At the November 27-29 NATO summit in Riga, Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer mentioned the importance of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan and its role in the anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan. Today, Kyrgyzstan is the only location in the Central Asian region where the U.S. and NATO are actively engaged in a range of military actions. The secretary-general, however, refrained from making any forecast about the future status of the base in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. NATO’s high stakes in Afghanistan, the ongoing informal competition between the United States and Russia over influence in the Central Asian region, and recent political changes in Kyrgyzstan complicate future predictions about the status of the U.S. military base.
Kyrgyzstan’s recent endorsement of a new constitution that strips the president of his major powers has once again attracted international attention to this small, yet strategically important country. The new distribution of political powers between the president and parliament will lead to long-term, yet slow and difficult progress, toward democracy. The current president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, is likely to leave office in the next presidential elections in 2010 if not sooner. However, it is unclear who will succeed Bakiyev and what role Moscow and Washington will be able to play in the mooted regime change.
Kyrgyzstan’s last president, Askar Akayev, maintained balanced ties with the United States, Russia, and China. Unlike his predecessor, Bakiyev has shown a lack of diplomatic acumen in dealing with Washington while being pressured by the Kremlin. In summer 2005 Bakiyev endangered Kyrgyz-U.S. relations by bending to Russian and Chinese demands to increase rent payments for use of the base.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyz legislators are engaged in heated debates about whether they should voluntarily dissolve the parliament as a result of the new constitution. The debate between opponents and supporters of the idea brings more uncertainty about the political situation in Kyrgyzstan in the near future. A significant number of today’s parliamentarians maintain an openly pro-Russia stance, and their profile could grow.
The U.S. base was installed at Bishkek’s Manas airport following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In 2003 Russia located its own base roughly 70 kilometers from Manas. Whereas the U.S. base pays rent annually, Russia uses its facilities free of charge. Since its establishment, the Russian military base has not engaged in any practical activities.
After 9/11 Russia sought to increase its military presence in southern Kyrgyzstan — or at least decrease U.S. influence — through the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Kyrgyzstan is to a large extent bound by both organizations and numerous other bilateral and multilateral agreements with Russia and neighboring states. Led by Russia and China, the SCO has expanded well beyond its initial goals. The SCO was formed as an organization to facilitate mutual control of borders between its member states, but it now deals with economic cooperation, military and security challenges, and even energy trade.
The U.S. military presence has a dubious reputation in Bishkek. It is regarded as a prestigious place for employment, as salary rates are high relative to local standards. However, it is also infamous for being a source of large-scale corruption on the part of previous and current regime members.
International criticism of U.S. policies in the Middle East and Iraq is reflected in the Kyrgyz public’s understanding of what the U.S. presence means for the country. Kyrgyz politicians regularly employ the same anti-U.S. arguments used by critics of the Bush administration.
At the same time, international criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is unknown in Kyrgyzstan, due to the dominance of Russian mass media outlets, which tend to offer a one-sided analysis of Kremlin policies.
The negative consequences of Western hegemony for Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty form the central argument against Kyrgyzstan’s prospective joining of the World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. If Kyrgyzstan joins HIPC, its domestic economic and political policies will be closely monitored by international financial organizations. On November 29 protestors outside the World Bank office in Bishkek argued that such extensive intervention from external actors would harm Kyrgyzstan’s international reputation. The debate is thus more political than economic.
Today, Kyrgyzstan is economically dependent on its pro-Russian neighbors. For example, Uzbekistan has recently increased prices for natural gas from $55 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. Since the Uzbek regime violently suppressed crowds in the city of Andijan in May 2005 the country has become a close Russian ally by simultaneously distancing itself from the United States and the Western community. Tajikistan has been traditionally reliant on Kremlin support and is indirectly dependent on Russia because hundreds of thousands of its citizens work there as labor migrants. While Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has increased economic relations with the West, Astana’s cooperation with Russia has not been affected.
It is unlikely that Bakiyev’s regime will follow Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s example and expel the U.S. military from Kyrgyzstan. But neither will Bakiyev be able to fully resist Kremlin pressure to limit Western influence, as he also faces domestic pressure from local civil society activists who tend to be either pro-Western or to support international multilateralism.
(Akipress.kg, Bely Parohod, 24.kg, November 29)