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Central Asia news

Outstanding schemers. Moscow and Bishkek played out the Manas intrigue to the end

30.06.2009 12:15 msk

Sanobar Shermatova

Analytics Kyrgyzstan

Was there deceit?

It was the parliament of Kyrgyzstan that dotted all Is and crossed all Ts in the lengthy debates over the future of the more than 1,000 men strong American military contingent. It happened on June 25 when the parliament ratified the bilateral Kyrgyz-US agreement on establishment of the Transit Center to Afghanistan in Manas. Formally, the solution is ideal: the base is no more, its functions will be performed by the Transit Center.

Everyone decided that Moscow was cheated, owing it to its patent inability to develop relations with its partners with the skill demonstrated by Washington. Dmitry Medvedev seconded Bishkek's decision to continue participation in the counter-terrorism coalition, but the general consensus was that he was trying to make the best of a bad bargain. Much more credibility was lent to the words of an anonymous Russian diplomat whom a respectable Russian newspaper quoted as promising the Kyrgyzes an "adequate response". The media even offered a broad assortment of options varying from refusal of the promised credits to introduction of the visa regime to extradition of labor immigrants.

On the other hand, the hypothesis of a "surprise" Bishkek sprang on its unsuspecting Russian partners fails to jibe with established facts. Kyrgyzstan was discussing the matter with the Americans all these months. Its official denials could not deceive anyone because the Americans regularly confirmed the fact of the talks. Kyrgyz officials themselves admitted that the Kyrgyz state was getting too little for the presence of the US air base, as though implying that the decision might be revised yet.

The political leadership in Bishkek was preparing general public for precisely this turn of events. When some government official informed the country of the request from President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai to let the American military remain in Kyrgyzstan, it was but another confirmation that let the Americans remain was precisely what Bishkek intended. The confidential letter would have never been leaked to general public otherwise. This deliberate leak preceded a personal meeting between Bakiyev and Karzai within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, i.e. right under the Russian politicians' very noses. In a word, it is hard to swallow the assumption that Moscow had no inkling at all. Considering the fact that the US Administration regularly announced continuation of the talks over the base right in the capital of Russia, it is clear that Moscow couldn't be so naive as to suspect nothing.

Medvedev and Bakiyev play one and the same game and driving the Americans out of Kyrgyzstan is not what they are after. Bakiyev's statement on the forthcoming shutdown of the US air base made in Moscow in Medvedev's presence was a message to the United States. Washington was told that if it wanted to remain in Kyrgyzstan, it would have to discuss the matter with Moscow too. As the events that followed indicate, Washington did not have to be told twice.

Straightforward Western journalists could keep racking their brains over how to jibe Kyrgyzstan's frequently stated willingness to remain in the counter-terrorism coalition and its intention to shut down the base which was vital for logistics of the military operations in Afghanistan. Or they could keep arguing over what Russia was really after, considering that it had paid (or so many believed) to see the last of the Americans on the one hand and provided its own territory for maintenance of the forces of the coalition in Afghanistan on the other.

Answers to all these questions exist even now.

Everyone benefited

Financial victory is undeniably Bishkek's. Instead of the $17 million it was annually paid for the air base, it will be paid $60 million for the Transit Center now. Together with all other costs, the sum will amount to $170 million. Even that, however, is not all. Kyrgyzstan is involved in the talks with France over participation in humanitarian operations in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz officials were clearly hurt that the United States had used their country merely as a bridgehead and never let it become a full member of the counter-terrorism coalition. Odds are, their dreams will come to pass now. Number one candidate for presidency, Bakiyev never misses a chance to remind voters that Kyrgyzstan has shown itself as an independent and strong participant in international affairs.

The results are impressive indeed: tariffs increased tenfold and so did Bishkek's international status.

But why would Russia play games with the Americans knowing that Kyrgyzstan alone stood to benefit from it?

This is where it is necessary to scan the latest history of the Russian-US relations. They peaked for the first time in years in 2001 when Vladimir Putin backed the United States and endorsed Central Asian countries' participation in the counter-terrorism coalition. The Americans consulted with Moscow then, regarding it an ally in the common war. Soon, however, Russia's partners changed their tune. The Americans discovered that they did not need Moscow to broker their relations with Central Asian leaders. US newspapers pointed out then that Putin had made a mistake thinking that status of America's ally would enable Russia to boost its strategic clout with Central Asia. In late 2001, the US Department of State was already talking the necessity to assist the new allies in Central Asia with development of democratic societies and free market economies, the objectives that stipulated long-term presence in the region.

As it turned out, the Central Asian countries themselves had no objections to being aided by the United States. On an official visit to Washington in March 2002, Islam Karimov asked the hosts to consider continuation of their military presence on Uzbekistan. Senior Deputy Premier Rustam Azimov explained to The Washington Post that his president had meant US business presence in Uzbekistan rather than any larger financial compensation for participation of this country in the counter-terrorism coalition. "Our relations with the United States in the sphere of security are fine. It is time to focus attention on economic cooperation to help (Uzbekistan) with economic reforms and inflow of capitals," Azimov said.

As if to avert suspicions, Karimov announced that establishment of strategic relations with the United States should worry no third country. Russian politicians, however, did find it a cause for worry because strengthening of the American positions in Central Asia was the last thing they wanted. Russian diplomats made it clear to partners during the informal CIS summit in Chimbulak, Kazakhstan, in 2002 that American military presence in Central Asia should be regarded as a passing condition. The Russians even implied that too close a friendship with Washington would entail the demands to make the Central Asian regimes more democratic. Did Central Asian leaders, each of them counting on presidency for life, really want it?

Knowing better than trust its allies, Moscow dispatched diplomats to Washington where they brought up the necessity to set temporal limits to the US military presence in Central Asia before the Department of State. Not that the Russians were telling the Americans to shut down their bases in Central Asia. After all, elimination of the Talibs in Afghanistan was in Russia's own interests. Bringing up the matter, Moscow reminded the United States that it was operating in the "region of Russia's vital interests".

The Americans chose to ignore the message. American military presence in Central Asia continued to enlarge. US military instructors turned up in Georgia in 2002 and began training the regular Georgian army. US President George W. Bush pronounced this particular project to have his personal support. In the long run (in August 2008, that was), actions of the US-trained and -equipped Georgian army necessitated deployment of the Russian Armed Forces in South Ossetia and all but put Russia and the United States on the brink of a shooting war. Relations between Moscow and Washington entered another Cold War period. Contacts with NATO were suspended on Washington's initiative. A look at statements Russian officials were making then plainly indicates the issue they constantly raised when corroborating the necessity for the Alliance to continue cooperation with Russia. This issue was Afghanistan.

Indeed, Afghanistan is probably the only issue where success depends on how cooperative Russia is. The decision of the new US Administration to make Afghanistan a priority became a godsend for the Kremlin.

It should be admitted that Russian politicians made the best of it. For the first time since 2001 Russia found itself with a certain leverage when it permitted transit to forces of the counter-terrorism coalition in Afghanistan via its territory and proved to have retained sufficient clout with Central Asian states. In fact, Medvedev even has some aces up its sleeves for the use during his forthcoming meeting with the American counterpart in Moscow next month where development of the ABM system in Europe will be discussed (among other issues). The Americans have always dismissed Moscow's protestations against appearance of the missile shield near the Russian borders. Permission to the Americans to retain military presence in Kyrgyzstan may be presented as a gesture from Moscow now.

There is only one matter that requires clarification. What did Russia pay Kyrgyzstan for with aid and a loan of more than $2 billion? Under the terms of the agreement, Russian companies will receive a substantial interest in Dastan (a major enterprise of the Kyrgyz military-industrial complex) and in the future Kambarata Hydroelectric Power Plant. Also importantly, the air base in Kant will remain in Kyrgyzstan another 49 years. Since both Russia and Kyrgyzstan are members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, military presence costs the former nothing. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan becomes Russia's exclusive partner and ally in Central Asia (which will be costly of course). Part of the Russian financial package was used for social payments to the population. Considering the forthcoming presidential election in Kyrgyzstan scheduled for July, it will have a positive effect on Bakiyev's chances to be reelected. One may wonder at the true value of the assets Russia is getting in Kyrgyzstan, but that it has benefited from the standpoint of relations with the United States and NATO is unquestionable.

Sanobar Shermatova (exclusive for Ferghana.Ru news agency)