Kyrgyzstan emerges a new darling of super powers

Kyrgyzstan emerges a new darling of super powers

The US believes it must have a military base in Central Asia to support NATO mission in Afghanistan

Strategic Importance: US Marines with 8th Combat Logistics Battalion unload packs at Manas air base, Kyrgyzstan, as they prepare for deployment in Afghanistan. NYT

Got some land for stationing Russian troops — say, something with a nice long runway? Soon after, a senior American diplomat dropped by. Can we put the final touches on that deal to keep our own military base here?

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation in Central Asia that has long been a contender for the title of most obscure former Soviet republic, has suddenly become prime real estate, like a once-homely neighbourhood that all the A-listers now covet.

Its unexpected emergence onto the international stage says much about how the war in nearby Afghanistan, the struggle for political influence in the former Soviet Union, and the competition to control Central Asia’s bountiful oil and gas reserves are reshaping priorities of the world’s military and economic titans.

Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world that hosts separate military bases for the United States and Russia, and both major powers are bent on sustaining or deepening their presence. That in part explains why neither has publicly condemned the heavy-handed tactics of the Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who easily won another term recently in an election that his opponents said was rigged.

The US believes that it must have a sizable military base in Central Asia to support the NATO mission in Afghanistan, especially now that supply routes through Pakistan are perilous. The American installation on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital is crowded with C-17 cargo planes and KC-135 tanker planes that readily reach the Afghan skies for mid-air refuelling of fighters. As many as 30,000 military personnel cycle through the base monthly.

Those troops and planes have stirred deep unease in the Kremlin, which tried to persuade Bakiyev to oust the Americans, in the end unsuccessfully. Central Asia is Moscow’s former territory and current backyard, and the Kremlin evinces a sense of entitlement here, not to mention a desire to dominate natural resources.

At the same time, the Russians seem torn over the American venture in Afghanistan. They understand that failure could threaten even Russia, which has grappled with Islamic extremism in its south, so they have allowed American military goods to flow across Russia. The Kremlin also can sympathise with Washington’s plight, given painful memories of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.

Still, the Kremlin fears that the US is setting down lasting roots in Central Asia.
Russia’s role in the former Soviet republics has been a constant source of friction between the two sides. Just last week, Vice President Joseph R Biden Jr visited Ukraine and Georgia and rebuked Russia for its “19th-century notion of spheres of influence.”

The other major player in Central Asia is China, which is also wary of the spread of Muslim fundamentalism. The Chinese concerns were underscored in recent weeks by the uprising by Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group, in the Chinese region that borders Central Asia. Chinese companies are also investing billions of dollars in Central Asia.

Waiting in the wings
The Chinese do not have a base here, though rumours have abounded that they want one. The French, Germans and Indians all have small installations in Central Asia. Major nations have long skirmished in Central Asia. But the current state of affairs is more than an update of the Great Game, that 19th-century battle for regional supremacy between Britain and Russia. This time, the dynamic is more complicated, with more players and arguably more at stake.

In recent months, Kyrgyz military bases have been the point of contention, especially the American one on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital, which was established in December 2001 after the American incursion into Afghanistan.

The Russians have regularly insinuated nefarious doings at the base, which is at Manas International Airport; state-controlled news media in Russia have aired rumours that the base is a hub for smuggling heroin, prostitutes, babies and even body parts.

American military officials in Kyrgyzstan roll their eyes in response to these charges. They do say they have polite, if sparse, contact with their local Russian counterparts, who are concentrated at a Russian base not far from the capital. Kyrgyzstan has turned into a preferred location in part because its society is considered relatively open and its government, while authoritarian, is somewhat less so than those of its neighbours.

The president, Bakiyev, seems quite aware that his country is the place to be. In February, while he was in Moscow to receive a roughly $2 billion package of loans and aid from Russia, he vowed to close the American base. The move was seen as a master stroke by the Kremlin. In retrospect, Bakiyev was working both sides.

He wanted more money from the Americans, as well as face-saving measures so it would look as if he had not caved, and in June, he got both. The rent on Manas will rise to $60 million annually from $17.4 million, and Kyrgyzstan is to receive more than $100 million in other grants.

Bakiyev also received a warm letter from US President Obama, as well as a visit this month from William J Burns, the senior American diplomat. Under the new arrangement, Manas is rebranded a ‘transit centre’, and American officials no longer refer to it as a ‘base’, apparently to avoid implying that it is permanent.

Whether or not the Kremlin was angered by Bakiyev’s turnabout, it reacted swiftly.
Earlier this month, Putin sent two loyalists, Deputy Prime Minister Igor I Sechin, and Defence Minister Anatoly E Serdyukov, to see Bakiyev. The message: Russia wants another base. A deal is expected soon. The military need is not entirely clear, but that is perhaps beside the point.

“It is a symbolic action — symbolic of Russia’s presence, symbolic of its greatness, symbolic of its getting up off its knees,” said Sergei A Panarin, a prominent Central Asia specialist in Moscow. “It’s nostalgia for an empire.”

International Herald Tribune

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