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Future of US base in Kyrgyzstan in question

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Overturned lorry in front of a looted government building in Bishkek.
The current chaos creates uncertainty across Kyrgyzstan

With the revolution against Kyrgyzstan's President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, attention has turned again to the rivalry between the United States and Russia in this remote Central Asian republic - and the future of the US Manas air base there, which is used to reinforce Afghanistan.

There is little doubt that the Russians would ideally prefer not to see the Americans there at all. Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet republic and some people there still look back to the Soviet Union with nostalgia. I found that out on a visit in 1996, particularly when talking to local Red Army veterans at a retirement home in the run-down capital Bishkek.

They feared corruption and chaos with a Kyrgyz administration, fears that appear to have been fully born out.

This is not some sponsored-by-the-Russians coup
Michael McFaul
US National Security Council

The Tulip Revolution of 2005 threw out the crony government of Askar Akayev and replaced it with the cronyism and nepotism of President Bakiyev.

Anger - not ideology - appears to have been the motive behind this latest upheaval.

Not the Cold War

This is not old Cold War-style competition.

Russia is actually helping Nato to send supplies to Afghanistan.

Already occupied with its own Islamist problems, Moscow certainly does not want a Taliban victory there.

President Bakiyev in Jalalabad on 9 April, according to AFP news agency.
President Bakiyev played games over the base with the Russians and Americans last year

On the other hand, it wants to maintain as much influence as possible in the region, so the Russian pendulum swings from time to time between helping and hindering the US.

At the moment, relations are good.

The new nuclear arms treaty has just been signed. President Barack Obama has withdrawn the anti-missile defence system from Poland and the Czech Republic.

Michael McFaul, the director for Russian and Eurasian affairs on President Obama's National Security Council, does not see the hand of Russia in the revolution.

"This is not some anti-American coup, that we know for sure. This is not some sponsored-by-the-Russians coup. There's just no evidence of that."

Source of income

Nevertheless there have been hints from some in the group now taking control in Kyrgyzstan that they have their eyes on the Manas base.

One of them, Omurbek Tekebayev, who has taken over constitutional affairs, told Reuters news agency: "You've seen the level of Russia's joy when they saw Bakiyev gone. So now there is a high probability that the duration of the US air base's presence in Kyrgyzstan will be shortened."

This remains to be seen.

The leader of the interim government, the former Foreign Minister (and ambassador to the UK) Roza Otunbayeva, said there were no plans to review the Manas agreement.

US soldiers board their flight at Manas on 6 March
The continuation of US operations from the Manas airbase is America's only real interest in what is happening in Kyrgyzstan now
James Nixey
Chatham House, London

The new government, if confirmed in power, might find that the US base - formally called since last year a "Transit Centre" in deference to local sensitivities - is a useful source of income.

President Bakiyev played games over the base with the Russians and Americans last year.

Announcing that Manas would be closed, he got Moscow to give him a $2bn loan and then turned round and got the Americans to increase their rent from $17m to $60m a year and extended the lease for another year until this July.

His parliament, having voted to close the base, promptly reversed its position.

The rent - plus extra direct aid from the US of $117m - is not to be ignored in a country where the income per person is a few dollars per day.

So the conclusion of many outside observers is that the air base will carry on.

James Nixey of Chatham House in London says: "The continuation of US operations from the Manas airbase is America's only real interest in what is happening in Kyrgyzstan now.

"This concern is probably unfounded as any future Kyrgyz government will need the money and will shoulder the political flak."

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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