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Kyrgyz Political Circles Split On Manas Decision

U.S. soldiers will have to leave the air base -- unless Bishkek orders a strategic delay
U.S. soldiers will have to leave the air base -- unless Bishkek orders a strategic delay
Intense discussion of the implications of the anticipated closure of the U.S. air base at Manas continued over the weekend, with most Kyrgyz opposition parties making their objections clear.

On February 7, a non-governmental organization named the Popular-Patriotic Revolutionary Movement for the Struggle Against the Corrupt System asked the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek to convey to U.S. President Barack Obama a statement opposing the planned closure of the base.

Opposition politician and businessman Omurbek Abdyrakhmanov, who is currently in the United States, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that 10 years ago, Islamic terrorists supported by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan penetrated Kyrgyzstan's mountainous Batken district. Dozens of Kyrgyz servicemen died in the ensuing fighting. Abdyrakhmanov believes the Manas base served to strengthen Kyrgyzstan's independence, security, and commitment to democracy.

Topchubek Turgunaliyev, a well-known political figure and human rights activist, similarly told RFE/RL that the international air base contributed to stability and security in Kyrgyzstan. Not only Islamic militants, he said, "but others too have maintained a very low profile since the opening of the base," Turgunaliyev said.

But now, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev "is under pressure from Moscow" to expel international forces, Turgunaliyev added.

'Correct Decision'

By contrast, opposition Free Kyrgyzstan party leader Tursunbay Bakir Uulu, who is also one of the leaders of the Union of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan, argued that the U.S. air base should have been closed long ago, together with the Russian base at Kant.

National Security Council Secretary Adakhan Madumarov, a member of the pro-presidential Ak-Jol (Best Path) Popular party, said on February 6 that the Kyrgyz authorities made the correct decision. He rejected opposition allegations that the decision was made under pressure from Moscow.

The Kyrgyz parliament is expected to vote next week on a draft law annulling the bilateral agreement with the United States on the use of Manas. To date, only parliamentarians from the opposition Social Democratic Party have come out publicly against annulling the treaty.

The leader of the Communist Party, Iskhak Masaliyev, has affirmed support for the president's decision, as have several Ak Jol deputies.

Bakiev's unexpected announcement that Manas would be closed was made during a working visit to Moscow on February 3, shortly after he secured promises from the Russian leadership of a massive aid package totaling more than $2 billion (or almost the equivalent of Kyrgyzstan's current total state debt).

Responding to a question from an ITAR-TASS correspondent, Bakiev confirmed that he had discussed the Manas base with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev several times.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Medvedev, Bakiev said that over the past three years, Bishkek has more than once asked Washington to increase the rent it pays for Manas, but without success.

Bakiev further complained that for two years he has pressured top U.S. officials over Washington's refusal to extradite to Kyrgyzstan a U.S. serviceman accused of the fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz national, Aleksandr Ivanov, at Manas in December 2006. He said that refusal had given rise to "negative feelings" among the population, who "justifiably" question the rationale for the U.S. presence. For that reason, Bakiev said, "the government of Kyrgyzstan decided just a few days ago to annul the lease agreement."

Russian officials immediately distanced themselves from Bakiev's announcement. At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia will permit the United States to transport non-military supplies to Afghanistan via Russian territory.

Risk Of Isolation

Both Kyrgyz and Russian analysts have made the point that Moscow is seeking to reach a consensus with Washington over supplies for Afghanistan, and that Bishkek will find itself in self-imposed isolation from a crucial regional undertaking.

Western governments, however, are well aware that Russia was not happy with the prolonged U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan. U.S. State Department official Robert Wood told journalists on February 4 that the United States will discuss the issue with both the Kyrgyz and Russian governments.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed regret at the Kyrgyz decision the following day. She added that the Pentagon is already making contingency plans to close the base on the assumption that the Kyrgyz parliament will indeed vote to terminate the lease, and she reaffirmed Washington's support for the international antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer criticized the Kyrgyz government's decision in his February 7 address to the 45th annual international security conference in Munich, while at the same time expressing appreciation for Russia's offer to facilitate the transport of non-military goods to Afghanistan.

The significance of the Manas base lies in its suitability for C-17 military transport planes carrying troops and supplies to and from Afghanistan, and for KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft. And as NATO representative Robert Simmons remarked during a recent visit to Bishkek, it is used for that purpose not just by NATO member states, but by other countries that contribute military personnel to Operation Enduring Freedom.

The closure of Manas is not yet a fait accompli, even if the pro-presidential parties represented in parliament are likely to vote in favor. Bakiev's closest entourage has always been split between pro- and anti-Western groups, though the fact that not a single Western head of state has visited Bishkek since the Tulip Revolution of March 2005 clearly indicates which group is stronger.

But the liberal pro-Western group, to which Bakiev's decision to close Manas reportedly came as a total surprise, may nonetheless try to persuade him to reconsider, although their chances of success are admittedly minimal.

Much will depend on the sensitivity of Bakiev and his advisers to criticism of the decision both at home and abroad. Bakiev is already being accused at home of retreating from the "multi-vector diplomacy" he advocated after his rise to power in 2005.

The Kyrgyz leadership might therefore choose to delay the Manas closure for several years. There are several possible reasons that could be cited: "appeals from the international community," or "the need to intensify the war on terrorism," or even "the personal request of President Medvedev, or President Obama, or both of them jointly."

Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev (Chorotegin) is the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.