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Experts Believe That Kyrgyzstan’s Recent Decision to Remove the American Base From its Territory is not Final
The summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which began in Moscow on February 4 was preceded by a diplomatic sensation that set the tone for the discussion at the summit, revealing a tense struggle for influence in the Central Asian region between Russia and the Western powers.
The sensation came one day before the summit, when Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, said during his visit to Moscow that his government had taken a decision to remove the American military aviation base Gansi, located on the territory of Kyrgyzstan’s main airport Manas in the country’s capital Bishkek. The base was established soon after the start of the American military operation against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, and was supposed to serve the American military contingent in Afghanistan. The base provided an air link for the troops via the territory of the former Soviet Union, a welcome alternative to the southern route via the unstable Pakistan. In 2001 and 2002, Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president, supported the plan, despite obvious opposition inside Russia’s military and diplomatic establishment. However, as Russia-United States relations soured due to wrangling in the post-Soviet space (the planned deployment of American anti-ballistic missile shield next to Russia’s western borders in Poland and the Czech Republic), Russia’s attitude toward the American military presence in Central Asia took a turn for the worse.
“We don’t want to make a row over it, but some of the things that Americans are doing thanks to their bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are just impermissible,” said a source within the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Russian officials make no secret of the link between Kyrgyzstan’s decision to shut the base and yesterday’s announcement about Russia’s giving the Kyrgyz government a $2 billion loan, backed up by $150 million in economic aid and $180 million of written off debt.
So, Bakiyev’s statement, coming on the eve of the CSTO summit in Moscow, can be viewed as welcome news for Russia’s leadership. However, experts warn against drawing hasty conclusions from it, since Kyrgyzstan’s leadership made announcements about its plans to remove the American base many times. Each time, after getting something from the American side in money or, more often, promises, the Kyrgyz leadership backed off, extending its permission to stay.
Sanobar Shermatova, a member of the Expert Council at the RIA Novosti news agency, believes that this game will continue. “I don’t expect the Kyrgyz government to shut the base in the near future, at least not completely,” said Shermatova, who has been specializing in Central Asian politics for 20 years. “They may change the status of the base, they may just stop calling it a base, but shutting the door in America’s face is not in the interests of Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Russia may use the decision to shut the base as a trump card in its future negotiations with the United States on the ABM shield or NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan may use this trump card in order to squeeze out of the United States more economic aid, which it badly needs.”
Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest states in Central Asia, was badly hit by the world economic crisis and faces severe water and energy shortages. At least part of the $2 billion Russian loan is expected to be spent on the construction (mostly by Russian companies) of a hydroelectric power station, which will be 50 percent Russian-owned. Russia is also the main market for the Kyrgyz unskilled labor force (so-called gastarbeiters), which produces a lion’s share of the small republic’s GDP. So, in Shermatova’s view, both sides can hope to gain from the economic assistance which Russia provides to Kyrgyzstan. One can only hope that the United States and other NATO countries operating in Afghanistan will see Russia’s deal with Kyrgyzstan as an invitation to dialogue and not as a hostile backstage deal.
“I would point out that the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, when speaking at a joint press conference with Bakiyev in Moscow, ended his speech with words about Russia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s readiness to cooperate with the countries of the NATO alliance in Afghanistan. I think this is an invitation to dialogue,” Shermatova said.
In his statement closing the press conference with president Bakiyev, Medvedev noted: “Our countries will continue helping the [military] operations going on in this region. No one shirks responsibilities here. We will fulfill all of these procedures in the framework of the antiterrorist coalition too; we are ready for joint action with everyone, including the states of the coalition.” Obviously, Medvedev was referring to the NATO coalition in Afghanistan.
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