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Kyrgyzstan: Is Bishkek Moving Toward Russia Ahead Of Elections?

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov said yesterday that U.S. AWACS reconnaissance planes will not be deployed at the Ganci air base outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Aitmatov made the statement after a trip to Moscow. Some observers say the Kyrgyz government's decision was made to please Russia, with the aim of gaining the Kremlin's support ahead of 27 February parliamentary elections and the presidential election in October.

Prague, 15 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov's visit to Moscow resulted in two decisions.

The first -- announced on 11 February -- was to send more Russian military equipment and weaponry to the Russian Kant air base near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The other decision was to deny the U.S. request to deploy the AWACS reconnaissance planes at the U.S. Ganci air base, which is also near Bishkek.

"It has been decided that the deployment of planes of this type [AWACS] would not quite fit the mandate of the Ganci air base, which is to provide support to the operation in Afghanistan," Aitmatov said yesterday. "We hope our Western partners and friends will accept Kyrgyzstan's position with understanding."

Aitmatov said the second decision was a result of negotiations with the United States and consultations with the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia is a member of both organizations, and Aitmatov made the statement denying the request to base the AWACS in Kyrgyzstan two days after his Moscow trip.

The United States opened the Ganci air base, which is at Bishkek's Manas airport, in late 2001 to conduct antiterrorism and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. Russia's Kant military base, about 20 kilometers east of Bishkek, was opened in October 2003.

On 11 February, the head of the Russian Air Force, General Vladimir Mikhailov, told ITAR-TASS that the Kant runway will be extended to accommodate all types of aircraft. The report said the base has about 500 officers and servicemen with 20 Sukhoi jet fighters and bombers.
"It is particularly important for us, practically and politically, when international observers from CIS countries come here, and for one simple reason: We share the same historical background, we have a common mentality, a common culture." -- Sulaiman Imanbaev, Kyrgyz Central Election Commission chairman

Do the decisions by the Kyrgyz government mean it is prepared to lessen its cooperation with Washington in order to please Moscow?

Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" wrote on 12 February that the Kremlin asked Aitmatov to refuse the U.S. request to deploy the AWACS planes at Ganci. According to "Kommersant-Daily," in exchange for denying the request, the Kremlin promised to support Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev in the October presidential election and pro-presidential forces in this month's parliamentary elections.

"Obviously, President Akaev wants Russian support during his political period," said David Lewis, director of the Central Asia project for the International Crisis Group, speaking from Bishkek. "And one of the irritants in the relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Russia is the [U.S.] air base. And while it's seen as just about acceptable as a base against terrorism, any additional moves could create a problem."

Based on recent comments, Akaev is concerned about the possibility of an Orange Revolution taking place in his country. He has repeatedly said Kyrgyzstan does not need "exported revolutions" and that any attempt to radically change the political situation could lead to civil war.

In order to prevent any radical changes from taking place during the elections, Akaev is seeking Russia's support, Lewis said.

Kyrgyz officials have made several visits to Russia in the last few months, and Akaev visited Moscow in January. Official statements said the purpose of Akaev's visit was to participate in 250th anniversary celebrations for Moscow State University. Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 January that Akaev introduced his son, Aydar, who is running for a parliamentary seat, to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some observers think Akaev sought the Kremlin's support on that trip and requested that Putin visit Kyrgyzstan before the parliamentary elections.

Putin is not due to visit Kyrgyzstan until July; Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov is slated to come in March.

At the same time, Kyrgyz authorities have welcomed a delegation from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) tasked with monitoring the parliamentary elections. The head of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, Sulaiman Imanbaev, said the CIS observers -- led by Russian Vladimir Rushailo -- have a better understanding of the Kyrgyz environment than observers from Western countries.

"It is particularly important for us, practically and politically, when international observers from CIS countries come here, and for one simple reason: We share the same historical background, we have a common mentality, a common culture," he remarked on 28 January in Bishkek. "And observers who come here without translators will watch, feel, assess [the elections] more objectively and more realistically."

The conclusions of CIS election observers usually differ from those of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe and are seldom critical of election practices in the former Soviet republics. A previous CIS delegation that was also led by Rushailo assessed December's parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan as "free and fair," while the OSCE said those polls fell short of international standards. Likewise, a CIS delegation proclaimed the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election as proper, though the results were later overturned by the Ukrainian Supreme Court and a rerun was held that made Viktor Yushchenko the president.

The question is: Does Moscow even want to support Akaev? The Kremlin seems to be more cautious in supporting any post-Soviet leadership after its wholehearted yet unsuccessful backing for Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych.

"I think the Russians will be a lot more careful to not put all their eggs in one basket, as it was in Ukraine," Lewis said. "Certainly, for the Russians, what they want is a stable partner that they know well and they can work with and, I think, probably, President Akaev is easier for them to deal with than some of the other political forces."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week during a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart in Moscow that "Russia does not take any sides in election campaigns in CIS countries," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported today.

After perhaps learning their lesson in Ukraine, Russian officials seem to have changed their tactics. In Moscow on 10 February, they met with Kyrgyz opposition leaders, including Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) co-Chairwoman Roza Otunbaeva, who has thus far been barred by Kyrgyz authorities from running for parliament.