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Kyrgyzstan's Multivector Foreign Policy Unravels

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has long been a critic of the NATO presence at the Manas air base.
As Kyrgyzstan's parliament prepares to take up the question of closing the U.S. air base at Manas Airport, it appears Kyrgyzstan's "multivector" foreign policy may be coming to an end.

There is little question the country's parliament, heavily dominated by the pro-presidential Ak-Jol party, will bend to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev's will. It may delay ratification of the government's decision, perhaps to somewhat extend the 180 days' advance notice that is required for withdrawal from the agreement that established the base in December 2001.

But whatever the outcome, the parliament's action can be considered a nuanced expression of Bakiev's will, rather than a separate, deliberative legislative process.

Bakiev announced his decision to cancel the base agreement in the context of bilateral negotiations with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow on February 3. The two leaders also announced a complex Russian financial-assistance package for Kyrgyzstan, which included debt forgiveness, $300 million in development credits, and financing totaling nearly $2 billion for the completion of one of Kyrgyzstan's most important power projects, the Kambarat-1 hydroelectric power station.

Bakiev promptly returned to Bishkek, and the parliament ratified the three Kyrgyz-Russian agreements the following day. Yet the parliament's action on abrogating the U.S. air-base agreement was sent to committee for discussion before being scheduled for a vote by the full body. As a rule, entering into new agreements that entail commitments takes as much consideration as exiting old ones, so the government's differing actions on the two sets of accords suggests there may be hidden factors at work.

Bakiev Rejects 'Balance'

Bakiev has long been critical of the presence of European and U.S. troops at the Manas base. He expressed this even while he was prime minister when his predecessor, Askar Akaev, was president. After Bakiev was removed from office during the later stages of the Akaev presidency, he increased this criticism as an element of his opposition to Akaev. After Akaev was forced from office in March 2005 and fled to Moscow, Bakiev captured the presidency and in his inaugural speech called for reconsidering the air-base agreement.

Over the past few months there have been clear indications that the president's office was preparing the arrangements for the legislative changes that emerged last week. Coverage of these rumors in the Russian-language press sharpened the public discussion of the benefits of the air base to Kyrgyzstan and its neighboring countries.

Just two weeks prior to Bakiev's announcement of the intention to close the base, the U.S. Central Command commander, General David Petraeus, visited Kyrgyzstan and described the benefits of the base to that country in stark terms. Petraeus noted the United States had provided on an annual basis about $150 million in assistance programs, including $63 million that is directly associated with the base for the lease of space, airport fees, and local contracts.

Petraeus also underscored that the base was established in the first stages of the international effort to counter the growth of extremism and terrorism in Central Asia and Afghanistan and that Kyrgyzstan was one of the first victims of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz soldiers perished in Batken in 1999 and in other counterinsurgency actions.

U.S. General Petraeus said the base was part of regional security efforts.
The Manas base and the connection with foreign security programs offered an important international connection for Kyrgyzstan. The base also grew to be a vitally important transportation hub for logistical transportation and refueling for antiterrorism and normalization efforts in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan's support for international efforts to solidify security throughout Central Asia and combat insurgency in Afghanistan has been a major pillar in the country's "multivector" foreign policy. Any multivector policy is always a balance, and not always simple and easy. Kyrgyz diplomats in their assignments routinely received directions to maintain good relations with one partner without sacrificing relations with others. Multivector policies imply eschewing exclusiveness and special "spheres of influence."

The terms of improved relations with Russia need not imply exclusion from security cooperation with NATO and the United States. Isolation in the modern world is neither desirable nor, perhaps, even possible in the long run. If Bakiev's administration goes through with the withdrawal from participation in the international coalition, it will significantly narrow the country's opportunities. Becoming wholly dependent upon relations with one country runs the risk of slipping into the position of a "vassal state."

Economic Strain

It may be that the unraveling of Kyrgyzstan's multivectoral policy is less a decision of choice than an act of desperation. Bakiev is facing formidable challenges as he seeks to defend his administration from internal opposition, respond to the difficulties of the global economic downturn, and secure support from the most influential foreign partner in the Eurasian region.

In 2008 the Kyrgyz economy began rapidly contracting following the onset of a slowdown in the global and Central Asian regional economies. Battered by sharp rises in international food and fuel prices, Kyrgyzstan has slipped further down the list of highly indebted countries even as inflation has increased.

Economic growth in Kyrgyzstan's neighboring countries continues to falter, as disarray in the international financial system has spread to the banking system, crimping credit and spending. The remittances sent by Kyrgyz agricultural and construction workers abroad have been curtailed, and many Kyrgyz workers have returned home to find an even more unfriendly job market than the one they left.

The economic downturn has coincided with unfavorable weather conditions that reduced spring runoff last year, leading to depressed water levels at the Toktogul hydropower station, one of Kyrgyzstan's most important industrial facilities. Water supplies dropped well below levels needed for uninterrupted electricity supply, forcing Kyrgyzstan to import large volumes of fossil fuels to avoid major power and heating shortages.

With gathering economic and environmental clouds, this is the worst time for Kyrgyzstan to take a decision that risks marginalizing a country in need of greater foreign interaction. NATO and the United States are deeply committed to normalization and eventual reconstruction in Afghanistan, which is in the interests of the Afghan people and of all the surrounding communities.

The Kyrgyz decision to complicate international accord at this juncture runs counter to the new U.S. administration's efforts to find more effective and more cooperative means of enhancing security, by relying on partnerships rather than simply on payments. The administration of President Barack Obama, still in the early stages of articulating the mechanisms for pursuing mutual interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan, has given indications of seeking to engage partners in ways that more equitably serve common interests.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated the Kyrgyz announcement was regrettable, but it did not foreclose the possibility of continued discussions. At the same time, the search for alternative means of addressing the logistical needs of conducting operations in Afghanistan is inevitable. The door is still open, but the two sides must not wait until the 180-day deadline looms before taking steps toward one another.

Gregory Gleason is a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies while on leave from the University of New Mexico. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL