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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 October, 2003, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Military rivalry in Kyrgyzstan

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC correspondent in Bishkek

In the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, Russia has set up a military base - its first on foreign soil since the USSR imploded. The Kant airbase is also close to a US airbase established two years ago. How do the two co-exist? Damian Grammaticas went to find out.

Su-27 fighters fly over Kant airbase
The Russian base is 30km from a US camp
Climbing on board flight 632 to Bishkek, I stepped into a different era. The tiny, old, Soviet jet had portholes for windows, wooden fold-down tables, and instead of individual television screens with a choice of movies, a couple of oil paintings in each cabin.

The one in front of me wasn't much good as art. It was a landscape; a clear blue stream weaving through green meadows towards alpine peaks.

We landed in the dark. The whole airport was dark. The roads were dark, even the streets of the capital in near pitch darkness. It's strange arriving somewhere like this and having almost no sense of what it's like.

Early in the morning, light flooded my room. I stumbled onto the balcony and a breathtaking vista.

The mountains, blindingly bright. A dusty, rusty red on the lower slopes. Valleys a deep chilly blue. And the peaks, crumpled and crusted with snow. In the foreground, no meadow, but an orderly city just waking to life.

Soviet nostalgia

Bishkek is a capital in the old Soviet style. Dull, uninspiring, with a half-empty air. Wide, tree-lined boulevards, deep with drifts of autumnal orange leaves.

Until a few weeks ago, one of its large squares had a statue of Lenin. Moving in the dead of night, the government had toppled him.

My local contact, Alexander, a journalist in his tweed jacket and tie, with the nervous habit of answering every question at unnecessary length, explained that the Kyrgyz, nostalgic for their Soviet past, had reacted with fury.

Lenin's statue
Statues of Lenin still stand in Kyrgyzstan
The government survived a vote in parliament. Lenin now stands again, but a discreet distance away.

Nostalgia for the Soviet days had brought me here. Kyrgyzstan had invited Russia to station attack aircraft at an airbase on its territory - the first time Russia had opened a foreign military base since the end of the Soviet Union.

In Bishkek's main market, the faces look almost Chinese and Mongolian, with a dash of Russian blood. Men wear white, conical hats of embroidered felt. Ruddy-faced women preside over giant sacks of dried fruit.

More types of raisins than I've ever seen. Apricots, dates and prunes. Mountains of walnuts, almonds and pistachios. Pungent piles of spices. Cinnamon, turmeric, star anis and aniseed. Along with tiny seedpods that make your tongue fizz in an alarming way.

Kyrgyzstan sits on the ancient trade routes from Europe to China. It has seen the wash of empires come and go: Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, and Soviets.

Today it's not just the Russians who are back, but the Americans are here, too.

Slice of America

I headed to see the US airbase, established after 11 September. From an old Soviet airfield, US aircraft fly missions over Afghanistan.

Simply by its presence, the Pentagon hopes to stop extremist Islamic groups spreading their message among Central Asia's 50 million Muslims.

The base was a slice of America plonked in the dusty heart of Asia. Gun-metal grey transport aircraft sat on the tarmac. A few yards away was a jumbled pile of old Soviet aircraft - Ilyushin airliners and MiG helicopters gently decaying in the grass.

Young US airmen were busy doing maintenance. When they're finished, they can head to a fully-equipped gym or have a gentle head massage in the base's hairdressing salon.

I felt like I was on the set of a James Bond movie, witness to some... chess moves in an international power play

I was told I couldn't ask the base commander about the Russians moving in down the road. I did anyway. It was what I was here to find out about.

He looked uncomfortable. "I can't comment," he said.

As the interview ended, the American press officer, a little peeved, said he'd show me the mess hall.

Cooks were busy preparing lobster tails for dinner. Astonishing, really, when you think the nearest living lobster is thousands of miles away.

"We're bored of lobster," the press officer said, "It's on the menu every couple of weeks."

Mystery presence

At the Russian base, five modern fighter jets were lined up on the runway. Here, it wasn't so much efficient and mechanical as a bit cloak and dagger. The base was shabby and broken-down. Scruffy conscripts were wiping the jets down with filthy rags.

When I tried to get close to the planes, I was shooed away. It all seemed a bit mysterious, this sudden Russian presence high on these remote plains. Security men in overcoats strode to and fro.

I felt like I was on the set of a James Bond movie, witness to some clandestine manoeuvrings, chess moves in an international power play.

Russia's President Putin
President Putin dismissed talk of rivalry with the US
Russia's President Vladimir Putin strode onto the base. With the mountains behind, he declared it open, then watched his planes in a spectacular air show.

We journalists were corralled into a tight group, made to kneel so the cameras behind us could get a clear view of Mr Putin.

He came and addressed us. Then I pounced with my question. "Mr President, are you just opening this base because the Americans have one here?" I asked.

This world leader looked down at me on my knees in front of him.

His eyes narrowed a little, almost dismissively. "We're partners with the Americans," he said. "I'm sure we'll co-operate," then strode off, leaving me to struggle back to my feet. Partners, I thought, it doesn't look like it to me.

Russia opens Kyrgyzstan base
23 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyzstan agrees Russian base
22 Sep 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Kyrgyzstan
24 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Kyrgyzstan
24 Sep 03  |  Country profiles

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