Contrary to expectations in Bishkek, Russian and Kyrgyz defense officials failed to sign an agreement to expand Russia’s military presence in Kyrgyzstan. Experts attribute the delay mainly to ongoing political uncertainty in Bishkek.
Kyrgyz and Russian officials spent three days – September 21-23 -- hashing out the details of a 49-year leasing agreement that would cover all Russian military facilities in the Central Asian state, including the Kant air base outside Bishkek. The agreement would also potentially cover the establishment of a new Russian base in southern Kyrgyzstan, a facility that Russia has coveted for over a year. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
In the end, however, Russian and Kyrgyz defense officials could not put pen to paper to finalize the pact, even though the two sides are supposedly in agreement on all basic issues. “All the contentious issues up for negotiation are settled, there is confidence that an agreement will be signed,” Valeriy Gerasimov, Russia’s deputy chief of the General Staff, said during a Bishkek news conference on September 23. Gerasimov indicated that the signing would take place in the spring of 2011.
Prior to the arrival of the Gerasimov-led Russian delegation in Bishkek, the Kremlin seemed intent on completing a deal to set up a new base in Osh. But Gerasimov said the southern-base issue was not a matter of discussion. He did, however, indicate that the two sides had raised the possibility of creating a joint Russian-Kyrgyz facility. And somewhat contradicting his contention that the major points of a pact had been finalized, he revealed that the question of whether Russia would pay more rent for its military facilities is still to be “decided.”
Gerasimov also announced that a planned September 25 visit by Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov would not be taking place. Gerasimov offered no reason for the cancellation.
Experts say the anti-climactic ending to the intensive talks was an indicator of Moscow’s lack of confidence in Kyrgyzstan’s provisional administration [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. At the same time, Kyrgyz provisional leaders seemed happy enough to defer the issue until after parliamentary elections on October 10.
Adjar Kurtov, an analyst with the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow, said Moscow’s hesitancy seemed “reasonable” given Kyrgyzstan’s track record of political instability and its past tendency to hold out for rental agreements. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“Neither side signed an agreement for different reasons,” Kurtov said. “The Kyrgyz [provisional] government’s legal right to sign international agreements is still doubtful and Russia fears a situation might develop where a new government formed after the [October 10] elections feels compelled to reconsider the agreement for technical reasons,” he said.
Mars Sariev, a Bishkek-based political analyst, expressed doubt that negotiations are basically complete and all that is needed to finalize the agreement is a signing ceremony. “They were supposed to sign it but since they didn’t, it tells me the game’s not over yet,” Sariev said. “It’s postponed until spring because Russia is waiting for a legitimate government to be formed. The Kyrgyz government is not legitimate enough in the eyes of Russia. It’s worrying, it means Russia has difficult situation with the current government.”
Given the increasing activity of militants in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Russian defense officials remain intent on increasing their strategic profile in Kyrgyzstan, the experts said.
“This situation is fearsome for some Russian leaders such as Viktor Ivanov, the head of the Federal Drug Control Service. They repeatedly talk about the increasing threat of instability and the possible increase in drug trafficking to Russia,” Kurtov said.
“The situation in Afghanistan and in Tajikistan definitely influenced Russia’s decision to maintain a presence in Kyrgyzstan,” Sariev concurred. Russia has wanted to expand its presence in the region for some time and current events in Afghanistan and Tajikistan are playing into their hands.”
A factor that may well have played a role in delaying the signing of the agreement is Kyrgzystan’s strategic relationship with the United States. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. Russia has long encouraged the Kyrgyz leadership to close down the American-operated transit center at Manas, outside Bishkek. Kyrgyz provisional President Roza Otunbayeva is scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington on September 24. The Manas facility reportedly will be a focal point of their discussions.
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.