KIEV, Ukraine — Kyrgyzstan’s decision this week to close a strategic American air base was a blunt message from Moscow to Barack Obama’s freshly-installed administration that any major moves by outside powers in the former Soviet sphere must be made on the Kremlin’s terms and with Moscow’s agreement.
But analysts say Moscow may find that it has accepted a poisoned chalice by gaining the upper hand over Washington in Kyrgyzstan — a small, dysfunctional Central Asian nation, hard hit by the international financial crisis and expecting major political unrest this spring.
Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev took U.S. officials and regional observers by surprise, revealing Tuesday that his government would demand that NATO forces evacuate the key Manas Air Base, which has been in use since 2001 and has served as a major transportation and refueling hub for operations in nearby Afghanistan.
The base is located at the main international airport outside the capital Bishkek, and staffed by about 900 Americans, as well as a handful of French, Spanish and Turkish troops. About 15,000 personnel and 500 tons of cargo pass through it every month.
That Bakiev made his announcement at a news conference in Moscow, after meetings with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, seemed clear evidence to many observers that the decision was made with the Kremlin’s involvement — if not outright insistence.
The timing was also seen as critical. After a six-country tour of the region last month, General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, said that Washington intended to open a new northern supply route to Afghanistan through ex-Soviet Central Asia for fuel, construction materials and food.
The additional entry point has rocketed in importance within the last months. Obama intends to send up to 32,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Taliban forces have brought heavy pressure on the main supply line through Pakistan, which transports nearly three-quarters of coalition troops’ non-military goods. This week they blew up a key bridge in Pakistan’s Khyber region.
Details on the northern route are sketchy, and still may be under negotiation. Three ex-Soviet states border Afghanistan: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Goods would be bought locally and hauled in overland, possibly through Kazakhstan and Russia — which agreed to assist NATO last month — or else through Turkey and the Caucasus.
But despite initial signs that Moscow was seeking a more collaborative relationship with the new administration, plans for U.S. expansion in Central Asia may have been a bit much. Though Russia shares the U.S. goal of eradicating the Taliban, it also views the region as its rightful and historic sphere of influence, and extracted promises from Washington that the American military presence would be temporary.
“I think the Russians wanted to body check the new administration and show how tough they are,” said Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, by telephone from Bishkek, adding that the Russians understood the need for the northern route, “but want it on their terms.”
The Kyrgyz announcement, despite its seeming finality, still left a few doors open. U.S. officials in Bishkek said that they had received no official note, as was common practice, informing them of the government’s intention to close Manas. Likewise, in another unorthodox move, Bakiev submitted the decision to the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, which promptly postponed its deciding vote until next week.
These moves — viewed against a backdrop of perpetual horse-trading over the last few years between the two sides over the base’s lease conditions, with a number of threats to kick the Americans out — seemed to indicate that Bishkek was still open to negotiation, possibly in an attempt to raise the rent significantly. Moreover, once official notice is served, the U.S. has six months to vacate, during which talks can continue.
Still, analysts wonder how Bakiev could back out of a commitment made in Moscow, with Dmitry Medvedev at his side. “It’s almost as if the Russians have boxed him in this time,” said Quinn-Judge. Russia also has a small air base in Kyrgyzstan, which it operates rent-free.
The heart of the matter seems to be money. The Kyrgyz president — who arrived in power after a 2005 street uprising and whose leadership has grown increasingly authoritarian — received numerous financial pledges from Moscow, including a $2 billion aid package and $300 million in immediate relief to cover budget shortfalls.
(Bakiev however insists that the decision to close the base was not because of Russian financial aid, but long-standing differences over the base, and that the fact that Afghanistan had now “stabilized.”)
The Russians, in addition to marking their territory in Central Asia, apparently put in their back pocket a country that despite its diminutive size, isolation and poverty (it is wedged against the Chinese border with no major industry) was viewed until recently as the most democratic and western-leaning in Central Asia.
Both countries might find they have won a Pyrrhic victory. Kyrgyzstan's political situation is becoming progressively fragile. The government appears to be divided, and in a possible indication of nerves about promised spring opposition protests, is cracking down on dissent. The opposition is openly calling for Bakiev’s ouster.
For its part, the Bakiev government might find that, as with numerous times in the past, many of Moscow’s financial pledges are empty, especially as the Russian economy itself is contracting from low oil prices and the world financial crisis. Many question where the Kremlin will find the money, seeing as it has promised similar sums to other ex-Soviet states.
“What the Russians have pledged may also include some creative accounting,” said Professor Sean Roberts, Director of International Development Studies at George Washington University and an expert who writes extensively on the region.