Kyrgyzstan, which hosts both Russian and U.S. military bases on its territory, appears to be walking a fine line in its dealings with the two powers.
Reports continue to predict that Kyrgyzstan is preparing to inform the United States that the critically important Manas air base, which serves as the main staging point for sorties to Afghanistan, will no longer be part of the war effort.
Pundits speculate that by ending U.S. use of the air base, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev could enter upcoming talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on solid footing as he tries to secure sorely needed loans and investment.
"Obviously, at the moment it's only speculation. But I think there are some aspects of it which need to be considered seriously, says Mathew Clements, Eurasia editor in the Country Risk Department for Jane's Information Group in Britain.
"For instance, the fact that Kyrgyzstan still has $180 million-worth of debts with Russia; its economy is straggling at the moment; there are electricity shortages; it's in a perilous situation economically," Clements notes. "I think Russia would be the country that can offer the most assistance in this period and it's one of the closest allies traditionally, and a traditional protector."U.S. Priority
This, in turn, would present a huge hurdle to the incoming U.S. administration of Barack Obama, which has said it seeks to boost the Afghan war effort with the addition of up to 14,000 fresh troops.
But the top U.S. military commander, in Bishkek as part of a Central Asian tour as he prepares a new Afghan strategy report due in February, made it clear the United States views the continued use of Manas as a priority.
Manas is a key transit point for flights to Afghanistan.
After discussing a new Afghan supply route with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said on January 17 in Dushanbe that the United States had "no plans to change anything" regarding the Manas deal, and in Bishkek he discredited the idea entirely.
"We did not discuss such possibilities at all," Petraeus said. "We did discuss the news reports of that item, and each governmental official with whom I met noted that the source of that story was not [the Kyrgyz] government. It was one press source from another country that has been repeated by other newspapers and media and that there is no foundation to it."
The Kyrgyz government has never officially announced any intention of ending the lease of Manas to the United States, which has been in place since 2001 and is said to account for the bulk of Kyrgyzstan's foreign-currency income. In Bishkek, Petraeus said negotiations on the lease would be held, and that the $63 million annually the United States currently pays might be increased.Economic Factors
But in lieu of a deal, reports to the contrary are not likely to go away. Following reports in the Russian media, Western media as recently as January 18 quoted unnamed Kyrgyz officials as saying an announcement ending the Manas deal will be made ahead of Bakiev's visit to Moscow, currently slated for February.
Bakiev's visit has repeatedly been postponed, prompting further speculation that Moscow is wary of showing support for a Kyrgyz president who rode U.S. support to power.
But even as the details of Bakiev's visit were still being clarified, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov was in Moscow last week for talks on the release of a low-interest, $300 million loan. The investment of $1.7 billion into Kyrgyzstan's ailing energy sector was also reportedly discussed.
At the same time, former Defense Minister Ismail Isakov tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that ending the U.S. lease of the Manas air base would not be in Kyrgyzstan's best interests.
Isakov says closing the U.S. base "would not be the right step because Kyrgyzstan is contributing to the global war against international terrorism. It's written [in the Manas agreement] that the Americans would only leave when peace is restored in Afghanistan. Right now the war is getting more intense there, on the contrary."
In addition, Isakov said that the United States "is also rendering great assistance to Kyrgyzstan's welfare." The total value of the Manas base to the Kyrgyz economy is estimated at $150 million a year.
Similar views have been expressed in assessing Russia's true interest in seeing the United States unable to use Manas, seen as a critical piece of the international "war on terror."
Russia, too, is seen as interested in working with the new U.S. administration, and would not want to be seen as alienating its allies in the effort.
General Petraeus appeared to play on this sentiment during his comments in Dushanbe. "It is in the interest of all states in the region and really in the world to see the endeavor in Afghanistan succeed," he said.
"It is in the interest of all countries to ensure that again the narcotics trafficking is countered, and to ensure that extremism is dealt with, and that extremists do not again take over and use Afghanistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks around the world," Petraeus said.