New Kyrgyz Leaders Say US Can Use Air Base

Kyrgyzstan’s new leaders sought to reassure Washington Thursday that it can continue to use the strategic Manas airbase near the capital Bishkek as a supply link for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the interim government, told reporters in Bishkek that as far as the base’s fate was concerned, "the status quo would remain." 

Otunbayeva’s remarks came amid growing uncertainty over whether the new Kyrgyz authorities would allow the U.S. to use the base. 

However, the Kyrgyz leader also said new issues needed to be considered, without elaborating further. That might suggest the new government will seek a renegotiation and possibly increase the annual rent of around 60 million dollars that the U.S. pays to use the airbase. 

The remarks by Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister, came after some opposition leaders had called Wednesday for the closure of the base. 

U.S. officials say that despite the political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan, the Manas airbase is still operating. 

"Currently there are limited operations at Manas airfield," Reuters news agency quoted Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman as saying. "Our support to Afghanistan continues and has not been seriously affected. And we are hopeful that we will be able to resume full operations soon." 

On Wednesday, anti-government protestors overthrew the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in a brief but violent uprising. Otunbayeva has said that her government is now in charge and has appointed new ministers. 

Thousands of people took to the streets in major cities across the country on Tuesday and Wednesday protesting against corruption and increasing utility costs. The protests turned violent, especially in Bishkek on Wednesday, where nearly 40 people were killed and 400 others injured, according to ministry of health sources. However, opposition leaders told the Associated Press that 100 people had been killed. 

The exact whereabouts of President Bakiyev is unknown, but according to the BBC Russian service, he is somewhere in his home province of Jalal Abad in the southern part of the country. Bakiyev told BBC Russian that he refuses to "admit defeat in any way" but has acknowledged that he holds no "real levers of power." 

The interim leader, Otunbayeva, is a seasoned politician who was a foreign minister before the country’s Tulip Revolution five years ago. She also served in various positions during the Soviet era, including ambassador to Malaysia. 

Political turmoil is nothing new to Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, Kyrgyz protestors toppled the government of Askar Akayev following disputed parliamentary elections. Deep public dissatisfaction over corruption and Akayev’s perceived authoritarianism played a major role in his ouster during the Tulip Revolution. He had ruled the country since its independence in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990. 

The close ties between the new Kyrgyz leaders and Russia could be worrying for the U.S. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to recognize the legitimacy of the new government in Bishkek. 

The U.S. has so far refrained from any comments on the legitimacy of the new opposition-led government, although the U.S. embassy in Bishkek said on Wednesday it was "deeply concerned" about "civil disturbances" in the country. 

There had been concerns in Washington that the opposition takeover would plunge the fate of Manas base into uncertainty. 

Last year, the country’s parliament, in which the opposition parties had a powerful presence, voted to close down the base due to a failure of U.S. and Kyrgyz governments to agree on a higher rent for the facility. 

But after President Barack Obama’s personal intervention, Washington agreed to triple the rent from less than 20 million dollars per year to 60 million dollars. Kyrgyzstan renewed the contract but renamed the base a "transit center" and imposed a condition on the U.S. to use the Manas base for the transit of "non-lethal" goods to Afghanistan. 

According to some reports, Bishkek’s decision to close the base had been motivated by the promise of a lucrative aid package of 2.15 billion dollars from Russia. Moscow has been increasingly concerned about U.S. military’s prolonged stay on its neighbor’s soil. Kyrgyzstan is also home to a Russian base. 

Some experts believe the new government cannot afford to shut down the base, especially since it needs international recognition and backing. 

"If the opposition talks about closing Manas, they would burn their bridges with the West before building them," Oksana Antonenko, a Russia expert at the London-based Institute of International Strategic Studies, told the Christian Science Monitor. "The people who are putting this unity government together, I don’t think they are corrupt and looking to enrich themselves." 

President Bakiyev, who was initially known as a pro-U.S. figure, started to play Moscow and Washington against each other. Although he came to power following the Tulip Revolution with a promise of democratic and transparent governance, he soon turned Kyrgyzstan into a one-party state. 

The country was run by a small clique of Bakiyev and his relatives, sparking widespread frustration among Kyrgyz. In recent months, the government had increased its crackdown on the opposition and its media. 

"Many political experts in Bishkek believe Moscow is punishing Bakiyev for his administration’s failure to evict American forces from the Manas air base," David Trilling and Chinghiz Umetov wrote Tuesday in the New York-based EurasiaNet, a news and analysis website on Eurasian nations. 

Russia had reportedly caused a spike in gasoline and fuel prices in Kyrgyzstan by imposing new customs duties on petroleum products exported to the small central Asian nation. 

Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest republics of the former Soviet Union, has been an economically impoverished nation since its independence in 1990s.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.