China, US, Russia eye Bishkek


Kyrgyzstan may be a landlocked country with a population of less than 5.5 million, but it still looms large in the regional calculations of China, Russia and the United States. The Kyrgyz Republic is the only country to host both a Russian and a US military base. The Russian base at Kant symbolises Moscow’s preeminent security role in the region, while the US base at Manas plays a vital role in sustaining NATO military operations in Afghanistan. And Kyrgyzstan also borders Xinjiang, prompting concerns among Chinese policymakers over infiltration by terrorists and narcotics smuggling into this sensitive province as well as the security of their growing commercial stakes in Kyrgyzstan.

It’s clear, therefore, that the change of regime that has just taken place after a bloody uprising last week (For an eye witness account read ‘What I Saw in Bishkek’) has global political implications, not least for US forces stationed there. One key question is whether Russian diplomats will lobby the new Kyrgyz government not to renew the US lease to the air base at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas international airport when it expires in June. Last month, the Pentagon transported 50,000 NATO soldiers and other important items to and from Afghanistan. Although other routes exist, they have less capacity, take longer to use, are more expensive to operate, or are less secure. While the interests of the three great powers in Eurasia largely overlap, Russian and Chinese policymakers may still be tempted to exploit the current situation to weaken the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quick to recognize the new Kyrgyz government and offered financial and other backing. In recent months, Russian policymakers have grown dissatisfied with now deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and were cultivating ties with the opposition. Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Organization and hosts a Russian air base at Kant. Moscow also has important allies within the Kyrgyz intelligence and military establishments.

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Since the United States began using Manas and other Central Asian military facilities following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Russian policymakers have regularly expressed unease about a semi-permanent US military presence in what many Russians see as Moscow’s legitimate sphere of security influence. Beginning in late 2008, rumours surfaced that Russian representatives were pressing Bakiyev to close Manas, with some sources reporting that the Russians were offering large sums of money for the eviction. Influential members of the Kyrgyz parliament were also pressing the government to close the unpopular base.

US officials and commentators perceived a Russian hand behind Bakiyev’s February 3, 2009, decision to end the lease— after all, he announced the decision in Moscow after the Russian government pledged to write off $180 million in debt, lend Kyrgyzstan $2 billion, give $150 million in direct aid and help subsidize the construction of the $1.7 billion Kambarata-1 hydropower plant. After a few months of additional bargaining, however, Kyrgyzstan and the United States signed a new one-year lease on June 22. In return, the Pentagon agreed to rename the facility a ‘Transit Center’ and provide more rent and other financial benefits.

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