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Kyrgyzstan: Putin To Attend Official Opening Of Russian Air Base

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Kyrgyzstan tomorrow to attend the official opening of a Russian air base in Kant, near the capital, Bishkek. RFE/RL looks at the significance of establishing a Russian air base in a country that is already hosting other military visitors - part of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition engaged in Afghanistan.

Prague, 22 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Kyrgyzstan today on the final leg of a nine-day Asian tour. He will be accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

The Russian head of state -- who also traveled to Malaysia and Thailand, where he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit -- is due to attend a Russo-Kyrgyz investment forum. But the main point on the program is the official opening tomorrow of a Russian air base at Kant outside the capital, Bishkek. An agreement on the base was signed in late September when Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev visited Moscow.

Speaking to journalists at the signing ceremony, Defense Minister Ivanov said that the agreement takes into account Russia's national interests, as well as the security interests of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which together with Russia, Belarus, and Armenia make up the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

"It is not by chance that we are opening this base in the town of Kant in Kyrgyzstan. 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," Ivanov said.

According to President Akaev, the opening of the Russian air base will prove a "historic" event. He has said he hopes it will symbolize Russia's commitment to maintaining the security and stability of its allies and friends. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev has ensured that Russia's air base will have a "sobering effect" on terrorist groups planning to destabilize the region. he agreement will be in force for at least 15 years, but may then be extended by five-year terms.

According to Vladimir Mikhailov, commander in chief of the Russian Air Force, more than 500 military and civilian personnel and about 20 aircraft -- including attack planes, fighter planes, transport planes, and helicopters -- will be based in Kant. Four trainer planes will also be transferred from Kyrgyzstan's armed forces.

Artem Malgin is deputy director of the center for post-Soviet studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. He said that the establishment of the base, located at the heart of Central Asia and close to the Chinese border, is militarily justified.

"[Russia] has already got the 201st Infantry Division in Tajikistan beside collective forces for rapid deployment and frontier guards stationed in some Central Asian republics. An air base component is essential for this [reason]. Beside air jet interceptors, this base could be used for transport aviation as well that could provide air lifting," Malgin said.

The Russian military is present in all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The bulk of the Russian troops in the region are in the 201st Motorized Infantry Division, whose several thousand soldiers patrol the Tajik-Afghan border.

Malgin emphasizes the "psychological" importance of the Kyrgyz base, which is the first purely Russian military base that Russia has opened in the former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR.

Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York, told RFE/RL that the new air base at Kant will help Moscow project an image to its domestic audience of being the U.S.'s equal in the region. Meanwhile, Olcott noted, President Akaev is eager to make clear that his country is close to great powers without being dependent on any one of them.

"[The Kyrgyz government] didn't want the opening of the U.S. base to give the U.S. anything resembling a veto power over Kyrgyz domestic policies. So [it was necessary to] create an international posture of Kyrgyzstan as closely tied to U.S. security in Kyrgyzstan, as closely tied to Russia's security, and possibly down the road Kyrgyzstan as also tied to Chinese security interests," Olcott said.

Troops from the international antiterrorist coalition led by the U.S. are using the Manas military base in Ganci, only 30 kilometers from Kant, for antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has allowed coalition forces to use its southern air base at Karshi-Khanabad.

Analysts point out that the establishment of the new base goes hand in hand with Moscow's moves to cement its Central Asian position in recent months by promoting multilateral organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Arabella Phillimore is an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy in New York. "It actually goes with a logic or a policy that we've seen develop quite aggressively over the last few months in the region," she told RFE/RL. "Russia has made some very forward moves with various countries, Uzbekistan included, and Kazakhstan. And I believe it's probably a determination to keep U.S. influence in check and to remind the Central Asian republics that their first friend and ally is Russia, and that they shouldn't turn away from Russia as they sign strategic agreements with the U.S."

But Phillimore noted that the presence of the Russian base in Kant does not change the balance of power in the region. And according to Olcott, the new Russian base in Kyrgyzstan does not eclipse the growing role of the U.S. and NATO in the region, in helping Central Asian states improving their defense capacities.

Nevertheless, top Russian officials have repeatedly said that Moscow will continue to increase its military presence in Central Asia. Putin has commented that the opening of the air base was the first step in increasing the Russian presence in the region. In addition, Defense Minister Ivanov has stressed that Russia agreed to the presence of foreign military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan only for as long as counterterrorism operations continue in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Russia are reportedly discussing a plan to reorganize the 201st Motorized Infantry Division into a regular army near the capital Dushanbe.