PRAGUE, 16 February 2006 -- The commander of the Russian Air Force, General Vladimir Mikhailov, and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha met on 16 February with Kyrgyz President Bakiev and Defense Minister Ismail Isakov to discuss the future of the Kant base. Russian troops are stationed at Kant under a CSTO agreement. Upon his arrival for the talks, Mikhailov said, "Our base is here forever."
Russian Deputy Security Council Secretary Yuri Zubakov spoke about the new agreement in Bishkek that same day.
"As of today, after the ratification of the agreement on [the air base in] Kant by the Russian Duma, the Russian Defense Ministry is beginning to upgrade this air base."
A Russian Presence
The base was established as part of CSTO antiterrorism efforts and officially opened in October 2003.
General Mikhailov also announced that troop strength at Kant would be boosted from the current 300 personnel to about 750, and he said more military equipment would be added.
Stephen Blank is a professor of national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. In Blank's opinion, the Kant base is not only important because it gives the Russian military a presence in Kyrgyzstan.
"It's very important for the Russian military and the Russian government because it is the main basis for Russian power projection into Central Asia and for the attempt by Russia to organize the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is Russia's attempt to create a military bloc in Central Asia,” Blank said. “So Kant is the centerpiece of Russian efforts to maintain a ground and air presence in and around Central Asia."
The situation at Kant contrasts with the fortunes of the Manas base, which the U.S.-led coalition uses for operations in Afghanistan. In an interview in the Russian newspaper "Kommersant," President Bakiev said he wanted to raise the annual rent for use of the base from the current $2 million to $207 million.
Manas became more important for the coalition after U.S. criticism of the Uzbek government's violent suppression of a demonstration in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May reportedly left hundreds of people dead. This criticism caused the Uzbek government to demand that coalition forces at a base in Uzbekistan leave the country before the end of last year.
Blank said the Kyrgyz government's demand for more money might just be an opening figure for future negotiations.
"Well, I believe there's going to be a negotiation about this if not an actual agreement. There are some reports actually saying that there was an agreement."
Is Higher Rent Demand A Tactic?
The call for higher rent was not new. President Bakiev said in December that Kyrgyzstan would ask that it be increased a hundredfold. His comments in "Kommersant" were, therefore, not entirely unexpected.
Alex Vatanka is the Eurasia editor at "Jane's Country Risk." He said that the rent increase may simply be a tactic to slowly ease coalition forces out of the country.
"What I would be careful in monitoring is whether the increase is related to making it difficult for America to stay,” he said. “Is this going to be the first step among many, many steps to come to terms of saying first, 'We’re going to increase the actual cost of the base,' then, 'We're going to put other restrictions in terms of mobility, in terms of operational access'? Essentially, not asking the Americans to leave the way the Uzbeks did, but essentially making it so difficult for the American military to be there that they decide to leave. I think that's the thing that we should be looking out for."
The United States has not yet commented on the rent increase, but several high-level officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have visited Kyrgyzstan in the last six months. The rent for the Manas base was no doubt on the agenda of these visits.
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