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31 Jul, 2009 11:07

New security stronghold planned in Central Asia

Tackling terrorism and maintaining security in this strategic area – that was the main focus of the informal summit held by Russia and six other former Soviet states.

The members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have met in Kyrgyzstan to discuss further steps to calm the volatile central Asian region.

Among the key topics was the creation of a joint military base in Central Asia.

The decision to set up a collective rapid response security stronghold in Kyrgyzstan was made at the CSTO summit in February this year. It is expected that forces from all CSTO member states – Armenia, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – will be assigned to the unit.

The issue is expected to be further discussed at a meeting between President Medvedev and his Kyrgyz counterpart on Saturday.

"The base is necessary in case of certain decisions in the CSTO framework. It is not intended for any of our issues," said Kremlin foreign policy aide Sergey Prikhodko.

Kyrgyzstan's president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, suggested it might be a training center rather than a standard military base.

Moscow already has military links with Kyrgyzstan – the Russian Kant air base is located to the east of Bishkek. Agreements on the new base are expected to be signed in the near future, with Southern Kyrgyzstan chosen as the location for the base due to security concerns.

“Religious extremism is a problem for the whole region,” said Aleksandr Knyazev. “We see its signs in the neighboring states of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and I think it's caused by the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan and US policies there.”

Kyrgyzstan is a small country in the heart of Central Asia, but its location makes it attractive for the big players in global politics. An American military base there has already courted controversy.

It is said that every close relationship has to have spice, and in the case of Russia and Kyrgyzstan – the Manas air base is just that.

“Some members of Russia's political elite think that by using this base to satisfy its geo-political interests in Afghanistan, Washington is creating a threat to Russia's national security,” said Aleksandr Knyazev from the Institute of CIS Studies.

The Manas base has been operated by the US and coalition forces since 2001 to support its troops in Afghanistan.

Over the years it has become a source of controversy, with many people calling for it to be closed after an American soldier shot dead a Kyrgyz citizen on December 6, 2006.

This February, the country's authorities denounced the agreement for coalition forces to use the base. But a new deal was signed, under which the US would pay three times more than it did before – or US$170 million for the base to become a transit point for the US Air Force.

US military planes can be seen almost every hour landing and departing from the Manas base. But after nearly a decade of operations in Afghanistan, not much progress has been made in terms of either fighting terror or drug trafficking in the country.

Further, opinion is split over whether the Manas base is likely to be closed in the near future.

“I don't think the Americans will leave anytime soon,” said Tabyldy Orozaliyev, MP and Vice Chairman of the ruling Ak Jol People’s party. “I think they will stay – it's difficult to say when this is going to end.”

Moscow has stressed that as long as Manas remains as only a transit point, it has no problem with its activities.