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Atambaev Wants To Close U.S. Air Base, But Can He?

U.S. soldiers inspect military planes at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan.
U.S. soldiers inspect military planes at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyz President-elect Almazbek Atambaev has made headlines by announcing that the U.S. air base outside Bishkek – currently known as Transit Center at Manas -- should be shut down by 2014.

American soldiers will leave the Manas base completely after the current lease agreement expires in mid 2014, Atambaev said in his first press conference after the October 30 elections, which he won with over 60 percent of the vote.

"I don't want some country to launch a retaliatory strike on the base," Atambaev said, adding that the U.S. is often engaged in conflicts in different countries.

Previously, as prime minister, Atambaev made similar remarks against Kyrgyzstan's hosting of the air base, an important transit point for Western forces in Afghanistan.

With his new status, however, his warning over the Manas base has attracted unprecedented attention from regional media, which began reading between the lines and speculating over the future of Kyrgyzstan's relationships with the United States and Moscow.

Leaning Toward Russia?

"U.S. State Department Alarmed Over The Fate of Manas Airbase In Kyrgyzstan," one headline screamed in, a popular website that focuses on Central Asian news.

"Kant Overcomes Manas. Americans To Be Evicted From Kyrgyzstan," announced Russia's "Izvestiya" daily within hours of Atambaev's press conference on November 1. (Kant is a Russian air base located some 20 kilometers from downtown Bishkek.)

In another report, "Izvestiya" said Atambaev "made his first political decision in favor of Russia."

Kyrgyz President-elect Almazbek Atambaev
Kyrgyz President-elect Almazbek Atambaev
The publication quotes experts as saying that the "decision over Manas demonstrates that the new Kyrgyz president has already determined who his allies are."

There will be "U.S. pressure" on Kyrgyz leaders over the Manas issue, the newspaper predicts, adding that Bishkek will be hoping for Russian support.

Quoting sources inside the Russian Finance Ministry, "Izvestiya" reports that Russia is expected to approve a $107-million loan to Kyrgyzstan through the Eurasian Economic Community as a token of such support.

The Russian-led regional grouping brings together six former Soviet states, including Kyrgyzstan.

Limits To Presidential Authority

In any event, however, even if Atambaev wants to end the U.S. military presence in his country or decides to favor Russia in Bishkek's policymaking, does he have the authority as president to do so?

It might not be so easy, considering that Kyrgyzstan's newly minted constitution significantly limits the president's powers.

According to Article 64 of the constitution, which demarcates presidential authority, the president has no political power to determine foreign policy.

"The current agreement over Manas -- signed by the U.S. and Kyrgyz government -- will expire in 2014, but it will be automatically extended for another year unless one of the two sides says they want to discontinue the contract," explains Omurbek Tekebaev, a leading Kyrgyz politician. "They would have to make it known six months before the expiration of the agreement."

Tekebaev, who was the Chairman of the Constitutional Council, which drafted the constitution, made it clear that it is up to the Kyrgyz government to decide whether to terminate or prolong the Manas agreement.

Meanwhile, taking into account Kyrgyzstan's ever-changing political scene and its history of revolutions, it is hard to say what might happen between now and 2014, and who will be calling the shots when the Manas deal runs out after three years.

-- Farangis Najibullah