Kyrgyzstan was the last but not the least country in President's Putin tour to Asia. Having paid official visits to China and India, the Russian president landed in Bishkek to discuss the current situation in the region with his Central Asian counterpart Askar Akaev. The Head of the Security Council Vladimir Rushailo, Defense Minister Igor Ivanov and Science and Technology minister Klebanov accompanied President Putin in negotiations on establishing closer Kyrgyz-Russian relations. A number of bilateral agreements on cooperation in economic, scientific, humanitarian and trade spheres have been signed. However the main result of the presidential meeting was the establishment of the Russian airbase in Kant, 20 km from the Kyrgyz capital.
In mid-1999, the Russian military units which served in the country through the Soviet period left Kyrgyzstan. At that time, many political analysts were talking about the political and military vacuum that resulted due to the redirection of Russia's interests away from the region. Right after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Russian influence in this part of the world declined even further as the Uzbek and Kyrgyz presidents turned to the U.S. for security cooperation. Russian officials were not pleased with the Uzbek and Kyrgyz leaders as they considered Central Asia to be still in Russia's sphere of influence. Mr. Putin, however, being a strong supporter of the anti-terrorist coalition, agreed to the stationing of U.S. troops in the region.
The Bishkek newspaper Obshestvenii Reiting explains Russia's move on establishing closer links and an air base in the Bishkek suburb. Moscow immediately asked for the Kant airport to become a Russian airbase after it had become known that the Coalition forces were intending talks on receiving the same base to expand its presence in the region. A further expansion of U.S.-led forces in the region that Russia refers to as its backyard is seen by Russian leaders as a direct threat to its security and pushed Russia to take up a more active role in the region, reasserting its military presence in Kyrgyzstan. In return, Mr. Putin promised to reschedule as third of the $117 million Kyrgyz debt to Russia. At the press conference in Kabar Information Agency, the Kyrgyz Defense Minister said that Kant airbase will operate under the auspices of the CST (Collective Security Treaty) that consists of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. An airbase will include 700 troops and up to twenty aircrafts.
At the press conference it appeared that neither the Russian Defense Minister nor his Kyrgyz counterpart General Topoev see a problem with American and Russian airbases situated 80 km from each other. Mr. Topoev in his interview to the newspaper Delo Nomer explained that according to the UN Security Council, the coalition was created to conduct an anti-terrorist operation exclusively on the territory of Afghanistan. At the same time the Kant airbase is not created in order to offend any country, but to "support security and stability in the whole Central Asian region".
A great deal of opposition to the stationing of the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan came from the Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose country hosts 3000 anti-terrorist Coalition troops. The Information Agency Akipress reports that Mr. Karimov doubts that the main purpose of the airbase is to provide peace and stability in the region. He believes that the deployment of Russian troops in the region is a part of a competition for military and political influence which might bear unpredictable and dangerous consequences for the whole Central Asian region. Mr. Karimov sees no need for another military base as the security situation has greatly improved. He maintains that the rivalry among the two great powers will definitely lead to "unhealthy competition among the regional governments".
The Head of the foreign affaires committee Mr. Abidmomunov and some other governmental officials warn that hosting the airbases of two world powers might turn Kyrgyzstan into a center of confrontation. Some local and international observers see Akaev's approval of the airbase as a strategic error that starts the process of military reapportionment of the region by the U.S. and Russia, and Bishkek at the center of this rivalry. Some observers advise Kyrgyzstan to stay close to the U.S., as it will yet take a long time for Russia to recover and assist its southern neighbors in security and economic issues.
Overall, the Kyrgyzstani population accepted the news about Russia's military return to the region cheerfully citing the proverb "One old friend is better than two new friends". Political observers explain the redirection of Kyrgyz interests from the U.S. back to Russia by saying that the Kyrgyz government's hopes about firm guarantees on economic and political stability from Washington were not realized. The coalition commanders made it clear that they would not get involved in military or religious conflicts in the country as they have their main mission: the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. Thus Kyrgyz officials turned back to Russia, hoping it can provide more support than the U.S.. On the eve of Mr. Putin's arrival, the Government newspaper Vechernii Bishkek declared that there is "no alternative to Kyrgyz-Russian cooperation. The future of Kyrgyzstan is unthinkable without the support of Russia".
Such a big desire of Kyrgyz officials to foster the revival of close Kyrgyz-Russian relations is also explained by the political crisis that grips the country for recent months. Demands of the opposition for the President's resignation are becoming a real threat to Mr. Akaev. While American military presence in the country does not enhance the stability of Akaev's government, Russian military presence will certainly help to maintain Akaev's rule. It is also in Putin's interest to support a pro-Moscow leader in order to have free access to the main highway that links Russia with its military base in Tajikistan. The present Kyrgyz government desperately needs the support of "big brother Russia" in order to preserve political stability. And it got it from the Russian president during his recent visit.
Maria Utyaganova, International Comparative Politics Department, American University in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.