Base-less: new Kyrgyz president wants US out

Newly-elected Kyrgyz President Atambayev says he will shut down the key US military base in the country. Former President Bakiyev wanted to do the same, but changed his mind a year before a major uprising ousted him from power.

The Manas Airbase was opened in Kyrgyzstan in 2001, after the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and the need to supply the contingent with fuel, weapons and manpower arose. According to Pentagon reports, 15,000 troops and 500 tonnes of military cargo pass through the base every month. Some 1,200 of personnel are stationed there.

However Manas has become the focus of controversy over the decade of its existence. On several occasions Kyrgyz police investigated crimes allegedly committed by Americans, but could not prosecute them because US troops stationed abroad are legally immune. The local population also complains that the transport planes coming to and from the airport cause much damage to the environment, reports RT’s Oksana Boyko.

“I watch the US planes come and go several times a day. I know their schedule. The noise is disturbing, but I sort of got used to it. What’s really bad is that they are killing nature, the fields and the crops. And people’s health is getting worse too,”
a local resident told RT.

Yet another concern us that America’s enemies – which there seem to be plenty of – could target Kyrgyzstan for its hosting the Manas base.

Then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev tried to shut down the base in 2009. The corresponding law passed the parliament, and American soldiers were to leave the site in several months. However, the Pentagon agreed to raise the rent threefold, and Bakiyev’s government circumvented the law it had only just sponsored by re-naming the “Manas Military Base” as the “Manas Transit Center”.

A year later, the regime was ousted by angry protestors on allegations of corruption, some related to payments from the US base.

This year Kyrgyzstan elected a new president. Almazbek Atambayev is the first person to have assumed the office in a peaceful manner, rather than by overthrowing the previous government. During his election campaign, Atambayev had on several occasions announced that once the rent contract for Manas expires in 2014, it will no longer function as a military facility. He cited security concerns as the motive for the decision.

However his predecessor Roza Otunbaeva, who came to power after Bakiyev’s government fell, urged not to jump to conclusions during her recent visit to the US. She said the fate of Manas will largely depend on the situation in Afghanistan. “Let’s wait and see what happens in 2014,” she said.

The new Kyrgyz government will have a strong bargaining point in two years’ time, when the issue is laid on the table before the new American administration. But how strong it will be depends on how much they will need the base in Kyrgyzstan. Many political experts say America will under no circumstances withdraw its presence from the region, but will try to remain flexible regarding in which Central Asian countries to keep its troops. Kyrgyzstan is just one option.

As for the Kyrgyz population, in addition to toxic fuel allegedly dropped on their fields, they get other things from Manas. Bazaars in capital Bishkek have been selling used military gear and accessories for years to great profit. So at least the vendors would be happy to have Americans stay after 2014.