Last summer, then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev suggested that Russia open a second military base — in southern Kyrgyzstan — rather than expand its presence at the existing base, Kant, outside of Bishkek.
This week, in his first press conference since assuming the presidency last November, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was asked about the possibility. He reportedly responded that the issue had been raised before he became president and that Russia had yet to make a decision on the matter.
“It is up to Russia. No decision on the matter has been made at this point,” he said.
Base talk in Kyrgyzstan usually draws attention given the Russian presence in Kant and, up to June 2014 at least, the U.S.-operated transit center at Manas. For an 11-year period, Kyrgyzstan had the interesting accolade of being the only country in the world to simultaneously host Russian and American military bases. While the Americans moved into Manas in December 2001, the Russians returned to Kant in October 2003. Kant had been a Soviet pilot training school and air base until 1991, at which time it was transferred to newly independent Kyrgyz control.
Base talk also draws attention in Kyrgyzstan because of the roles that these bases, along with the desires of their operators, have played in altering the tides of Kyrgyz politics. Both the 2005 and 2010 revolutions included talk of the bases. For example, in February 2006 new Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev threatened to toss the Americans and their allies out if they didn’t pay more to rent the base. He later walked the comment back, but in 2009, months before being booted from Bishkek, Bakiyev announced the base would be closed.
Bakiyev’s 2009 announcement came on the heels of a promise made by Moscow to give Kyrgyzstan $2.15 billion in Russian loans and aid; and preceded an agreement to lease Kant for 49 years to Russia rather than let the lease expire in 2016. Observers could not help but link these events. The United States paid up and the base stayed over, but Bakiyev was ousted and the base politics continued.
In 2012, Kyrgyzstan and Russia agreed to extend Moscow’s lease on the base for only 15 years in exchange for a $500 million debt write-off. The new deal was a return to the arrangement before Bakiyev’s 49-year-lease.
In 2014, the United States pulled out of Manas in accordance with the Obama administration’s dramatic drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. Even without the Americans as a foil, Kant and the Russian presence remained a topic that surfaced periodically — laced with discussion of rents, influence, and intentions.
Russia — which has undertaken a wide sweeping reorganization and modernization of its military — appears to have played coy on Kant in the past year and a half.
In December 2016, Kommersant reported that Atambayev had announced that Kant would be closed when the terms of the current lease expired, presumably in 2027. “Kyrgyzstan should rely only on its own military forces, not Russian, American or any other country’s,” he said at the time.
Then in February 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would be prepared to close Kant if the Kyrgyzstan wanted to. “As soon as Kyrgyzstan says it has made its armed forces strong enough and does not need the base any more, we will take our leave the same day,” he said, though he also said he hadn’t discussed the issue of building up Russian forces at Kant with Atambayev in their recent meeting. “If Kyrgyzstan deems it necessary, we will have a discussion,” he said.
At that point it seemed things were moving toward a Russian exit from Kant in the not-so distant future. But then in June, Atambayev floated the idea of a new base in the south, rather than just expanding Kant and talk of closing the base faded. Instead, in July 2017, Atambayev said that the issue of an additional Russian base came up in discussions regarding Kant. TASS reported that in Atambayev’s opinion, a new base might be needed in the south, on the Tajik border. “”But this decision is to be taken by Russia, it is to decide, as this would require large-scale investments,” he said.
TASS also noted that he was not fearful of inviting the Russian military onto Kyrgyz territory and downplayed the notion that Russia would seize Kyrgyz land as Russia “has enough land.”
In October, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sapar Isakov also made the case for a southern base, telling RIA Novosti, “”The Kyrgyz Republic believes that in order to ensure security not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in the whole region, one needs to deploy a military base in the south.” He referenced unstable borders in Tajikistan and Afghanistan as motivation but maintained that no decisions had been made.
By December 2017, Kyrgyz leaders were back to walking the line between arguing for Kyrgyz defense self-sufficiency and justifying the Russian presence. Isakov said “The mission of the Russian military base is very important not only for Kyrgyzstan but for the entire region as well.” He called the base a “security guarantee” but also noted that Bishkek would need to reassess the situation when the lease expires.
Jeenbekov’s bland answer — it’s up to Russia — fits into the general arc. If Moscow wants a second base in Kyrgyzstan, it can probably offer the right incentives to get one; but the Russians aren’t necessarily in a hurry.