drives in the CSTO, forming the CORF and planning a second base in Kyrgyzstan. On December 19-21, 2008 an informal summit in Borovoye laid the foundation for the later announcement of the new force structure at the Moscow summit in February (EDM, June 21). Equally, while Moscow claims that such activities are focussed on enhancing regional security, it seems that this might not be its primary motivation. Uzbekistan appears to represent the main obstacle in Central Asia to Russian plans for the CSTO, through its use of the word: "consensus" -which makes Medvedev feel uneasy.