lthough the Kyrgyz government adamantly denies it, it appears as though US forces will be staying at Manas air base outside Bishkek for at least another year.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev initiated eviction proceedings against US-led coalition forces based at Manas in early February. Following a parliamentary vote on February 19, US forces were given until August to vacate Manas. But with less than three months to go before the eviction deadline, several indicators suggest US forces will be remaining at the base for the foreseeable future.
On June 1, officials in Bishkek insisted that no lease-extension arrangement had been agreed upon. “The decision on air base has been made. The necessary documents are signed. The air base will be closed,” said Almaz Turdumambetov, the head of the President’s press office.
But the US Embassy in Bishkek told EurasiaNet on June 1 the matter is not closed and behind-the-scene talks on the base’s fate never stopped. “We remain in contact with the government of the Kyrgyz Republic on issues surrounding the base,” the embassy said in a statement.
Perhaps the clearest indicator that US forces will be staying beyond August is the fact that a series of tenders for base services have recently been issued, calling for contract bids for work starting in July 2009 and running through to June 2010.
In addition, a source at the base said that “absolutely nothing” is being done to wind down operations and that fuel suppliers, who work on a nine month order-to-delivery schedule, have been told to continue with business as normal.
“It’s a clear indication that the Americans are not expecting to leave, unless they [intend on] paying out massive amounts in compensation,” he said.
Publicly available tender documents, such as one for a shuttle bus service, issued on May 30 with a June 5 application deadline, clearly state the contract term is from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010.
Maj. Damien F. Pickart, head of public affairs at the base, confirmed to EurasiaNet that no work on dismantling the base is underway, and that operations continue without disruption. The facility is “busier than ever,” he said.
A source who is familiar with the Kyrgyz government decision-making process added the challenge is now on for President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to spin the American stay at the base to Moscow. Analysts and foreign officials widely believe that Bakiyev acted to close down Manas in exchange for a massive Kremlin aid package. Bishkek and Moscow deny any quid-pro-quo arrangement.
“It was never about ideology, but always about money,” the source said. “We don’t know the exact details of the package Washington is offering yet, but you can be sure that the $30 million improvement to air traffic control at Manas airport is part of it, even though the Kyrgyz keep saying it’s not.”
The head of US Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus revealed in January while on an official visit to Bishkek, that more than $150 million from Washington flows into the Kyrgyz budget annually, $63 million of which is directly related to the air base. The US would be willing to part with even more cash for continued rights to Manas, he added.
However, the American contribution to the Kyrgyz purse is dwarfed by Russia’s $2.15 billion in loans and investments announced in early February.
Observers say the pressure on the United States to cough up more cash has been extreme in light of the Obama administration’s intended surge in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyz political scientist Nur Omarov told EurasiaNet that the United States is desperate to hang on to Manas, despite their insistence that they have other options in the region. “I heard rumors about an extension from the moment Bakiyev said that the base would be closed. When Barack Obama was running for the presidency he stressed the point that the Afghan factor would be one of the most important [tests of] US foreign policy. Operations in Afghanistan are almost not possible without having use of Manas air base,” Omarov said.
For all Washington’s talk of alternatives and the opening of distribution lines for non-military goods from Northern Europe to Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Manas remains the air base of choice, Omarov continued. “Creating another base [comparable to Manas] is too expensive and time consuming. The US simply cannot afford to lose it,” he added.
Editor’s Note: Deirdre Tynan is based in Bishkek.
Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, wwwEurasiaNet.org. or www.soros.org.