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28 Jun, 2009 11:18

US money reincarnates Kyrgyz airbase

The American military base at the Kyrgyz airport Manas will be transformed into a transit station. The US agreed to pay an increase in rent for the facility and invested money in several Kyrgyz projects.

The transit center will be used for delivery of non-military cargo for the international coalition in Afghanistan, which the airbase has been doing since its creation in 2001. In February Kyrgyzstan denounced an agreement on maintaining the military base on their territory, following a string of conflicts over the sum of rent and incidents involving the base’s personnel.

The new agreement, which will at least for some time cure NATO’s logistical headache for the Afghan campaign, was signed in Bishkek on Monday. It has a one-year term and can be prolonged annually.

The central Asian country’s parliament has voted unanimously to allow the Pentagon to continue using its Manas airbase for transit. The document is now to be formally signed by President Bakiev.

The decision comes four months after Kyrgyz President Salievich Bakiev announced that the US military, after eight years of using the facility, would have to leave by the middle of August.

Reporting on Tuesday to the parliamentary committee on security, Foreign Minister Kadysbek Sarbayev said the transit base was needed to provide security for Kyrgyzstan itself.

“The worsening of the situation in Afghanistan and military action has cased part of the militants to flee to Central Asia and to Kyrgyzstan in particular. Their capability to provoke a regional conflict is doubtless,” cites the minister Interfax news agency.

The financial factor of the restored base is favorable for Bishkek, since the transit center comes with a $170 million price tag. Rent for the land is $60 million as compared to $17.4 million Kyrgyzstan received for hosting the airbase.

Also, $20 million will be invested into a new US-Kyrgyz development fund, $36.6 million will be spent on construction of warehouses and other facilities of the future center, $30 million will go to upgrading Manas airport’s traffic control equipment. Kyrgyz’s drug trafficking effort will receive a $21.5 million boost, while $10 million will be spent on counter-terrorism.

All airport infrastructure currently used by the American airbase will be handed over to the new transit center, according to a source in the Kyrgyz parliament, cited by RIA Novosti news agency.

Changing the name plate?

Manas airbase is currently manned by over a thousand US military personnel and hosts transport aircraft and mid-air fuelling vehicles. However, after the denouncement of the previous agreement, they were given time until August 18 to leave the country. Last Monday the base’s new commander Col. Christopher Bence said they were prepared to leave if ordered.

“Russia supports the efforts of the antiterrorist coalition in Afghanistan. However, the presence of the military base in Kyrgyzstan is a problematic issue. Actually, the US should correlate all its actions with Russia.”
Mikhail Grishankov,
First deputy chairman of the State Duma Security Committee

It is not clear whether the military will be used to maintain the new transit center. One of the conflicting points over the base between Washington and Bishkek was legal immunity which US soldiers had in Kyrgyzstan. In at least one case a soldier from the Manas base was involved in the death of a local resident, and Kyrgyz authorities could not prosecute him, spurring a scandal in the country.

According to Foreign Minister Sarbayev, employees of the transit center will have the status of “management and technical personnel” of a diplomatic mission. Americans agreed to use local firms where possible to provide the transit center with services. And Kyrgyz authorities will have more say on its operation and will be involved in “providing security of the airport’s perimeter and staffing of checkpoints.” This indicates that the US military may outsource maintaining the base to a private security firm rather than keeping its own people there.

It is not clear what the functions of the airbase will be and to what scale the transit center will operate at.

Opposition lashes at “Government’s adventurism”

The decision to host the transit center was criticized both in Kyrgyzstan and abroad. Leader of the Kyrgyz opposition social-democratic party Bakyt Beshimov blamed the government for being inconsistent and changing its own decisions.

“We’ll return to the situation in the past when the US Air Force base was located in Manas; and others will only get a verbal agreement and a higher payment for the military presence. Since all the players of the large Central Asian region participate to some extent in the coalition forces operation in Afghanistan, Bishkek’s actions of pushing the US airbase out of Manas would look like an attempt of Kyrgyzstan to oppose this operation. We should also take into consideration that Kyrgyzstan is a large debtor to the International Monetary Fund and the American financial institutions, which is has seriously strengthened the position of the US under the conditions of the global financial crisis.”
Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov,
President of the Geopolitical Affairs Academy

“The decision on transit of non-military cargo through Manas is yet another adventure of the Kyrgyz government, which demonstrates lack of tactics and constantly changes its decisions,” Interfax news agency cites him as saying.

Some Russian officials frustrated by the change of policy criticized the move too.

“Kyrgyzstan is similar to other countries of the post-Soviet space. They have a multiple-vector policy, in other words: they take wherever they are given. By its decision Kyrgyzstan has discredited itself as an ally of Russia, as Bishkek had already signed the treaty on the CSTO Rapid Response Forces,” Semen Bagdasarov, from the Russian parliamentary committee on international affairs told ITAR-TASS.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was more cautious when commenting on the news.

“Making such an agreement is certainly a sovereign right of the Kyrgyz Republic. As for transit of non-military cargo for NATO’s counterterrorist mission in Afghanistan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan’s other neighbours in the region agreed to such transit too,” said ministerial spokesman Andrey Nesterenko.

He added that the military base in Manas was announced to be irrevocably closed and that Russia took it for granted.

The news didn’t come out of thin air. Kyrgyz authorities have been sending contradictory signals about their position over the airbase, saying that “the doors are not closed” for the US to stay in some way in the country. Many experts on Central Asian politics speculated that Bishek was simply angling for more money and was not intending to close the base.

February’s announcement of the base closure came shortly after Russia provided Kyrgyzstan with a lucrative aid package and a loan totaling $450 million. It also agreed to invest $1.7 billion in a hydropower plant, which will produce electricity for Kyrgyz consumers. Many observers suggested that Moscow “bought” Bishkek’s agreement to evict Manas airbase, although both Russian and Kyrgyz officials denied the allegations.

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