To many, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s decision on June 23 to continue his anti-terrorism cooperation with the United States was expected. According to the new agreement with the United States, Kyrgyzstan will receive US$60 million in annual rent from the U.S. government instead of the previous US$17 million. Bakiyev seems satisfied with the deal given that he will also likely win the upcoming presidential elections. It is now time for the international community to focus on development in Kyrgyzstan and improving its democratic record as part of sustaining Kyrgyzstan’s long-term commitment to anti-terrorism cooperation.
BACKGROUND: In February, Bakiyev announced that he was determined to expel the U.S. military from the Manas airport in Bishkek by mid-August. The president’s announcement to shut down the base came shortly after Russia promised a US$2 billion loan to Kyrgyzstan in return for, as many experts viewed the issue, the expulsion of the U.S. from the base. Four months later, however, Bakiyev changed his mind, allowing Manas to become a transit point for cargo to Afghanistan. The president’s latest decision was anticipated, as reports that Bakiyev was conducting negotiations with the U.S. leaked already in late February. Then, the president’s closest allies approached the U.S. representatives with a request to increase payment for Manas. Bakiyev gambled on the Manas base knowing that the U.S. is interested in retaining the base in the long term. From the very beginning, the president expected to increase payments from Washington.
The parliament voted to support the president two weeks after Bakiyev’s trip to Moscow, where he announced his decision about the base. While the possibility of Bakiyev changing his mind on the base lingered since February, the first sign that he would do so surfaced already in April. Then, the Kyrgyz Prime Minister said Manas might turn into a transit point. Despite official Bishkek’s denial that any talks were taking place, Bakiyev’s previous maneuvering around Manas pointed at the president’s interest in retaining the base. Bakiyev hinted back in 2005 and 2006 that the U.S. would have to evacuate the base. Then, he was able to increase rents and boost other related compensations. This time, aside from a threefold increase in rental payments, the U.S. government’s assistance to Kyrgyzstan will increase as well, while Manas airport will receive an additional US$36.6 million for reconstruction works.
On June 25, the parliament, loyal to Bakiyev, supported the president’s u-turn on Manas. Both at the February and June votes, the parliament used the same facts against and in favor of Manas, but interpreted them differently. In February, the parliament ruled that terrorism was not a threat to Kyrgyzstan, while last week the parliament concluded that terrorism in Afghanistan is an enduring problem for national security. This demonstrated that neither the president, nor the parliament, are guided by firm principles in their anti-terrorism policy. Bakiyev’s decision was opportunist, seeking higher returns from both Moscow and Washington. Bakiyev’s government avoided coherent responses to either of the requests by U.S. President Barack Obama or Afghan President Hamid Karzai to retain the Manas base. Two weeks prior to Bakiyev’s u-turn on Manas, Obama addressed the Bakiyev government with a letter, calling Bishkek to support international anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan. Similarly, Karzai had repeatedly asked Bakiyev to continue helping the coalition troops. Given Bakiyev’s repeated threats to break relations with the United States, there is little guarantee that the Kyrgyz leader’s wish to cooperate will last.
IMPLICATIONS: A lingering question is how much Bakiyev’s negotiations with the U.S. were coordinated with Moscow. Experts are divided on whether Russia finally allowed Bakiyev to retain the base in the process of negotiations, or if the Kyrgyz president acted unilaterally. Russian newspapers reported that the Russian government was unpleasantly surprised by Bakiyev’s latest agreement with the U.S.. Yet, no clear statement has been made by Russian officials on Moscow’s stance on Manas. Since February, Russian government-controlled mass media outlets have been saturated with reports suspecting that the U.S. is seeking to destabilize the region through the base. When Bakiyev changed his mind, pro-governmental newspapers in Bishkek began suspecting the U.S. of wishing to finance opposition movements in return for Bakiyev’s decision to oust the base.
Time will show whether Bakiyev was playing the game around the Manas base in cooperation with Moscow. Should Russia’s relations with Kyrgyzstan worsen, one could conclude that Bakiyev’s June decision was likely taken independently from Moscow. But unlike the Georgian or Ukrainian regimes, which both have strong pro-Western leaders, Bakiyev’s interests are limited to his wish to stay in power. The president is neither interested nor bound to cooperate with the West. Aside from the Manas base, Kyrgyzstan has no incentive to participate in U.S. or EU-led international security initiatives such as NATO. Russia’s reaction to Bakiyev’s maneuvering is unlikely to be harsh, but pressure to reduce the U.S. presence will remain.
Aside from securing a more lucrative contract with the United States, Bakiyev is the likely winner in the upcoming presidential elections on July 23. Indeed, several experts in Bishkek linked Bakiyev’s manipulation of the U.S. base to his decision to retain power for another term. The Russian loan helped Bakiyev to launch his election campaign back in February, starting the construction of the Kambarata-2 hydropower station as part of the campaign. Bakiyev also reportedly used the Russian funds to increase payments to the public sector and finance the campaign itself. With Bakiyev using vast funds in the run up to the elections, opposition leaders run against Bakiyev merely to remain in the headlines of political life in Kyrgyzstan. Two opposition candidates, Almazbek Atambayev and Temir Sariyev, see the elections as a long-term investment into their political careers. Neither has the ambition to win this time, but hopes to become recognizable candidates in future elections.
Although US$2 billion (of which only a portion was delivered) and US$ 60 million might not represent significant costs for Moscow and Washington respectively, the funds are vital for Bakiyev to strengthen his regime. Beneficiaries of the higher U.S. rent for Manas are limited to a narrow circle of business and political elites. Most certainly, this group of political entrepreneurs is disinterested in seeing the base leaving Kyrgyzstan. The masterminds behind the negotiations on Manas are part of the government and supported by the business community. The regime prefers to control freedom of speech and suppress opposition to sustain their access to foreign funds.
Given Bakiyev’s gambling on the future of Manas to remain in power, it is important for the U.S. government and international community to investigate the links between the regime’s financial interests and policy decisions carefully. Along with sprucing up aid, the U.S. government and international community must pressure Bakiyev’s regime to increase transparency in the upcoming elections. Furthermore, instances of political assassinations, beatings of journalists and unjust trials of opposition leaders must receive stronger attention. Under the Bakiyev regime, Kyrgyzstan’s democratic record has been worsening, becoming similar to those in neighboring Central Asian countries.
CONCLUSIONS: Bakiyev has shown his readiness to jeopardize international partnerships in return for higher financial inflows and the stability of his regime. He saw bargaining for higher returns from international partners as a new means to strengthen his regime. Unless the international community demands greater transparency in domestic politics, the president has all the incentives to continue this strategy after being re-elected next month. Bakiyev used geopolitics to stay in at home at the cost of suppressing opposition and free media. But now that the president won a more lucrative deal, it is time to demand from him to improve the domestic democratic record.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Erica Marat is a Nonresident Research Fellow with the Central Asia – Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program.