Why Atambayev Might Be Serious About Closing Manas
Ever since Almazbek Atambayev won last month's presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan and promptly announced that he would close the U.S.'s Manas air base, there has been a lot of handwringing about Manas's future. Those inclined to armchair geopoliticking saw it as a victory for Russia, while others dismissed it as a bargaining ploy, an attempt to squeeze more money out of the Pentagon next time the terms of the base came up for negotiations. After all, that's what happened in the past when Kyrgyzstan's government threatened to close the base. But Lincoln Mitchell, writing in The Faster Times, has a different interpretation:
The situation today is different. Atanbaev’s position does not appear to be a case of simply trying to line his pockets with more American money, but has expressed his view based on his country’s geographical and strategic proximity to Russia and a fear that having a U.S. air force base just outside of his country’s capital could create security concerns for Kyrgyzstan. While this position is not what the U.S. wants to hear, it is also reasonable and can plausibly said to be representing the interests of the Kyrgyz people.
Atambayev in fact campaigned on a promise to close the base, calculating -- apparently correctly -- that that was a winning position. Mitchell continues:
The U.S. is in a difficult, but not impossible, position of having to find a way to, at least in the short term, to continue access to Manas while avoiding undermining the vulnerable democratic aspirations and exprssions of the Kyrgyz people which Atanbaev represents. The U.S. must work with Atanbaev respectfully, avoiding threats and avoiding overpaying for access. Of course, if the Obama administration is serious about winding down the war in Afghanistan this task will be easier. A solution that allows both sides to claim some kind of victory, through a timeline or other similar commitments, and which offers some assistance to Kyrgyzstan is a plausible outcome to this conundrum.
We could have probably seen this coming. Alexander Cooley, in his 2008 book Base Politics, surveyed the history of U.S. basing agreements and from that data, developed a hypothesis:
If prevailing agreements were signed before a democratic transition, the new democratizing regimes and elites will politicize or contest bilateral contracts.
And that's pretty much exactly what happened here. Cooley also posited two corollaries to that hypothesis:
Democratizing elites and regimes dependent on the basing power for political support will politicize contracts and demand renegotiations but will stop short of abrogating or terminating the contract.
Democratizing elites and regimes that do not depend on the basing power for political support are the most likely to abrogate or terminate the contract.
It's safe to say that Atambayev, who hasn't been shy about his affinity for Russia, does not depend on the U.S. for political power. It would be too much to say that the outgoing president, Roza Otunbayeva, "depended" on the U.S., but she was about the most pro-American politician that Washington could hope for in Central Asia. And while she complained about the base, in particular the murky fuel supply arrangement, she focused on getting that agreement changed, not on getting the base removed altogether. But if Cooley's hypothesis holds, the more Russia-oriented Atambayev will be less conciliatory. And Manas's days really may be numbered.
UPDATE: I should have noted that there is another variable at work here: the fact that Russia may in fact have an ambiguous position vis-a-vis Manas, and has an interest in it staying insofar as it quells Islamist extremism that could threaten Russia. Will that play a role? Possibly. But the fact remains that Atambayev will be accountable to the public in a way his predecessors weren't.