When Kyrgyzstan announced in February that it was expelling a U.S. air base after Russia promised it $2 billion-plus in aid and loans, American officials said the decision wasn’t final and a U.S. presence was still under discussion.
After the Kyrgyz parliament ratified the accord with near unanimity and the country’s Foreign Ministry issued a notice to vacate in 180 days, however, Russia’s apparent advance at U.S. expense is almost certain.
By TOM LASSETER MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
The aid package that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s government crafted was grounded in a hard-knuckled, realpolitik approach to this impoverished, landlocked Central Asian country.
It appears to be an offer the Kyrgyz government couldn’t refuse. All the elements, starting with what had seemed to be its most modest component — a $150 million strings-free grant to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev — filled needs that the U.S. either didn’t see or wouldn’t match.
While the Bush administration championed democratic reform in Central Asia, a policy that deeply alienates strongman rulers in the corruption-plagued region, Putin has focused on putting cash on the table and making deals.
The Manas Air Base — which is at the main airport outside the Kyrgyz capital and is used mainly to ferry troops in and out of Afghanistan — became a sore spot for the Kremlin in the years after the U.S. set it up in late 2001, Russian and Kyrgyz officials acknowledge.
Putin had smoothed the way for U.S. military installations to be built across Central Asia in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but he felt that the Bush White House barely acknowledged the gesture.
“What Bush offered Putin was a hat and a barbecue in Crawford, and that was it,” said Alexei Pushkov, a prominent Russian TV commentator with extensive contacts in Moscow political circles.
Anger turned to suspicion as the White House backed a series of pro-democracy revolutions in what Russia calls its “near abroad”: Georgia in 2003, Ukraine the following year and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Plans for a U.S. missile-defense shield on Russia’s borders followed those political upheavals.
While the U.S. government said those developments had nothing to do with Moscow, there was deep suspicion in the Kremlin that the Americans had begun a strategy of encircling Russia. Putin and his government began to push back against U.S. interests in Central Asia, wanting to be sure that they and not Washington were the ones calling the shots.
“Russia enjoys the role of a gatekeeper. It’s trying to defend this. It’s eager to spend huge money in order to keep its geopolitical and geostrategic role,” said Nikolai Petrov, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a critic of Putin.
The Kyrgyz, meanwhile, came to see advantage in the U.S.-Russia competition.
“It’s a political game,” said Erik Arsaliyev, the chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament’s foreign-affairs committee. “No one is saying it, but everyone knows that’s what’s happening. We have become a puppet in the hands of these two countries.”
The small nation of just 5.3 million people, wedged between China and Kazakhstan, has long been a crossroads for great powers. Bishkek today is home to both faded Soviet monuments and the American University of Central Asia.