Going It Alone: Why Kyrgyzstan Doesn't Want Russian or American Bases

The Kyrgyz leader does not seem terribly interested in being Russia's proxy in Central Asia.

Atabmayev march22 p.jpg

Russia's President Medvedev meets with his Kyrgyz counterpart Atambayev before taking part in the Eurasian Union Summit in Moscow Monday / Reuters

New Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev isn't getting along with Moscow:

Russian-Kyrgyz relations have deteriorated sharply. Russia is dissatisfied with Kyrgyz plans to shut down a russian military base, and Bishkek demands to replace the General Secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The new apple of discord became the Dastan torpedo producing plant, which Moscow is seeking to control.

Last year, when Atambayev threatened to shut down the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, analysts seemed to react in one of two ways: Atambayev was steering Kyrgyzstan toward a new, pro-Russia stance (focusing as well on his endorsement of the Eurasian Union), or he was just sort of angling for more money to coast out the last six months of 2014 until the whole question becomes moot anyway (I still lean toward the latter interpretation).

However, the latest round of tensions between Bishkek and Moscow might suggest something more: Atambayev doesn't want any foreign domination or bases on Kyrgyz territory, including from Russia. Atambayev essentially rejected the Russian bid for a major share of Dastan. In 2009, Russia offered Kyrgyzstan a $300 million aid package and $2 billion in other spending, which was widely presumed to have inspired then-president Kurmanbek Bakiev to demand the U.S. leave the Manas Transit Center (he eventually agreed to a massive increase in lease payments in exchange for continued U.S. presence). But Russia also offered, as a part of that deal, to buy a 48% share in the Dastan munitions plant as part of a $198 million debt forgiveness package. It was meant to be a double-whammy: erase debt, get a hundred and fifty million dollars on top of that, all in exchange for a torpedo factory.

Atambayev doesn't seem to consider that such a good deal. And if he's both rejecting the Dastan deal and telling the Russians to get out of their base at Kant, and suggesting the CSTO get a new General Secretary ... well things in Kyrgyzstan are getting a lot more interesting.

In a way, though, it's not really a surprise that Atambayev is not terribly interested in being Russia's proxy in Central Asia. No leader there really wants to be, even if Kazakhstan seems much more like Russia in many ways than it does the rest of Turkestan. One of the few constants in Central Asian politics, I think, and especially in their foreign policy, is the quest to successfully triangulate between the many foreign powers seeking to gobble up resources and access. While Russia enjoys warmer relations with most of their governments than does the U.S. or China, they aren't that much warmer, and all told the memory of being part of the USSR lingers just enough to keep any leader from selling the farm, so to speak, to Moscow.

So where does Kyrgyzstan go from here? That's a big question. Atambayev isn't showing his cards just yet, but we can make some speculation based on his public statements. He has requested, repeatedly, that the U.S. military leave Manas when the lease expires in June of 2014. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was in Kyrgyzstan just the other week trying to lay the foundation for a longer U.S. military presence there. From what we know in public, it hasn't worked yet.

Atambayev has also rejected Russian bids to maintain a permanent military base there, and is not enthusiastic about allowing Russia controlling ownership in that Dastan torpedo plant either. That, might mean that he's not swinging back and forth like a pendulum (U.S.-Russia-U.S.-Russia) but actually trying to carve out a separate, independent space from which to negotiate his external relations.

Of course, everyone wants to do that in the region. And Kyrgyzstan has famously failed to execute the so-called "multivector foreign policy" under Bakiev. So there's no guarantee that this will stick. In all likelihood, one power or another is going to offer some outrageous amount of money and throw the system into imbalance again, which is probably what Atambayev wants anyway: more currency, more wrangling over Kyrgyzstan's hand, more competition for influence.

Kyrgyzstan can only benefit from playing hard-to-get. So long as Afghanistan remains unsettled, Kyrgyzstan (and especially access to basing in Kyrgyzstan) will be coveted by both the U.S. and Russia, and they will pay dearly for it. Figuring out how to maneuver and gain advantage in such a space is not an easy trick for U.S. or Russian policymakers, and as long as they don't quite have congruous goals in the region it's not likely they'll team up to force concessions out of the Kyrgyz government.

So in a few months, let's check back and see how all the various deals and arrangements have changed. They'll mostly be much the same as they are now.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.

 

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