Under President Kurmanbek Bakiev, Kyrgyzstan has on a number of occasions demanded more money from the United States for the use of Manas, which is a transit base for cargo bound for Afghanistan.
After all, just a few years ago the U.S. was paying a mere $2 million to rent Manas and was occupying a sizable portion of Kyrgyzstan's largest airport. The first time Bakiev called for an increase in rent was late 2005, a few months after he was elected president. By February 2006, the Russian newspaper "Kommersant" was quoting Bakiev as saying Washington would need to pay "100 times" that amount to lease Manas. Eventually, by mutual agreement, the rent was raised to about $20 million with the promise of a compensation package worth some $150 million.
The Russian military newspaper "Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kurier" reported that during a January visit to Bishkek, the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, said that "annual U.S. aid to this Central Asian country within the framework of a number of programs amounts to $130 million and $63 million of [that is] the rent."
"Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kurier" reported that an otherwise unrelated $2 billion aid package from Russia was conditional on the closure of the U.S. base. The money -- part of which is supposed to be earmarked for the completion of hydroelectric projects that date back to Soviet days -- could engender considerable goodwill in a country that suffers chronic energy shortages.
But similar pledges have been made before. Just ask Tajikistan. In 2004, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin promised $2 billion over the next five years. All that money still has not appeared, Tajikistan's hydroelectric facilities are still facing serious difficulties, and heat and electricity are rationed in Tajikistan just as they are in Kyrgyzstan. And when Putin pledged those funds to Tajikistan, Russia's financial outlook was much brighter than now.
Then there is the "creation" of the CSTO rapid-reaction force, presumably Central Asia's safeguard against the numerous potential security threats in the region. But the rapid-reaction force actually was created nearly a decade ago and held its first command-staff exercise in August 2001. The Russian-led military base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan, is officially the base for the CSTO rapid-reaction force, just as it has been since 2002.
Is it a coincidence that all this commotion about closing the U.S. base and deploying a CIS rapid-reaction force provides a convenient smokescreen for President Bakiev, who is up for reelection later this year or next?
Kyrgyzstan's opposition is vowing to hit the streets again this spring in rallies targeting Bakiev and his government. The prospect of Russian relief in the face of a dire economic situation could soothe passions before those protests get under way. Moreover, standing up to the Americans plays well with conservatives and nationalists in Kyrgyzstan who have long sought the closure of the U.S. base at Manas. At the very least, Bakiev could wring more money out of the United States in the long run, which might not be such a bad thing in some Kyrgyz voters' eyes.
-- Bruce Pannier