By Alexander Vatutin
It’s unacceptable to have a facility in Kyrgyzstan that poses a threat to its security. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev made this statement during a news conference in Bishkek devoted to the summary of the outgoing year. His statement concerns the American base located at the Manas civilian airport.
The American base was set up in 2001 to support the international anti-terrorist coalition operating in Afghanistan. Later, it was turned into a centre for handling cargo transit of the American Air Force. Its task is to refuel aircraft and airlift cargo and passengers to Afghanistan and back on board the C-17 military transport planes. Up to now, it has been the main aero-mobile hub of the operation code-named “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan.
There are about 15 hundred American servicemen and civilian personnel at the Manas base. However, the U.S. is planning to pull out its forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the year when the agreement with the Kyrgyz government on the lease of the base will expire. By all appearances, the Kyrgyz authorities have no plans to extend the lease.
At the news conference, the Kyrgyz President said that the Manas would be turned exclusively into a civilian air port. Meanwhile, maintaining a military base, even for 159 million U.S. dollars, is quite dangerous, says Almazbek Atambaev. He said that terrorists and other hostile foreign groups could target the base. He did not rule out that if the situation in the region worsens, Iran could also pose a threat to the country and its missiles can easily reach the Kyrgyz territory. During such an attack not only American servicemen but also civilians could suffer. As an alternative the Kyrgyz President suggested turning the base into a civilian cargo transportation hub with the substantial involvement of Russia. At the same time, he emphasized that his decision was not a political game under Russia’s pressure and added that it was aimed only at assuring the welfare of the Kyrgyz citizens.
Almazbek Atambaev deliberately mentioned Russia. Moscow, according to him, is the country’s main strategic partner. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan is planning to join the Customs Union which embraces Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. In short, it wants to be involved in integration processes on the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In addition, it also has obligations under the Collective Security Treaty Organization. A CSTO member country should receive consent of the other members to be able to set up a foreign base on its territory, according to an expert at the Institute of CIS Countries, Andrei Grozin.
“Clearly, when making the statement, Almazbek Atambaev meant the positions of Russia, Kazakhstan and other CSTO member countries as well as China. These countries oppose the existence of a foreign base in Kyrgyzstan. It’s quite clear that the aim of the cargo transit hub is not limited only to the transportation of servicemen to Afghanistan and back. It’s also carrying out surveillance. This paves the way for launching various military operations,” Andrei Grozin said.
Experts say that the U.S. base is practically beyond the control of the Kyrgyz authorities. This means that the base can be used for other purposes.
Clearly, Americans will make every effort to stay in Kyrgyzstan and use various political and economic leavers to this end. But it seems that the new foreign policy priorities of the Kyrgyz authorities have no place for foreign military facilities on the country’s territory in the absence of consent of the other CSTO member countries.