Act Two in Kyrgyzstan's new drama, tentatively titled The Perils of Manas, is set in the Kyrgyz parliament. But the real action is playing out backstage.
The Kyrgyz government on February 4 submitted a draft law on closing an American air base at Manas to parliament for debate. There was no immediate word as to when legislators would take up the bill. The government move came less than 24 hours after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, apparently acting at the behest of the Kremlin, signaled his intention to close the US facility, located outside of the capital Bishkek. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The US Embassy in Bishkek maintains that discussions about the future of the base are ongoing, and Kyrgyz opposition parties and Western diplomats say they would not bet on the base being decommissioned just yet.
But adding an additional layer to the plot, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, touted a new use for the Manas complex -- opening it to a newly minted military coalition dominated by Moscow. "Kyrgyzstan is right to believe that the Manas air base may be more necessary for the rapid reaction force of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), than for foreign troops, who don't respect Kyrgyzstan's sovereignty," Rogozin told the Russian television news channel Vesti. At a CSTO meeting in Moscow on February 4, member states agreed to form a joint military force comprising units from the Russian air force, Kazakh ground troops, and battalions from other smaller CSTO member countries including Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. "This will be a powerful step to ensure a consolidated reply to the new threats coming from the south," Rogozin said, referring to Afghanistan.
The Kyrgyz government, according to language contained in the draft law, is justifying its desire to close the Manas base on a claim that Afghanistan is now "almost" a functioning state. As a result, the draft law continues, there is no longer a need to maintain the Manas base, which provides support for ongoing coalition military operations in Afghanistan. The stabilization of Afghanistan constitutes "one of the grounds for termination of the [base leasing] agreement," according to the draft law.
In addition, the draft law is sharply critical of the US handing of the killing of Alexander Ivanov, a Kyrgyz citizen working at the base, who was shot by an American sentry in late 2006. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The draft law contends that efforts to investigate the killing were met with resistance, highlighting as "as unconstitutional certain provisions of the agreement."
Finally, the Kyrgyz government is grounding its actions on supposed popular opposition. The draft law claims that the bulk of Kyrgyz citizens harbors "negative attitudes . . . to the presence of US military forces in the Kyrgyz Republic."
The Kyrgyz government's contention that the situation in Afghanistan is improving is starkly at odds with the view presented by the United States, the European Union and much of the rest of the international community. Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in late January during a visit to Uzbekistan, noted that "the number of radicals is not declining in Afghanistan."
The closure of the base would deal a serious blow to United States and NATO as they gear up for a surge in Afghanistan. The loss of Manas would create a hole in the proposed Northern Supply Network, the aim of which is to speed the flow of non-lethal supplies to Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Top brass at both NATO and US Central Command have in recent weeks touted Manas as a "hugely important" element in the coalition's supply chain.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Pentagon officials are not panicking yet. The assumption inside the beltway appears to be that the current uncertainty surrounding Manas is resolvable. "Whether or not we pay more money is certainly a subject of discussion . . . but that shouldn't be a surprise," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said during a February 3 briefing. "In any negotiation, money is an issue."
On the surface, money certainly seems to be motivating Kyrgyzstan's action. The announcement of the intention to close Manas came after Russia officially extended a $2.15 billion aid package to Bishkek. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On February 4, however, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Grigorii Karasin, denied speculation that the Kremlin had bought Bakiyev's administration. The Kyrgyz government's decision was "absolutely independent and predictable," the Interfax news agency quoted Karasin as saying.
A well-placed diplomatic source in Bishkek told EurasiaNet that Washington's confidence in its ability to resolve the issue may be misplaced. The source added that US military and political officials might have avoided this current Manas headache, if Washington had been paying closer attention to Kyrgyzstan over the past two years. "It's still extremely difficult say whether or not a deal has been struck at the highest level [between Russia and Kyrgyzstan], or if this is just another tool in the negotiation process," the source said.
A major factor to consider, the source indicated, is that the decision-making process inside the Kremlin on this particular issue appears to be driven more by emotion than by reason. "The problem for the Russians is that they don't want an American military presence in what is their soft underbelly," the source said. "The problem for the Kyrgyz is that although the American's say they are spending so much money on the base, beyond rent and landing fees, a lot of that money goes to American contractors not into the pockets of the Kyrgyz."
"On top of that, the American's say they are supporting civil society and non-governmental organizations [NGOs], and the Kyrgyz are really unhappy about that," the source continued. "As far as they [Kyrgyz leaders] are concerned, the Americans are funding the wrong type of NGOs, i.e. anti-current-government NGOs. The final criticism is that there is no real American investment in this country."
With President Bakiyev's Ak Zhol Party controlling 71 out of the 90 seats in the Kyrgyz Parliament, Act Two in the Manas drama would seem predictable, with parliament speedily adopting the measure to close the US air base. But Kyrgyz experts and opposition politicians generally expect some sort of plot twist that prolongs the drama. They add that there is no sure way of knowing how Act Three of the Perils of Manas will play out. But if past experience is any guide to Kyrgyz geopolitical theater, there will be a muddled ending -- no denouement for the United States, and no resolution for Russia either.
Political analyst Nur Omarov said huge geopolitical pressures had also come to bear on Kyrgyzstan, but expressed the belief that Bakiyev could flip-flop on the decision. "We have to consider the pressure that will come to Kyrgyzstan from the American side, but obviously Russia's interests are definitely a force, and it's not in China's interests to have an American base near its territory at all," he said. "But as we all know that in the past five years, the president has talked a lot about closing the base and it never happened. I doubt that it will happen this time either."
Kanybek Sarymsakov, a spokesman for the Green Party, assailed the government for following a short-sighted policy, based on immediate financial needs, rather than on the longer-term economic picture. "This decision to shut the base was definitely motivated by the debt relief and loans that Russia is going to give," he said. "But I think it's not going to be easy to close the base. Kyrgyzstan is causing problems for itself, and certainly spoiling relations with America. This is not a good time for Kyrgyzstan to spoil relations with America."
Bakyt Beshimov, the leader of the Social Democratic Party parliamentary faction, told EurasiaNet that the opposition would mount vigorous opposition to the base-closing bill.
"The base in Kyrgyzstan is not only in the interests of our national security, but also in the interests of regional security as well," Beshimov said, adding that the government's attitude could easily change. "Words like 'final decision' have never been applicable to Bakiyev. He can change his mind as many times as he wants, unfortunately."
Deirdre Tynan is EurasiaNets correspondents in Bishkek.