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Kyrgyzstan: President Defends Russian Presence In Central Asia

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has consistently advocated close ties and cooperation between his country and Russia. During his current visit to Moscow, Akaev said he sees no conflict of interest arising from the establishment of a Russian military airfield in Kyrgyzstan under the aegis of the CIS Collective Security Treaty when Kyrgyzstan has already made available an air base to the U.S.-led international antiterrorism coalition engaged in Afghanistan. Akaev also warned against what he termed "shortsighted" efforts to minimize Russia's influence in Central Asia, saying such efforts are doomed to failure.

Prague, 24 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has consistently advocated cooperation between his country and Russia in all spheres -- political, military, economic, and cultural. The need for such cooperation featured prominently in statements by both Russian and Kyrgyz officials during Akaev's ongoing visit to Moscow.

The ostensible reason for the visit was the "Days of Kyrgyz Culture in Russia," of which Akaev attended the opening at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

"Today, for Kyrgyzstan, there is no other country in the world that is closer or dearer than Russia. I declare firmly that you should not worry about the fate of your fellow countrymen in Kyrgyzstan. Their language and cultural needs have always been and will always be fully met and their rights are protected by our constitution," Akaev said.

But the cultural contacts were eclipsed by the signing of a bilateral agreement between the two countries under which Russia will have the use of the Kant air base in northern Kyrgyzstan. The agreement was signed by the defense ministers of Kyrgyzstan and Russia, Colonel General Esen Topoev and Sergei Ivanov, repectively, in the presence of the presidents of both countries, and allows the stationing of between 400 and 500 Russian soldiers and up to 12 Russian warplanes.

Speaking to journalists at the signing ceremony, Akaev said: "I am convinced that this [air base] will increase Russia's important role as an inalienable factor in ensuring stability and security not only in Kyrgyzstan but in the whole Central Asia region which has faced new threats and new challenges in the recent years. I'm convinced that this air base will serve as a stronghold in the fight against these new threats and challenges."

Ivanov said during the same ceremony that the agreement takes into account Russia's national interests, as well as the security interests of Central Asian countries. "It is not by chance that we are opening this base in the town of Kant in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "We proceed from our national interests while taking into account the security interests of our closest allies from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which means in the area where we believe Russia's military presence is most needed, because Central Asia is a stable region, but a complex region too."

The air-base agreement is part of the collective rapid-deployment forces being formed under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB). Kyrgyzstan's contribution to the rapid-deployment force will be L-39 Albatross trainer planes, helicopters, and military-transport planes intended for combating international terrorists.

Asked whether the Russian air base would interfere with the activities of the U.S.-staffed Manas air base, Akaev said they each have their own tasks and would not interfere in each other's activities. Troops from the international antiterrorism coalition led by the U.S. use the Manas military base in Ganci, also near Bishkek, for antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan.

The air-base agreement is the result of months of negotiations, particularly over funding issues. The final agreement specifies that the Russian side will be responsible for funding the base.

Russian President Vladimir Putin commented at the signing ceremony that the opening of the Kant air base was the first step in augmenting the Russian presence in Central Asia in the interest of maintaining regional stability.

But the imprisoned leader of the Kyrgyz opposition party Ar-Namys, Feliks Kulov, criticized the establishment of the Russian air base at Kant, calling it a political move by Moscow that has nothing to do with Kyrgyzstan's security, reported on 22 September. He was quoted as saying that if the Russians were really concerned about Kyrgyz security, they would have established the base in the southern part of the country. Islamic militants infiltrated southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000.

Alex Vatanka is a Western specialist on security issues in Central Asia and the editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He also questioned how useful the Kant base will prove to be. "In regards to the signing of the agreement on the Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan, I think this is another step as part of an overall process that they have had now for some time," Vatanka said. "But when we look on actual construction of this site, on the ground in Kyrgyzstan, as far as I know, they have not actually moved forward at all. So again this is another perhaps gesture. Riding on the back of this base is another political gesture underscoring the importance of good relations with Russia as far as the Kyrgyz government is concerned."

Vatanka predicted that the use Russia makes of the Kant base will depend on the parallel use by the U.S. of the Manas base.

Russian military analyst in Moscow Pavel Felgenhauer likewise questioned the need for a Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan. "At the moment Russia does not need any air base in Kyrgyzstan," he said. "There is nothing happening in Kyrgyzstan, no military action. If Russia needs this in the future, it can send the air force right away. This is just to show that not only NATO forces are in Kyrgyzstan, but Russian forces as well."

Speaking in Moscow to Russia's Foreign and Defense Council, a nongovernmental body, on 23 September, Akaev came out even more strongly in favor of close ties with Russia, and not only in the cultural and economic spheres. He said Central Asia has no future without close cooperation with Russia, especially in the interest of maintaining regional stability.

Akaev said some politicians believe U.S. policy in Central Asia is aimed toward eliminating Russian influence in the area, but such plans, he said, are "doomed to failure." Asked whether China will hamper the growth of Russian political influence in Central Asia, Akaev said Beijing is not concerned, since "it has become accustomed to the situation over the past 200 years."