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Central Asia: Diplomatic Visits Highlight U.S., Russian Competition

On 5 December, Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to Bishkek for talks with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Askar Akaev. The following week, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov will meet with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington. Both meetings are expected to focus on similar issues -- chief among them, the expanding U.S. and Russian military presence in Central Asia.

Prague, 3 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After leaving in mid-1999, Russian military units are returning to Kyrgyzstan in the name of fighting terrorism and maintaining regional stability. Last week, Russian military jets began landing at Kant airport, about 20 kilometers from the capital, Bishkek.

Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev said the Russian air base is being set up in accordance with the Collective Security Treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Topoev says that by tomorrow, some 20 jets and around 700 Russian military personnel are expected to be stationed at Kant.

Topoev said the Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan is aimed at fostering peace and stability in the region, which he says is faced with the threat of Islamic extremism. "There is a need [for a permanent Russian military base], dictated by those threats and challenges to the Central Asian region. And it is a component of building up a collective rapid-reaction force. It will conduct two tasks: One is purely on the united air-defense system, which [includes] SU-27 [aircraft], and the other is on securing land forces. These are army aviation, or attack planes, as we call them, which are SU-25s, and they will be deployed here starting next year."

According to Topoev, the Russian air base at Kant will be permanent and will be gradually expanded. The exact number of aircraft and military staff stationed there will be decided during a CIS summit in April. The base is expected to be one of the topics discussed when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Bishkek on 5 December.

Meanwhile, some 25 kilometers from Kant, 3,000 troops from the U.S. and other Western nations are deployed at Kyrgyzstan's Manas airport. These forces share the same objective -- to fight terrorism and Islamic extremism and provide stability in the region.

Observers believe the return of Russian troops to Kyrgyzstan is a strong sign that a new rivalry is developing between Moscow and Washington in Central Asia -- a rivalry whose ultimate aim is to establish political and economic control over the region, rather than merely fighting terrorism.

Aleksei Malashenko is a professor at the Moscow Institute for International Relations. He said that efforts to set up a permanent Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan are taking place as a political crisis grips the country. Akaev has accused opposition protesters of trying to destabilize the country, and has indicated that he has no intention of responding to calls for his resignation. The comments come amid regular protests from opposition members demanding that Akaev resign and that authorities responsible for the deaths of protestors in the spring be brought to justice.

Malashenko said the Russian military presence in the country will serve -- first and foremost -- to maintain the rule of President Akaev, who is considered to be pro-Moscow. "The kinds of developments that have taken place in Kyrgyzstan in October and November, in my point of view, exactly point out that the current Kyrgyz political elite is very much interested in cooperation with Moscow. At least cooperation with Moscow, including military cooperation, gives some confidence [to Akaev's regime], while the American military presence, in my opinion, in no way influences its stability or its future."

Kyrgyzstan is unique in the region in that it is hosting both U.S. and Russian bases on its territory. In addition, some reports say that China has also asked to locate its troops in Kyrgyzstan within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Alisher Abdimomunov, a deputy in the Kyrgyz Legislative Assembly and head of the parliamentary Committee of International Relations, said that turning Kyrgyzstan into a military base for world powers such as the U.S., Russia, and China poses dangers for the whole region. "I think this future is very dangerous because we do not know how the countries and organizations which are chasing different geopolitical interests in the region will co-exist with each other, or better to say, whether they will they co-exist peacefully."

On 9 December, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov is due to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House. Media reports say the creation of a permanent U.S. military base in Tajikistan will be among the main issues discussed at this meeting. Tajikistan, although it hosts some 25,000 Russian border guards on its soil, is also searching for more support and economic aid from the U.S.

Malashenko said Putin's visit to Kyrgyzstan and Rakhmonov's reception at the White House are indirectly connected and indicate that the process of the military reapportionment of Central Asia is under way, with the U.S. and Russia as the main players. "I think that these visits and these cross-negotiations and cross-actions in the direction of creating military bases in Central Asia do not mean that the Russian military presence in Central Asia is simply being replaced by an American one. It means that there are attempts to adjust or provide political stability from the outside."

Uzbekistan is hosting some 3,000 American troops on its territory. Yesterday, Kazakhstan offered its airport in the southern city of Shimkent to U.S.-led coalition forces. Of the five Central Asian states, only Turkmenistan, which declared its neutrality after its independence, has remained apart from these military developments.

Malashenko said he believes that both Russia and the U.S. are interested in stability and peace in the region, and that the military presence of these two nations in the region may, in the end, actually serve this goal.

Other observers worry, however, that the U.S. and Russian military presence may serve to prolong the rule of the authoritarian leaders in the region who allowed such deployments in the first place, and who they say are blocking democratic and economic development in the region - the only real guarantee of stability.