US Breathes Sigh of Relief Over Manas Base for Now

The administration of President Barack Obama is breathing a sigh of relief that the past week’s successful insurrection against former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev appears unlikely to result in any curbs — at least, for now — on its use of Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base.

The base, for which the U.S. has been committed to paying 60 million dollars a year in rent according to an agreement hashed out with Bakiyev a year ago, has served among the Pentagon’s most important transport and supply links to Afghanistan for most of the past nine years. 

Its importance has intensified over the past 15 months primarily because of the U.S. military build-up in Afghanistan — from less than 50,000 to as many as 100,000 troops by the end of this year — but also because of insecurity, especially last summer and fall, in and around the Khyber Pass in Pakistan, the major land supply route. 

The head of the provisional government, Roza Otunbayeva, told the Washington Post Friday that the current lease, which technically runs out in July, will be extended beyond that date in light of the heavy agenda, including the drafting of a new constitution and preparing new elections, faced by the new leadership over the next six months. 

"It is not a matter of extension because it goes automatically…," she told the Post. "This is not a high priority for us — for this interim government," she noted. 

Bakiyev reportedly fled Kyrgyzstan for neighboring Kazakhstan Thursday after holding out for a week in his home region in the southern part of the country, where he reportedly retained some popular support despite widespread corruption and growing human rights abuses that characterized his five-year tenure. 

His departure coincided with the resumption of full operations at the Manas base which had closed after the start of the bloody revolt that began Apr. 6 in Bishkek, the capital. 

The basic conditions for his exile and recognition of the new regime were worked out at the Nuclear Summit here earlier this week in a meeting among Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, according to a statement released by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 

But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose hostility toward Bakiyev has been long established, also reportedly played a key role. 

As president, Putin had supported Bakiyev’s predecessor, Askar Akayev, who was ousted in a 2005 revolt that became known as the "Tulip Revolution" — one in a series of "color revolutions" that rippled along the southern borders of the former Soviet Union and that were seen by Moscow as U.S. efforts to reduce its influence. 

With an annual per capita income of just over 2,000 dollars, Kyrgyzstan is the second poorest — after Tajikistan — of the former Soviet republics. The Bakiyev government was hard hit by the steep rises in food and fuel prices beginning in 2006. 

In 2009, Russia agreed to cancel a sizable portion of Kyrgyzstan’s bilateral debt, subsidize its oil bill, and provide nearly two billion dollars in new investment in the country’s power sector and other infrastructure. The quid pro quo, according to published accounts, was Bakiyev’s agreement to terminate the Manas lease. 

Bakiyev indeed announced his intention to close the base when the lease expired but, to Moscow’s considerable annoyance, later reversed his decision after the Obama administration agreed to triple its annual rental payments. 

According to Central Asia specialist, Dilip Hiro, Bakiyev also extracted a promise that Washington would not criticize last July’s elections in which the president officially won some 80 percent of the vote. International election observers, notably the OSCE, denounced the vote as not credible. 

Washington’s silence about both the elections and the regime’s increasing repression were made worse by the fact that Bakiyev’s son, Maxim, was the beneficiary of Pentagon contracts to provide aviation fuel and other services at Manas. 

The fact that Maxim was heading an official delegation to Washington for bilateral consultations with senior U.S. officials when the latest revolt broke out did not help Washington’s image with the opposition. 

Indeed, at a press conference Thursday in Bishkek, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, who rushed to the Kyrgyz capital earlier this week, assured reporters that Washington had "postponed" meetings with Maxim’s delegation as soon as the protests had begun and that Washington will review and rebid the Manas supply contracts "if there have been irregularities" in their negotiation. 

Blake also stressed that Washington stood ready to "provide technical and other assistance" for new national elections and other measures "to create a democracy that could be a model for Central Asia and the wider region" in addition to the 60 million dollars it would be providing the country this year. 

In her interview with the Post, Otunbayeva, who served as ambassador to Washington under two governments, indicated that the new regime, despite its intention to extend the base accord, still harbored some resentment toward the U.S. for its past support of Bakiyev. 

"I would say that we have been really unhappy that the U.S. Embassy here was absolutely not interested in the democratic situation in Kyrgyzstan," she said. "It was not paying attention to our difficulties over the last two years." 

"We concluded that the base is the most important agenda of the U.S. not our political development and the suffering of the opposition and the closing the papers and the beating of journalists," she went on. "They turned a blind eye." 

In that respect, Moscow, which, in contrast to Washington, recognized the interim government and offered it economic and other forms of assistance as soon as it gained control of Bishkek, appears to have emerged in a much stronger position.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.