On February 6, an official Russian delegation led by the Russian Transportation Minister Valeriy Okulov visited Kyrgyzstan with an aim to start negotiations on the creation of a logistics center after the U.S. transit center is withdrawn from the country. During the meeting with Kyrgyz Transportation Minister Kalykbek Sultanov, Okulov said that establishing a civic cargo center at the Manas International Airport is an important priority for Russia. He noted that this center will allow for increased capabilities of transporting air cargo and will open trade access to the countries of Southeast Asia.
Okulov emphasized that this visit had an intermediate and preparative function ahead of a large meeting on the issue soon expected to be held in Moscow. Okulov’s visit is a follow-up to a visit by a Russian delegation in late December 2012, which inspected the airport its infrastructure.
Kyrgyzstan’s First vice Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev has stated that the U.S. has also voiced an interest in creating the logistics center. “We are offering the U.S. to convert the existing transit center into a civic one, therefore they are also taking part in it,” Otorbaev said. According to Otorbaev, the project is open to participation for any interested party.
Some political analysts believe that the creation of a civic logistics center corresponds to the interests of all involved – Kyrgyzstan, Russia and the U.S. According to Sergey Masaulov, President of the Center for Perspective Research, the U.S. will keep its three military bases with 25,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014. “It is obvious that they will need to support these troops and provide them with necessary supplies and this logistics center could easily be used for these purposes,” he said. For Kyrgyzstan, it is important to transform the transit center into an international cargo hub in order to avoid having the airport operating at a loss after the withdrawal of the U.S. airbase. The only demand from official Bishkek is the absence of any military component at the airport, and all three countries can come to an agreement based on this demand, according to Masaulov.
The news about Russia’s intention to establish the logistics center has divided political forces and analysts in Kyrgyzstan into two distinct camps. While one some endorse cooperation with Russia in creating the new center, others argue that the U.S. airbase should be kept in place. The latter camp, represented by the Kyrgyz parliamentarian Ravshan Jeenbekov, insists on preserving the U.S. transit center, arguing that it is economically beneficial for the country. Jeenbekov says that the U.S. pays a rent fee amounting to US$ 60 million annually and that an additional US$ 100 million remains in the country as a result of business transactions related to the transit center. In addition, the issue of security is of utmost importance and the U.S. airbase serves to impede the risk of armed conflicts emerging in the region, the parliamentarian claims.
The opposing side puts in doubt the “security argument” saying that in the event of a war between the U.S. and Iran, the U.S. transit center in Kyrgyzstan will constitute a strategic target for Tehran. Regarding the US$ 60 million revenue for Kyrgyzstan’s budget gained through hosting the airbase, it is claimed that the logistics center, which is expected to become an international cargo hub, will bring significantly higher profits to the country.
Meanwhile, numerous statements by Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev on the inevitable withdrawal of the U.S. transit center from the country’s territory in 2014 could be taken to imply that the Kyrgyz side is leaving no room for a possibility of keeping the airbase. However, many local analysts claim that the story has not yet ended. According to Kyrgyz political analyst Toktogul Kakchekeev, the U.S. side will do everything it can in order to keep its airbase in Kyrgyzstan, including huge financial subsidies or even attempts to change the Kyrgyz government with an aim to bring western oriented political forces into power.
It is expected that the final decision on the fate of the airbase will be known in the upcoming months, which means that the discussions and speculations around this issue will continue.