Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has said that Russia needs to leave its air base that it operates in his country. The demand was vague, and Atambayev has made it several times in the past, but it nevertheless raised alarm in Moscow.
Atambayev made the comments during a four-hour press conference on December 1. "In the future, Kyrgyzstan should rely only on its own forces. This has to do with the Russian base. Everyone criticizes me -- Atambayev kicked out the American base and left the Russian one. Keep in mind that there was an agreement on the Russian base, signed on our side by [former president Kurmanbek] Bakiyev, under which ... the military base was supposed to stay for 49 years and then be extended for 25 more. We left it only for 15 years."
Atambayev was referring to an agreement signed in 2012 which consolidated Russian control over the several military facilities it operates in Kyrgyzstan. That includes the air base at Kant, not far from the capital Bishkek, which Russia set up in 2003 and which today acts as the Central Asian hub for the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led security alliance. The next year, Kyrgyzstan refused to renew the agreement it had with the United States over the American air base also near Bishkek, and the Americans left the following year.
The 2012 agreement with Moscow was apparently aimed at making it more difficult for Kyrgyzstan to kick the Russians out, but it did, as Atambayev points out, also reduce the term of Russia's lease. Still, the current agreement is good until 2027, so there's no need for the Russian troops to start packing their bags yet.
Atambayev continued: "We will always be strategic partners with Russia, but Kyrgyzstan should rely and depend only on its own armed forces and not on a Russian, American, or any other country's base. We should build our own army. Of course this has caused me a lot of stress, Russian ministers really didn't like it. But I found an agreement with Vladimir Vladimirovich Putn and I am very grateful to him for that."
Atambayev has made similar comments in the past. In 2012, he said Kyrgyzstan "doesn't need a Russian base." In 2015, he said: "We have a long term agreement, but sooner or later in the future Kyrgyzstan will have to defend itself, without relying on the bases of brotherly friendly countries."
This time, though, in a climate of steadily growing geopolitical tension, Atambayev's comments got picked up by a slew of media, both Western and Russian. And that prompted several veiled threats from Moscow.
"If the president of Kyrgyzstan doesn't need a Russian base, then he should be ready to face alone the terrorist threat, the Taliban -- they're walking around nearby," said Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy head of the Russian Duma foreign affairs committee.
Russian Central Asia pundit Andrey Grozin noted that the base will outlast Atambayev: "Kyrgyzstan will hold presidential elections in 2017. Who will replace Atambayev is the big question, in which the citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic are interested more than in other issues, even such important as the situation with the future of Russian military facilities. Atambayev himself can't be re-elected. This is connected not only with constitutional prohibitions, but also with the fact that the process of preparing for the next elections in all political fields of Kyrgyzstan has gone so far that simply no one will let him to do this. A new president will form new relations, including issues related to security," Grozin said.
"These objects remain simply because [Kyrgyzstan] needs it much more than Russia. Russia needs them only to maintain stability on its southern borders. And Kyrgyzstan needs them to survive in the possible very serious cataclysms," Grozin added.
There is no indication that Atambayev has any intention of kicking Russia out of Kant before 2027. Bishkek-based analyst Grigoriy Mikhailov wrote, in response to Atambayev's comments:
The media has paid too much attention to the statement. Almazbek Atambayev is known as someone who tries to be friends with everyone. At various times he has praised and insulted Russia, the U.S., Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, the OSCE, NATO, the Eurasian Economic Union, and so on. Neither criticism, nor compliments have much effect on the real situation.
Atambayev regularly voices statements pricking Russia. And every time the media inteprets it as yet another break in relations, a "knife in the back," and so on.
The Bug Pit agrees.