China Leads Russia in Contest for Kyrgyzstan’s Airports
Where Moscow stumbles, Beijing swoops.
That’s the lesson after a Chinese company appears to have bested a Russian one for the right to turn Kyrgyzstan’s main civilian airport into a strategic aviation “hub” for freight and passenger flights connecting Europe and Asia.
The Chinese maneuver would not have surprised anyone in a country where China is building almost everything, except that Kremlin-controlled energy giant Rosneft appeared to have had the deal to remodel Bishkek’s Manas International Airport in the bag. On February 19, Putin ally Igor Sechin, Rosneft’s chairman, and Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev (now prime minister), signed a memorandum on Rosneft’s interest in the airport and its lucrative fuel-distribution contracts.
Fast forward five months and both Russian and Taiwanese media are reporting that Beijing Urban Construction Group will invest $1 billion in the makeover, a figure similar to the Rosneft deal. China Machinery Engineering Corporation will sign a $300 million deal for the country’s second airport, in the southern city of Osh—another asset that had interested Rosneft.
"So far these are memorandums of intention, but in the near future the fully planned projects will be ready," Kommersant quoted Kyrgyz Economics Minister Temir Sariyev as saying on July 4. The reports do not mention what share in the airports the Chinese will get.
For the Kremlin, a stake in Manas International Airport – reported as 51 percent – might have had symbolic, as well as commercial, value. Between 2001 and last month, passengers landing at Manas were greeted by the sight of U.S. warplanes lined up at a controversial military facility leased to Washington by the Kyrgyz government. Now that the U.S. has formally vacated the facility, it seems that Chinese work crews will be filling the void.
It is not clear exactly where the Rosneft deal for Manas came unstuck. In April, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev announced that the company had withdrawn their bid following nationalist protests. The Russians did not comment on Atambayev’s allegations, which could have been domestic posturing intended to undermine the opposition in Bishkek.
It is possible that Western economic sanctions imposed on Moscow following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March forced Rosneft to consider belt-tightening measures. Rosneft has not been targeted specifically by the sanctions. But Sechin, its chairman, was.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.