Kyrgyzstan "Cancels" U.S. Air Base Lease; Washington Not Giving Up
Kyrgyzstan's government has declared that it is canceling the current agreement that it has with the U.S. on the Manas air base the Americans operate in that country. But it's not clear, given that the agreement is scheduled to expire next year anyway, what import the announcement has, and it is probably of greater political than legal significance. And the U.S. State Department reiterates that it isn't giving up yet.
On its website, the Kyrgyzstan government announced that as of July 11, 2014, the agreement it has with the U.S. will be "repudiated." But that's when the agreement, reached in 2009 for a five-year period, expires.
Kyrgyzstan's president, Almazbek Atambayev, consistently says that he wants the U.S. to leave Manas in 2014. He said that again today, explaining that "the government has already made its decision and confirmed legislation about the end of the term of the agreement...All that's left is for the parliament to accept this law... I am deeply convinced a civilian airport should not have a military base."
Whether this is his final decision or a bargaining point is anyone's guess. The U.S. clearly hopes to extend its presence beyond July of 2014, and in a statement to The Bug Pit, a State Department spokesperson downplayed Bishkek's announcement. "Our understanding is this text is a draft of a possible law. Therefore, I’m not going to speculate on hypothetical next steps," the official said. "This does not change our existing agreements or timeline with the Kyrgyz Government." The U.S. "remains in close contact" with Kyrgyzstan, the official added.
But there may be a political subtext to the announcement. Some top regional experts, including Alex Cooley, Erica Marat and Nate Schenkken had an interesting back-and-forth about this on twitter. Marat noted that based on her contacts with Kyrgyzstan members of parliament, she believes the "renunciation" won't make it through the parliament. That could give Atambayev political cover should the U.S. convince him to allow the base to stay.
Another possible explanation is that this is a message intended for Russian consumption. And indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin is traveling next week to Bishkek for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, where Manas will certainly be on the agenda.
And if we want to wade further into conspiratorial territory, we may note that it was just last week that the U.S. quietly dropped securities fraud charges against former first son Maxim Bakiyev, angering many in Bishkek.
And, of course, there was the crash of the refueling tanker, which inevitably began to have political ramifications as controversy emerged over whether the U.S. or Kyrgyzstan had jurisdiction over the investigation of the crash. In a reflective essay on the Manas website about how airmen at the base have dealt with the crash, a couple of officer allude to this friction:
Our local translators, with their calm passion, helped us through intense negotiations on site while representatives from two nations felt out their roles, responsibilities, and authorities in a challenging and emotional crisis. They did so by not only bridging the language barrier and cultural divide, but by communicating the depth of conviction in our words.
Was any of this a factor in this most recent announcement? The only thing that is certain is that this will keep all of us guessing for the next year, and probably beyond.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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