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US power on the wane in Central Asia

Termination of a key US military base in Kyrgyzstan highlights the superpower's declining influence in the region.

Last updated: 17 Jul 2014 05:59
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On July 11, the US officially vacated its lease at Kyrgyzstan's Manas Transit Centre [Casey Michel/Al Jazeera]

There would seem, at first glance, little reason for any kind of geopolitical interest in Kyrgyzstan.

A mountainous, landlocked country in central Asia, Kyrgyzstan largely lacks industry, natural resources, and energy reserves. But for years, the country has boasted one foreign credential that all other nations lacked, hosting both a Russian and US military base.

Now, that's changed. On July 11, the US officially vacated its lease at the Manas Transit Centre - formerly the Manas Air Base - and rerouted personnel and materiel to a base in Romania. Nearly 13 years after the US first began using Manas for fuelling and transit missions through Afghanistan, management of the facilities was officially handed over to Kyrgyz authorities on June 3, with some $30m worth of equipment and facilities remaining.

While Washington continues to seek potential new bases in the region, the US is, in effect, vacating Central Asia.

But the US decision did not come of its own volition. Rather, the eviction stems from a fraught history and external pressures, which in 2013 convinced the Kyrgyz parliament to demand US withdrawal.

A troubled history

Manas has been one of the more troubled American bases of the post-9/11 world. The US opened the base in late 2001, seeking a toehold to shuttle troops and run refuelling missions for the war in Afghanistan. By some metrics, the base proved successful. Some 98 percent of service personnel involved in Afghanistan passed through Manas, and more than one billion litres of fuel were offloaded to coalition aircraft. The base grew in significance following the expulsion of the US from Uzbekistan in 2005, caused in part by Washington's criticism of a massacre of hundreds of civilians carried out by the Uzbek government.

But as the US presence in Kyrgyzstan dragged on, relations grew worse. In 2006, a US serviceman shot and killed a local petrol driver, claiming self-defence. While the details of the killing remain murky, the US government's initial offer of a mere $2,000 in restitution to the victim's wife smacked of tone-deaf condescension. 

Meanwhile, the largely peaceful 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the final in a series of pro-democracy "Colour Revolutions" in post-Soviet states, replaced a corrupt coterie with the new network of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The US managed to maintain its presence at Manas, but the revolutionary euphoria in Kyrgyzstan soon gave way to the realisation that Bakiyev's regime in many ways represented a continuation of the previous regime. Political murders, kidnapped journalists, media clampdowns - all expanded under Bakiyev's regime. Robert Gates, the former US secretary of defence, termed Bakiyev as someone willing to use "extortion", adding that he "was, without question, the most unpleasant foreign leader I had to deal with in my years as secretary".

From [the current] government's perspective, the US closed their eyes on Bakiyev's authoritarianism and corruption for the sake of keeping the base.

- Erica Marat, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute

The US, however, remained largely mum on Bakiyev's transgressions. "From [the current] government's perspective, the US closed their eyes on Bakiyev's authoritarianism and corruption for the sake of keeping the base," Erica Marat, a research fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, told Al Jazeera.

"When the opposition and media were under huge pressure, Bakiyev's fortune grew in part thanks to the US payments for the base. Many politicians also believe that Washington knew and preferred to close their eyes on corruption surrounding fuel contracts between Bakiyev's family members and US contractors."

That fuel contract controversy - which saw US contractors accused of funnelling tens of millions of dollars to delivery companies controlled by Bakiyev's son, Maxim - swelled hostility towards the US presence, with the Kyrgyz parliament overwhelmingly voting to expel the Americans in early 2009. Washington managed to renegotiate the rent, boosting annual payments from $17m to $60m. But the 2010 revolution that ousted Bakiyev effectively sealed the termination of the US contract at Manas.

Shairbek Juraev, a Kyrgyz analyst, told Al Jazeera that the base played a "negative role" in US-Kyrgyz relations, "killing the wide and comprehensive nature of cooperation that was more evident in the '90s".

External pressures

However, it was not only internal pressures that led to the expulsion. In the past decade, Russia has morphed from a reserved partner in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan to a resurgent competitor with the US in Central Asia. While the Russian and American bases existed just 30km from one another for nearly a decade, it seems no coincidence that Moscow announced over $2bn in financial assistance to Kyrgyzstan as Bakiyev began demanding the US withdrawal in 2009.

Russian pressure has only increased over the past few years. Russia has threatened restrictions on migrant labourers in Russia, whose remittances provide over 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP. Russia's state-owned natural gas company Gazprom recently purchased Kyrgyzstan's state gas company, Kyrgyzgaz, for one dollar and assumed the responsibility to repay $40m of owed debt. And, in 2012 Russia inked a 15-year deal extending its military presence.

China, likewise, was not happy about the US presence in its neighbouring country, and China's growing economic clout there made Kyrgyzstan that much more receptive to its overtures - especially when the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation (SCO), of which Kyrgyzstan is a member, released a statement demanding the removal of any non-SCO bases from participating countries.

"Russia was initially supportive of the base and the US efforts in Afghanistan until about 2003, when Moscow started to view the US military presence in Central Asia as a threat to its primacy in the region," Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College, told Al Jazeera.

"These fears were compounded by the 'Colour Revolutions' and [former President Askar] Akayev's ouster in 2005," he said. "For the US, the base was an operational necessity, a logistics hub that required getting hands dirty in domestic politics to the degree that was necessary to ensure its smooth operation... In Kyrgyzstan, the base became associated with the graft, nepotism, and corruption of two regimes, both of which were supported by the US in order to retain access to the facility."

And it's that impression, of the corruption and greed surrounding Manas, that forced Washington from the most substantive grasp it had in Central Asia. Nearly 13 years after the US arrived, and following the cycling of more than five million servicemen through Afghanistan, geopolitics in Central Asia are shifting - and the United States has just ceded its most substantial asset.

Follow Casey Michel on Twitter: @cjcmichel

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Al Jazeera
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