Unclear future for US airbase in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s new President Atambayev may be bluffing about closing the unpopular US military base, says the author.

Manas Airbase
 Closing Manas was a key component of new Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s campaign platform [EPA]

Washington, DC – Kyrgyzstan’s new President Almazbek Atambayev, who was sworn in on December 1, has promised to close the American airbase that the United States has operated there since 2001. The closure of the Manas airbase would be a significant blow to US operations in Afghanistan: It provides crucial refuelling services to coalition fighter jets flying in Afghanistan, and serves as a stopover point for US troops entering and leaving the war.

Immediately after winning the October 30 election, Atambayev said the US needed to leave Manas by 2014, when the current agreement between the US and Kyrgyzstan expires. “We know that the United States is often engaged in conflict. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, and now relations are tense with Iran,” he said. “I would not want for one of these countries to launch a retaliatory strike on the military base.”

So is Atambayev serious about closing the base? There is ample reason to believe he is bluffing. In 2009, under the former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan announced that it would close the base, only to reverse that decision once the US tripled the rent it paid for the base. That history has prompted many observers to conclude that Atambayev, with his statements about Manas, is simply laying the groundwork for a tough new round of negotiations.

But there is a crucial difference between now and 2009. Atambayev is the first president in Kyrgyzstan’s history (and all of Central Asia’s) to take office by winning a genuinely free and contested election. And he, accurately assessing the unpopularity of the base, made closing Manas part of his campaign rhetoric.

“Manas is a victim of the Kyrgyzstani people’s pro-Russia orientation: Opinion polls in Kyrgyzstan have shown that close to half the population views Manas negatively.”

The base has been the source of several public relations debacles, including the shooting of a local truck driver by a US serviceman guarding the base. The US practice, now discontinued, of dumping fuel over local crops also turned public opinion against the base. But perhaps most significantly, Manas has repeatedly been the centre of controversies due to the multibillion-dollar business of supplying jet fuel to the base. The murky deals the US have made have created the perception that the US, in addition to paying the government of Kyrgyzstan official rent for the base, is also lining the pockets of those close to power by offering them sweetheart deals on Pentagon contracts.

First, companies associated with the family of Bakiyev’s predecessor, Askar Akaev, were given the Manas fuel contract. When Akayev was overthrown following popular revolts in 2005 and succeeded by Bakiyev, the new companies that made billions from no-bid Pentagon contracts, Mina Corp and Red Star, were widely believed to have been tied to Bakiyev’s family (though the companies and the Bakiyevs deny those claims). Then, when Bakiyev was overthrown in another series of popular revolts last year, the woman who replaced him, Roza Otunbayeva, though as pro-American a politician as one could expect in Central Asia, still did not hide her resentment of the US for contracting with Mina Corp and Red Star, calling them “jackals”. And she accused them of trying to carry on the tradition of bribing presidential family members by trying to recruit her 28-year-old son. “The corruption is endless. All these dark corners. It is like trying to clean the Augean Stables,” she told the Washington Post.

The US was always operating in a somewhat difficult environment in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic where most Kyrgyzstanis continue to have positive views of Russia. According to recent opinion polls, 96 per cent of Kyrgyzstanis see relations with Russia as “good”, as compared to 45 per cent who feel the same about ties with the US. Russia also maintains an airbase in Kyrgyzstan that is a vestige of the Soviet era and which operates with far less attention and scrutiny than Manas.

Russia has also long been opposed to the presence of Manas. While Russia generally supports the US war effort in Afghanistan, it’s less enthusiastic about the presence of the US military on the soil of its former republics. When Kyrgyzstan announced the closure of Manas in 2009, it was just hours after Russia announced a $2bn aid programme for Kyrgyzstan, which few saw as a coincidence.

“The Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan in terms of Manas,” then-US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said at the time. “On one hand you’re making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan, and on the other hand you’re working against us in terms of that airfield which is clearly important to us.”

As a result, Manas is a victim of the Kyrgyzstani people’s pro-Russia orientation: Opinion polls in Kyrgyzstan have shown that close to half the population views Manas negatively, “as a symbol of US aspirations for global domination”, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Thus, the irony of the current airbase situation in Kyrgyzstan is that Russia – a country not known for its concern for public diplomacy or promoting democracy – operates an airbase with the broad support of the population. And the US, ostensibly engaged in an effort to shore up a democratic government in Afghanistan, appears to rely on paying off presidential family members to ensure continued access to its air base. Now, compounding the irony, Kyrgyzstan’s fragile but real progress towards a truly representative government has threatened the US’ position in Kyrgyzstan.

It’s far from certain that Atambayev will be able to carry out his threat: 2014 is a long way away, and the US hasn’t had the chance to make its offer. Under the country’s new constitution, designed to weaken the president’s power in favour of a stronger parliament, it’s not clear Atambayev would have the power to nullify the contract even if he wanted to. The base is less important to voters than domestic bread-and-butter issues, and the US has said it plans to leave Afghanistan starting in 2014, so it may not need Manas much longer, anyway.

But Mina and Red Star have already been booted from Manas by the Kyrgyzstan government, which demanded that the contract be given to a Kyrgyzstan-Russian joint venture, including the Russian state-owned company Gazprom.

And the fact that the president – and the parliament – is now accountable to voters means that this time around Kyrgyzstan may not just be looking for another payout from Washington. If the US wants to keep Manas, it will have to appeal not just to a narrow group of elites, but convince the country’s broad electorate that hosting the base is in their interest, too. But its history of making backroom deals with a series of unpopular leaders is going to make that an uphill battle.

Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He is a regular contributor to EurasiaNet, US News and World Report and Slate.

Follow him on Twitter @joshuakucera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.