Last Tuesday, a little noticed but major event signaled the end of an era in Central Asia. The United States closed its only Central Asian airbase in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, formally handing back control to the government of Kyrgyzstan, which has been increasingly aligning itself with Russia.
The Transit Center at Manas was especially important for U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts in Afghanistan, as it was the first and last stop for soldiers entering Central Asia en route to fight in Afghanistan. Additionally, it was home to a logistics and refueling operation run by the United States Air Force for the war in Afghanistan. The base at Manas was set up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks with Russia’s consent and has transported 5.3 million military servicemen from 26 countries in and out the Afghanistan conflict theatre. It became especially important as a transportation hub after 2005, when the United States was evicted from its other base in the region, in Uzbekistan.
The closure of the Transit Center is seen as beneficial in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz parliament voted a year ago to give the United States until July 11 of this year to vacate the base, choosing this option over the $60 million a year rent that the U.S. paid Kyrgyzstan for the base. The resurgence of Russian influence in the region was the key factor in the departure of the U.S. from Manas. Upon being elected in 2011, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev assured Russia, increasingly wary of American influence in its backyard, that he would shut the base. Indeed, the Russian media seems a lot more interested in the base’s closing than the Kyrgyz media, since Russia views the departure of American forces as geopolitically significant to its goals of reestablishing itself as the sole dominant power in Central Asia.
More than geopolitics, economic factors have been instrumental in Kyrgyzstan’s decision. Kyrgyzstan, like neighboring Tajikistan, is largely dependent on Russia’s economy and relies on its market for exports and for remittances from guest workers. Its location and the positioning of its infrastructure in the direction of Russia, a legacy of the Soviet Union, make alternatives difficult and costly. In 2012, the Russian government agreed to write off over $500 million in Kyrgyz debt after the country agreed to host a Russian base for 15 years.
Even more tempting is membership in Russia’s new pet project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), for which Kyrgyzstan has few other alternatives given that it cannot join the European Union (EU) or other regionally based trade blocs (unlike Ukraine). Kyrgyzstan has indicated it will join the EEU soon. The EEU, which aims for closer economic integration among its member states, boasts a market of 170 million people and a GDP of $3 trillion. While there is a debate over whether China will be the chief economic player in the region, it is likely that Kyrgyzstan will join the EEU, however diluted it ends up becoming, because of its close political links to Russia.
For the United States, the closure of Manas, coming on the heels of the announcement to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan to 9,800 soldiers, makes it increasingly clear that it does not have a clear, long-term plan to engage with the region, which ranks low on its list of geopolitical priorities. In effect, it is conceding the region to Russia and China. Even if the United States remains involved in Afghanistan and its soldiers remain there for the long run, there is little to indicate that this would lead to further U.S. involvement in Central Asia. Afghanistan is increasingly becoming associated with and integrated into South Asia rather than Central Asia in its military, economic, and cultural patterns and the nexus between it and Central Asia has lessened as a result. In any case, the closure of Manas, other than reducing its influence in a region where it already had little to begin with, is not a major loss for the United States. The U.S. has moved its operations to a cheaper base in Romania, while refueling services are likely to be moved to the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
The shift in American priorities and interests is important in understanding why the Kyrgyz government has decided to bet on Russia in the long term, at least relative to strengthening its ties with the U.S. While the United States may or may not be a major player in Central Asia in the future, Russia is a neighbor whose influence in the region is there to stay. From the perspective of Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states, this predictability makes Russia a safer, long term bet. The closure of Manas combined with the departure of most American soldiers may cause the deterioration of stability in Afghanistan, shifting the burden of maintaining security in Central Asia, especially Tajikistan, to Russia. While this is an unwanted burden, it would also draw Central Asian states closer to Russia, so Russia may feel that it is a net beneficiary of such a situation. With the twin incentives of security and trade, Russia is likely to regain its dominant position over Central Asia for a while, or at least until it is challenged by China.