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Kyrgyzstan: Old Actors, New Priorities -- Or Are They Old Priorities?

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in Bishkek today, backed Kyrgyzstan's new leadership and received assurances that U.S. forces will be able to continue using the Ganci air base for supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld is the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit Kyrgyzstan since the overthrow of the government last month.

Prague, 14 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Talks between U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the new Kyrgyz leadership appeared to signal no significant change in the country's foreign policy.

Speaking at a press conference today in Bishkek, Rumsfeld praised the partnership between the United States and Kyrgyzstan.

"The world, of course, has been watching the events in Kyrgyzstan with great interest. I was pleased to be able to express our appreciation for the cooperation we've had with respect to the war on terror and the important movement toward democracy in Afghanistan," Rumsfeld said.

Interim President Kurmanbek Bakiev assured Rumsfeld that bilateral cooperation in the political, military, and economic spheres will continue. He said, however, that Kyrgyzstan does not intend to serve as a base for surveillance aircraft or additional foreign military troops.

"Our talks with the U.S. defense secretary did not include discussion of the possibility of hosting AWACS aircraft at the air base used by the international antiterrorist coalition," Bakiev said. "Nor did we discuss the issue of deployment of additional military troop contingents [on our territory]. I don't think there is any need for an increase in any foreign military troops in the Kyrgyz Republic. The situation in the Kyrgyz Republic is fully under the control of the government of Kyrgyzstan."
Bishkek has traditionally tried to walk a line between Moscow and Washington, trying to please both and aggravate neither.


AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) are the premier air battle-command and control aircraft in the world today. They feature a radar system permitting wide-ranging surveillance power over both land and water. The radar has a range of more than 320 kilometers for flying targets. Combined with an identification system, AWACS can be used to detect, identify, and track enemy and friendly aircraft.

Experts that say if based in Ganci, AWACS could gather broad and detailed information regarding Russia, China, and other Central Asian states.

Bakiev, in his refusal to host the aircraft, was endorsing a decision made earlier this year by President Askar Akaev. Some observers said Akaev's decision was meant to placate Russia and win Moscow's support ahead of parliamentary elections in late February.

Bakiev's statement today came on the heels of a visit to Moscow by Kyrgyzstan's interim foreign minister, Roza Otunbaeva. It was her first visit abroad since assuming the interim post.

Russian rapid-reaction forces are stationed at Kyrgyzstan's Kant air base, just 30 kilometers from Ganci.

The U.S. military deployed at Ganci in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. The base has been used mainly for operations in Afghanistan.

Bishkek has traditionally tried to walk a line between Moscow and Washington, trying to please both and aggravate neither. But after Akaev fled the country on 24 March amid protests over rigged parliamentary elections, the country has been plagued by political uncertainty.

Analysts say for a small and relatively weak state like Kyrgyzstan, the balancing act is the best possible option. Tanya Malcolm, a Central Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group, spoke to RFE/RL from New York.

“I think the new [Kyrgyz] administration will still want to have a balanced foreign policy, one that pursues good relations with both the U.S. and Russia," Malcolm said. "I think that will mean that Russia and the U.S. both will continue to maintain a military presence in Kyrgyzstan. I think this is because Kyrgyzstan is not really in a position to choose one or the other country, it wouldn’t really benefit it to choose the U.S. or Russia separately."

At today’s press conference, Rumsfeld said the recent events in Kyrgyzstan have not changed the balance of power in the region.

Malcolm said the U.S. and Russian deployment in Bishkek is unlikely to change since the interests of the two countries in Kyrgyzstan don't contradict each other. “This is one issue when, you know, despite other problems in the U.S.-Russia relations, when there is a broad agreement on, and both Russia and the U.S. want to see stability maintained in Kyrgyzstan," she said. "At the moment, that stability is in question. So, I think, this is an opportunity for Russia and the West to cooperate.”

Adding to the equation is Kyrgyzstan's physical proximity to both Russia and China. Bishkek in the past has tried to maintain a balance in its relations with Moscow and Beijing -- as well with more powerful neighbors like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Malcolm believes Beijing, which has offered little official reaction to the recent events in Bishkek, is likely to change its neutral stance only if Kyrgyzstan is threatened by instability -- something that could lead to mounting Islamic extremism. Such circumstances could provoke strong reactions in Moscow and Washington, as well as Beijing.

Otherwise, cooperation between Bishkek, Moscow, and Beijing is likely to continue under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The organization was established in 1996 and groups four Central Asian states, Russia, and China.

Akaev’s policy of maintaining a balancing act also extended to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. However, as Bishkek-based political scientist Emil Juraev notes, it was based not on a considered foreign-policy doctrine, but rather on ad hoc decisions. Juraev told RFE/RL that the new Kyrgyz leadership should revise its relations with its Central Asian neighbors.

“Some changes are likely to be made regarding our closest neighbors like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan," Juraev said. "During Akaev’s governance, our relations and cooperation, particularly in the area of security, were not well defined. They didn’t have conceptual direction. I think the new leadership is aware of the need to have more clear and consistent relations with these states.”

Besides the necessity to keep a balance of power between the United States, Russia, and China, the new Kyrgyz leadership inherited many other problems from Akaev. The new government will have to deal with border issues, enclaves and ethnic minorities, religious extremism and potential separatism, and human and drug trafficking.

For more background on the overthrow of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, see RFE/RL's dedicated website "Revolution In Kyrgyzstan".
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