determined to end American military presence in their country, but there may 
still be room for negotiation.  By Anara Yusupova in Bishkek (RCA No. 561, 

radical shift as Russia begins taking a stand on regional energy and water 
issues.  By Estelle Erimova and Asyl Osmonalieva in Bishkek and Mukammal 
Odinaeva in Dushanbe (RCA No. 565, 04-Feb-09)


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Kyrgyz authorities appear determined to end American military presence in their 
country, but there may still be room for negotiation. 

By Anara Yusupova in Bishkek (RCA No. 561, 5-Feb-09)

As the shock of Kyrgyzstan’s announcement that the United States airbase near 
the capital Bishkek is to close down subsides, some analysts are doubtful that 
a rapid withdrawal of American forces is imminent. 

Opponents of President Kurmanbek Bakiev accuse him of trading the US military 
presence in return for financial support from Russia. However, others say the 
decision is nowhere near as clear-cut as Bakiev’s headline-making statement 

Rumours of the closure had been circulating since January, but the final 
announcement came while Bakiev was in Moscow on February 3, attending a joint 
summit of two post-Soviet blocs, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation 
and the Eurasian Economic Community.

During his visit, Bakiev secured a 300 million US dollar loan to be used to 
support Kyrgyzstan’s hard-pressed government budget, plus a pledge of 1.7 
billion dollars in investments in the country’s energy industry. 

In addition, Moscow agreed to write off 180 million dollars of Kyrgyz debt in 
return for a 48 per cent stake in a defence-industry factory plant that 
produces components for torpedoes, and offered an additional financial 
assistance worth 150 million dollars.

The US-led Coalition in Afghanistan acquired the lease of the base, located at 
Bishkek’s Manas airport, in 2001 to provide logistical air support for its 
military operations. The base provides air refuelling and other services for 
operations in Afghanistan, and is used a stopping-off point for freight and 
personnel transporters. There are over 1,000 US personnel at the base, 
servicing nine military transports and refuelling planes.

The Americans plan to double their troop commitment in Afghanistan to 60,000 
this year, but land supply routes from Pakistan have increasingly come under 
attack from the Taleban. 

Many analysts suspect that the decision to close the base is closely linked to 
Kyrgyzstan’s desire to seek economic support from Moscow, which has never been 
happy with a western military presence in a region it regards as its own back 
yard. However, Bakiev’s explanation focused on the persistent disagreements 
over how much the Americans should pay in rent and other fees. 

“Eight years have now passed,” the Kyrgyz leader said at a joint press 
conference with Medvedev. “We have had repeated discussions with the US on the 
question of economic compensation for the presence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, 
but we have failed to reach an understanding.”

By contrast, the text of the bill submitted to parliament the following day, 
February 4, suggested that the regional security concerns which originally made 
the base necessary had now receded. 

“Over this period the threat has diminished,” said the bill, which also cited 
concerns raised by people living near the Manas facility about the 
environmental impact of frequent military flights and frictions caused by a 
number of incidents involving US military personnel, including one in which a 
Kyrgyzstan national working as a driver was shot dead at the base.

The Russian leadership immediately sought to distance itself from a decision 
that it insisted was a purely internal matter for Kyrgyzstan. 

“Questions relating to the functioning of the Coalition military base lie 
within the competence of the Kyrgyz Republic,” Medvedev during his press 
conference with Bakiev.

The Kyrgyz announcement appeared to take the US administration by surprise. 
Only last month, the top military commander for the region, General David 
Petraeus, visited Bishkek and indicated that closure of the base was not 
imminent, and the rent payment issue would be the subject of further talks.

At the US embassy in Bishkek, a spokesman said the mission was unaware of the 
Kyrgyz decision. An embassy statement on February 4 added, "We have been in 
discussions with Kyrgyz authorities on the future of Manas air base. These 
discussions will continue." 

Procedurally, the next step is for the Kyrgyz parliament to debate a government 
bill submitted on February 4 which proposes that the airbase agreement should 
be annulled. The debate will take place in the next week or so, and the bill is 
more than likely to be passed since the legislature is dominated by the 
pro-Bakiev party Ak Jol.

Opposition politicians say closing the base is not in Kyrgyzstan’s best 
interests, and say the decision stems from a desire to please Moscow and secure 
financial support at a time when the government is beset with economic 
problems, in the shape of an ongoing energy shortage and fallout from the 
international financial crisis. 

Bakyt Beshimov of the Social Democrats, for example, gave an interview to the 
Bishkek Press Club in which he suggested that the current administration had 
“no option but to take this decision” because it was finding it increasingly 
impossible to cope with the economic crisis. 

Political observers, meanwhile, remain divided over Bakiev’s motives and the 
wider geopolitical implications. 

Miroslav Niazov, a former secretary of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, believes 
Moscow must have played a part in shaping the decision to get rid of the 
Americans by offering financial aid as an inducement. 

“National interests have simply been traded away and the country has lost 
face,” he told IWPR. 

Niazov believes the Manas base was an important cog in a regional security 
mechanism given that Afghanistan still presents a threat both because it is 
unstable and because it exports large volumes of narcotics. 

“The presence of the air base meant Kyrgyzstan was playing a role in ensuring 
global security,” he said. “Accordingly, this decision [to close the base] will 
have a negative impact on its reputation.”

Arkady Dubnov, the Moscow-based journalist and Central Asia expert who first 
reported the imminent closure of the base last month, said there was a clear 
link between Bakiev’s announcement and the need for economic assistance. 

“Moscow wanted to hear this kind of statement,” he said “The fact that it came 
out in Moscow raises Russia’s geopolitical profile. Kyrgyzstan has made its 
choice in return for money.” 

By contrast, Alexander Knyazev, a political analyst based in Bishkek, insists 
no pressure was exerted by Moscow, and there was no horsetrading over financial 

Even though the end of the US presence has now been proclaimed at such a high 
level that it appears irreversible, analysts in Bishkek are asking themselves 
just how quickly it is likely to happen. 

In formal terms, the Americans would have six months’ grace to vacate the base 
from the moment they receive an official request from the Kyrgyz. 

“A great deal of time will pass from the announcement that the air base is to 
be withdrawn and the point when that actually happens in practice,” Temir 
Sariev, head of the opposition party Ak Shumkar told the Bishkek Press Club. 
“Anything could happen during that time, and new circumstances might arise.”

He concluded, “It’s too early to say the American air base is about to be 
removed from Kyrgystan in the near future. That’s all the more true given that 
this isn’t the first time Kurmanbek Bakiev has made a statement of this kind.”

Edil Baysalov, an opposition politician now living abroad, explained how the 
decision could be deferred almost indefinitely, especially if the security 
situation in Afghanistan means the Americans still need an air supply route. 

“There are large numbers of conditions that have to be met. It can be assumed 
that the withdrawal deadline can be extended from six months to at least a 
year. After that, they can look at how successfully operations in Afghanistan 
are going,” he said. 

Niazov, too, said it was possible that the decision could be reversed. “The US 
and Europe will do all they can to keep the airbase here,” he said.

Dubnov suggested that the Americans might even be able to maintain some kind of 
military presence, under some kind of different arrangement or “new format”. 

Anara Yusupova is a pseudonym used by a journalist based in Bishkek.


Relations could undergo radical shift as Russia begins taking a stand on 
regional energy and water issues.

By Estelle Erimova and Asyl Osmonalieva in Bishkek and Mukammal Odinaeva in 

Central Asian leaders gathered for a summit of former Soviet states this week 
amid signs that Russia was beginning to show a more active interest in their 
region’s water and energy disputes. However, regional analysts were divided 
over whether Moscow’s engagement would help bring the different states closer 
together, or deepen the existing divisions between them.

When the heads of member states of two post-Soviet blocs, the Collective 
Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Community, EurAsEC, met 
in Moscow on February 4, the headline news was Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek 
Bakiev’s surprise announcement that the United States military airbase in his 
country was to close. 

There was, however, another issue occupying the minds of many summit 
participants – Russia’s apparent change of stance on how Central Asian water 
and energy disputes should be managed. For the leaders of Kyrgyzstan and 
Tajikistan, one of the key questions being asked behind close doors is what 
exactly Russian president Dmitry Medvedev meant by remarks he made during a 
visit to Uzbekistan last week. 

Speaking on January 23 after meeting his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov, 
Medvedev said Russian investment in projects to build hydroelectric power 
stations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would only go ahead if the schemes took 
into account the interests of other states in the region. Such projects 
involving rivers that cross state borders had to be agreed to by all the 
countries affected, not just the direct beneficiaries, and needed to adhere to 
environmental and other international standards. 

The Russian leader’s comments represented a major departure from Moscow’s 
previous position, which had favoured hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and 
Kyrgyzstan without seeming to consider objections from Uzbekistan, which fears 
that damming up rivers that feed the great Amu Darya and Syr Darya waterways 
will starve it of the irrigation on which its agricultural sector depends. 

Medvedev’s apparent volte-face came as a shock to Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders. On 
January 26, the Tajik foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note expressing 
astonishment at what Medvedev had said regarding hydroelectric plant 
investment. Then, on February 2, Tajik president Imomali Rahmon sent an even 
stronger message by suddenly announcing he would not be attending either summit 
in Moscow. The official reason was that Tajikistan was experiencing a severe 
energy crisis. This was a major statement of discontent from a government that 
has maintained strong ties with the Russians over many years.

However, the following day that position was reversed and Rahmon went to the 
Moscow meetings after all.

Nevertheless, political analysts say Rahmon’s initial decision not to attend an 
important regional meeting showed just how angry his administration was with 
Moscow for apparently cosying up to the Uzbeks at the expense of his country. 

The Tajiks feel Medvedev’s remarks violate at least the spirit of agreements 
signed by Moscow. 

In 2004, the then president Vladimir Putin announced a major deal under which 
Russian firms would complete work on the Rogun and Sangtuda-1 power stations. 
The Rogun deal subsequently fell apart because of differences of opinion over 
the eventual size of the dam, and since then the Tajiks have proceeded with 
construction work by themselves. Last August, however, Medvedev signaled that 
Russia was still interested in being part of this major project. 

In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the Russians have expressed an interest in 
extending a 1.7 billion US dollar loan to build the Kambarata scheme, a series 
of linked power stations on the Naryn river, a tributary of the Syr Darya. 

Uzbekistan voiced its discontent with the way things were going by announcing 
its withdrawal from EurAsEC last autumn. The decision came as the Central Asian 
states appeared to be closer than ever to a comprehensive deal on water and 
energy. The Uzbeks refused to sign up to it, as they have always preferred to 
discuss water supplies from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and sales of their own 
natural gas to those countries on a one-to-one basis rather than within a 
regional framework.

According to Ernest Karybekov, who heads the Kyrgyzstan-based Institute for 
Research into Water Use and Hydropower Resources in Central Asia, believes that 
Uzbekistan’s concerns about the environmental impact of the new dams are 
unfounded, and that it is high time all the states involved “stop flexing their 
muscles… and sit down at the negotiating table.” 

However, Mars Sariev, another regional expert based in Kyrgyzstan, argues that 
the Uzbeks have reason for concern about the consequences of new hydroelectric 

“Launching a hydroelectric power station involves filling up the reservoir over 
several years, and over that time the Uzbeks will experience a colossal 
shortfall in water, which will be catastrophic for their agriculture,” he said.

The water dispute dates from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when new 
countries emerged with separate, sometimes conflicting interests. Prior to 
that, the constituent Soviet republics existed within a unitary economic 
system, so that Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s power stations were designed to 
supply the entire Central Asian electricity grid and also regulate water flows 
to the downstream republics. In turn, the Tajiks and Kyrgyz would be supplied 
with oil, gas and coal from Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Russia.

In the post-Soviet economic order, the Kazaks and Uzbeks began selling their 
oil and gas on a commercial basis. Tashkent is now charging the Tajiks and 
Kyrgyz near world market prices for gas, but it regards water as a free natural 
commodity and complains when its mountainous neighbouring states withhold it in 
the crucial growing season in order to fill up their reservoirs and avoid 
running short of electricity in winter. 

>From the point of view of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent needs to 
>recognise that water has a value just like fuel and that it should contribute 
>financially or in kind to the upkeep of regulatory systems such as dams.

The agreement signed last October by Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on 
reciprocal supplies of water, oil and coal was therefore a massive 
breakthrough, but the abstention of Uzbekistan makes it impracticable. The 
Uzbeks use a high proportion of the river water originating in Tajikistan and 
Kyrgyzstan and are the main suppliers of gas to those countries. 

If anything, the trilateral agreement made things worse in the short term as 
the Uzbeks walked away from EurAsEC and bumped up gas export prices.

The impasse came at a time when both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were enduring a 
chronic shortage of domestically produced electricity, a result both of low 
reservoir levels caused by climatic conditions coupled with exceptionally high 
electricity consumption in the harsh winter of 2007-08. 

Remote parts of those countries are currently suffering power cuts of ten or 
more hours a day, and they have had to slash gas imports from Uzbekistan 
because of the price hike. 

At this point, Russia has stepped into the arena as a potential arbitrator and 
dealmaker between the Uzbeks on one side and the Kyrgyz and Tajiks on the 
other, and above all with its own interests to advance. For the moment, access 
to greater supplies of Central Asian gas appears to be driving Kremlin policy. 

Tagay Rahmonov of Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Studies believes Medvedev 
conceded a point to the Uzbeks on the hydropower dispute in order to secure 
their cooperation on a gas pipeline project that would supplement the existing 
Central Asia-Centre export. Last year, Turkmenistan agreed to a project to 
expand an existing pipeline and built a new one alongside it leading northwards 
along the eastern Caspian Sea shore via Kazakstan to Russia. Rahmonov believes 
the Uzbeks have signed up to an extension of this route allowing their gas to 
go straight to Russia. 

At the same time, Moscow may not be about to sacrifice all its interests in 
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for the sake of Uzbek gas. According to a 
Tashkent-based analyst, the real objective may be to figure out the best 
workable compromise whereby Moscow keeps everyone more or less on side. 

“The geopolitical and strategic importance of an alliance with Uzbekistan could 
outweigh Russia’s interests in the smaller countries which are poor in natural 
resources. But then again, the Kremlin is hardly likely to want to see 
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan peeling away and moving towards the United States and 
the West,” he said.

If, for example, the Tajiks and Kyrgyz were able to demonstrate that their 
hydroelectric schemes would not disrupt the flow of water to Uzbekistan, then 
Moscow could still invest in them without breaking its promise to Tashkent.

As other commentators point out, there are other players jostling to get into 
the Central Asian electricity market. The US wants to supply power generated in 
the region to Afghanistan and South Asia; the Iranians are investing in one of 
the Sangtuda dams in Tajikistan and others like the European Union and China 
are interested in playing a greater rule.

“Whoever controls the water tap in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also has 
geopolitical control over the whole of Central Asia,” said Sariev. “So far the 
Russians have had the advantage….but other players like America and China will 
seize the moment.”

Asyl Osmonalieva and Mukammal Odinaeva are IWPR-trained journalists in Bishkek 
and Dushanbe, respectively. Estelle Erimova is the pseudonym of a journalist in 

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