When Turkish Airlines started transiting through Bishkek on its new thrice-weekly flights from Istanbul to Ulaanbaatar in mid-2012, the move was hailed in Kyrgyzstan as the start of a transition to a “civilian transit hub” that would replace the controversial American airbase at Manas International Airport.
Over the past year, Kyrgyz officials have repeatedly said that when Manas Transit Center, as the base is called, closes next July, they will convert the facility into a hub for air cargo crossing Asia – a caravanserai on a Silk Road of the skies. But few details have emerged and the idea, some fear, dodges an urgent question: where will Bishkek make up the budget shortfall after kicking out the rent-paying Americans?
Since opening in December 2001, the base has been a cash cow for the impoverished Central Asian state. In 2012, the base contributed $142 million toward Kyrgyzstan’s economy, including $60 million in rent, or roughly three percent of the government budget. It also generates about 700 jobs for local residents.
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David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.