Scant attention has been paid to Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s three-day visit to Kyrgyzstan, which began on May 26.
But some observers think Gul’s trip -- the first to Bishkek by a Turkish president in nine years -- is more than a bilateral visit and might be an important geopolitical gambit in which Gul is doing the West’s bidding.
At Gul’s May 27 press conference with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, the Turkish leader said that “the most important issue of our discussions was the stability of Afghanistan.”
He added that talks were held about how the two countries “could give our support to improve the situation” in Afghanistan.
Gul and Bakiev also signed an agreement in which Ankara and Bishkek pledge to participate in the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan.
Such strong statements about Afghanistan raised suspicions among some experts that Turkey may be trying to persuade the Kyrgyz president to allow U.S. forces to continue their operations at Manas International Airport outside of Bishkek.
Washington has used the air base there to supply U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan since 2001, and the United States was not happy when Bakiev returned from Moscow in February with a Kremlin pledge for more than $2 billion in loans and promptly announced that the United States would have to vacate the air base.
The United States has been scrambling to find replacement bases in Central Asia to continue the crucial supply operations and, although it has received some promising offers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it has made it clear that extending its stay at Manas would be preferred to moving out in August -- as they have been told to do -- and setting up elsewhere.
Despite the parliament’s approval in March to proceed with the eviction of U.S. forces from Manas, some Kyrgyz officials have intimated that there still is a possibility that the Americans could stay at the air base under a new status.
It's possible that Gul could be taking an active role in trying to make a deal with Bishkek that would allow the United States to stay at Manas.
And Turkey -- a strong Washington ally hoping for a rejuvenated relationship with the United States under President Barack Obama -- did not come to Bishkek with empty hands, as more than 100 business people accompanied Gul on the trip to the investment-starved Central Asian country.
Turkey already exerts great economic and social influence in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University has the best facilities and is one of the largest campuses in Kyrgyzstan.
The Turkish-owned Demir-Kyrgyz International Bank is the largest in Kyrgyzstan, and the immense Coca-Cola Company in Kyrgyzstan is also Turkish owned, as are Bishkek's two-largest shopping complexes.
It is also worth noting that this week’s violence in the Uzbek town of Khanabad -- which straddles the Kyrgyz border -- and the threat of instability it brings to the region gives Gul’s visit and any possible talk about U.S. forces staying at Manas greater importance.
Gul would be able to tell Bakiev some of the advantages to having a U.S. military base in your country and is likely to warn him about the disadvantages of relying too much on Russia.
-- Pete Baumgartner