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Central Asia: Russia Could Double Troops At Kyrgyz Base; Future Of U.S. Base In Doubt

Kant air base Russia's military originally announced last year it would boost its troop strength at the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan, and that more warplanes would be added at the base. However, the military set no time frame for the arrival of the new forces. The issue is now surfacing again, at a moment when the continued presence of U.S. troops on military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is coming under growing criticism.

Prague, 14 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Kant air base was officially opened in October 2003 under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

According to the Krygyz news agency AKIpress, the base now has about 500 Russian troops and 20 combat and transport planes and helicopters.

Murat Ashyrbekov, spokesman of the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry, tells RFE/RL that any increase of Russian troops would require Kyrgyzstan’s approval.

"In order [for Russia] to double or increase [the number of troops at] that air base [Kant], it is necessary to sign an additional intergovernmental agreement in the framework of the CSTO between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. Only after that can they [Russia] officially increase [the number of troops at] the base," Ashyrbekov says.

Ashyrbekov was reacting to a statement by General Vladimir Mikhailov, the head of the Russian Air Force, as saying Moscow is planning to double the number of troops at the base.

Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency yesterday cited Mikhailov as adding that the troop increase would be carried out soon.

Mikhailov spoke on the same day that Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, ratified the 2003 bilateral agreement on the status and terms of the base. Last week, the agreement was ratified in Russia’s lower house, the State Duma.

Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Center for Defense Information in Moscow, says Mikhailov’s statement was timely -- but for a different reason.

“In order to reject its U.S. base, Kyrgyzstan needs to be sure that Russia is ready to take over the mission to provide security in Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s statement about its readiness to increase troops in Kant has to be understood as a statement that it is ready to completely replace the U.S. in the Central Asian region,” Safranchuk says.

Only 40 kilometers from Kant is another base the U.S. military has been using since late 2001. The Ganci base at Bishkek's Manas airport supports operations in Afghanistan.

However, newly elected Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev said this week the necessity of the base in his country should be discussed.

Bakiev’s message was relayed by Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Russia, Apas Jumagulov.

"Now that the load [of military operations] in Afghanistan has decreased and the situation in that country is gradually normalizing, the need for a U.S. base at Manas will also come to an end," Jumagulov says.

It echoed a call by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which last week said the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan should provide a final deadline for the use of facilities and deployment of military contingents in the region. The SCO groups all Central Asian republics except Turkmenistan with Russia and China.

Besides the Ganci base in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. military uses the Khanabad air base near the southern Uzbek city of Karshi, while the French air force uses Tajikistan's Dushanbe airport.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry has said Tashkent intends to reassess Washington's use of the Khanabad base.

The potential strengthening of Russia’s military position vis-a-vis the United States has sparked debate in Kyrgyzstan.

Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the Erkindik (Freedom) Party, tells RFE/RL he favors the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Kyrgyz soil. In the meantime, he says that a military balance between powers should be maintained.

“So far it is OK that Kyrgyzstan is hosting Russian and Western bases. However I oppose the stance taken by leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, who [suggested] that the Western, American troops should leave. In that situation, Russia and China would strengthen their positions [in Kyrgyzstan]. That’s why there is a need for [military] balance here,” Turgunaliev says.

Russia is also solidifying its military presence in Tajikistan. The first permanent Russian military base in the country was dedicated in the capital Dushanbe late last year for the troops of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division.

The Russian division has been stationed in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but a recent agreement formalized the legal status of the unit's presence.

(RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Claire Bigg and Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report.)

See also:

SCO -- Shoring Up The Post-Soviet Status Quo