WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 565, February 5, 2009
KYRGYZSTAN: HOW IMMINENT IS US BASE CLOSURE? 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,
TAJIK, KYRGYZ CONCERN AT MOSCOWS NEW ENERGY POLICY 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 Dushanbe (RCA No. 565, 04-Feb-09)
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KYRGYZSTAN: HOW IMMINENT IS US BASE CLOSURE?
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 Kyrgyzstans 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 Bakievs 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 Kyrgyzstans hard-pressed government budget, plus a pledge of 1.7
billion dollars in investments in the countrys 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
Bishkeks 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
Kyrgyzstans 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, Bakievs 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 Kyrgyzstans 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 Bakievs motives and the
wider geopolitical implications.
Miroslav Niazov, a former secretary of Kyrgyzstans 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 Bakievs 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 Russias 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, Its too early to say the American air base is about to be
removed from Kyrgystan in the near future. Thats all the more true given that
this isnt 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.
TAJIK, KYRGYZ CONCERN AT MOSCOWS NEW ENERGY POLICY
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
regions water and energy disputes. However, regional analysts were divided
over whether Moscows 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
Bakievs 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 Russias 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 leaders comments represented a major departure from Moscows
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.
Medvedevs 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 Rahmons 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 Medvedevs 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
According to Ernest Karybekov, who heads the Kyrgyzstan-based Institute for
Research into Water Use and Hydropower Resources in Central Asia, believes that
Uzbekistans concerns about the environmental impact of the new dams are
unfounded, and that it is high time all the states involved stop flexing their
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 Tajikistans and Kyrgyzstans 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 Tajikistans 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 Russias 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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