International Affairs


The astonishingly cretinous will they/won’t they story of the U.S. Manas air transit center (in plain English, an air base) is creaking into life for another sorry round.

This time it is the Kyrgyzstan national boxing palladium — also known as the parliament — that is threatening, in language suggestive of a regretful nun casting off her habits, to “renounce” the treaty for the airbase’s presence at Bishkek’s international airport.

Something smells fishy here though. And it isn’t just recently released opposition head-case Kamchibek Tashiyev’s underpants.

First of all, the base deal is in any case set to expire in June 2014. This makes parliament’s move a formality so pointless it is surprising the chronically work-shy Kyrgyz legislators can be induced to withdraw their snouts from the trough for the time it will take for the vote to go ahead.

Empty symbolism then? In truth, this is an area the Zhogorku Kenesh excels.

The initiative comes from the government, however, which has somehow managed to fit this into its frenetic schedule between bouts of saving the country from economic, social and moral collapse. The renunciation bill is being presented to parliament, which has already approved the motion at committee stage, by deputy foreign minister Erlan Abdyldayev.

Kyrgyz budget will lose $200 million after the Manas transit center agreement denunciation; KyrTAG quotes the country’s first vice-prime Minister Djoomart Otorbayev as saying on Monday.

Earlier this month, deputy prime Joomart Otorbayev was cheerily informing the country how much further into staggering penury this will drive the state coffers. The United States pays around $60 million in lease annually for the base, which provides employment to 1,000 people and reportedly provides income for hundreds of supply companies.

One line of reasoning is that this is all part of a reorientation toward Russia, which purportedly intends to substantially expand its relatively modest Kant air base outside Bishkek. Following a visit to Kant earlier this year by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, reports appeared alluding to plans to expand the runway, modernize facilities and generally turn the base in a top-notch aviation outpost for the NATO-style Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

If it is the Russians trying to push the Americans out (again), then one wonders what Moscow’s motivations are. It is almost as though they were trying to slow down progress in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will likely take place in unseemly haste whatever happens.

In fact, if the base agreement were to be allowed to expire in June (as has been amply advertised for years now), the Americans will simply have to remove all permanent military presence in Kyrgyzstan and ferry their soldiers out on packed long-haul flights like sweaty British holidaymakers on their way to Pattaya. Logistically, this seems like a major hitch rather than an apocalyptic cataclysm, despite all the fretting and underpants-soiling among useless, lamebrain American diplomats.

Only this week, the foreign affairs committee in parliament approved giving British military transportation transit rights through Kyrgyz airspace. In the event of an emergency, the aircraft could even land at Manas, said Transportation Minister Maksatbek Diykanov, before presumably adding a theatrical wink.

There may be more significance in this affair to be found on Kyrgyzstan’s bacchanalian local political scene.

Kicking out the Americans will play well after years of fairly absurd claims they have been poisoning the Kyrgyz countryside and killing every first born child and heaven knows what else. (Admittedly, crashing a plane and possibly narrowly missing some densely populated village the other month can’t really have helped their cause).

This nationalist, philo-Russian stance will prove particularly useful now that the xenophobic contingent has come back into force with the release of pugnacious southerner Tashiyev and his chums. Also in that general political quarter, serious competition is in the offing from roly-poly Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, who now scrubs up well, has stopped speaking with his mouth full and could make a run on a national stage when the opportunity presents itself; namely, at the next presidential elections.

Not that having been the government that kicked out the Americans will be particularly significant electorally, but having the Kremlin onside will surely help. The last person that angered Moscow over Manas is now moodily sucking on kompot cordials through a straw in the garden of a Belarusian dacha like something out of the world’s worst staging of Chekhov.

It is the relaxed air with which Bishkek says thank you, but no thank you to substantial amounts of easy cash from the Americans that creates much room for doubt.

The speculation doing the rounds when this pointless denunciation/renunciation thing first became public was that Kyrgyzstan might be in the process of pulling another three-card trick: Putting the proposal to parliament, which would then vote down the bill and then give the government coverage to negotiate another lucrative one-year extension. This scenario would require a pliant parliament, however, and this lot of legislators is anything but cooperative.

If the base does go, the government needs to find a way of plugging a new circa $100 million annual hole in the budget. With the Kumtor gold mine cash cow constantly tottering due to public unrest, incited by the rabble-rousing nationalists, the addition to the deficit almost seems like a triviality, but still.

For all the belly-aching, Manas won’t make or break Kyrgyzstan. Its disappearance will only simply further isolate a country that needs as many friends as it can get and further pauperize a state barely able to provide for its population.

The only thing that matter about Manas is how little it ultimately matters.

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If the flow of gas from Turkmenistan to Ukraine is to resume, the decisive factors will be political not economic, and they will be decided in Moscow, not Kiev or Ashgabat.
And so Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s visit to Moscow this week will be watched with interest for developments over energy cooperation.
Yanukovych set an apparently combative tone Friday when he told reporters that Kiev would not “sacrifice it’s sovereignty” while negotiating on the price paid for Russian gas.
Ukraine is currently bound by a 10-year take-or-pay deal with Russia’s Gazprom that leaves it open to punishing claims if it fails to buy less than given quantities of gas over a particular year.
A perceived shortfall in gas imports from Russia last year last month prompted Gazprom to claim $7 billion from state-run Naftogaz Ukrainy. The sum is clearly purposeful in its unrealism.
 Ukraine currently pays around $430 per 1,000 cubic meters for Russian gas.
“It’s clear that we have to make concessions and find a price that Russia will accept to change the contract,” Yanukovych said Friday.
Indulging in some creative thinking, Ukraine now speaks of developing its substantial reserves of shale gas and, on Friday, of bypassing Bosphorous routes for liquified natural gas imports.
“We see there is such an opportunity, the building of a gas terminal in the Mediterranean in front of the Bosporus, so that it does not go through the Bosporus, and build a terminal there,” Yanukovych said. “If we are able to do this — we are now working on this — we will have another opportunity to transport up to 10 billion, 7 to 10 billion cubic meters from these liquefied gas terminals,” he said.
Bringing cheaper Central Asian gas into the mix is evidently what Ukraine sees as another route out of the impasse.
What is abundantly clear is that this is most likely to happen if Kiev relinquishes control over its domestic natural pipeline network. Such a scenario was firmly resisted in the past, but has now evolved into a certainty that explains Yanukovych’s need to protest that he will protect his country’s sovereignty.
The proposal in the air is that a consortium involving Gazprom would operate the pipelines, finally giving Moscow the control over transit that is has so long sought. Yanukovych plaintively stated Friday that Kiev would seek assurances that it would still be able to make the call on what gas could transit to Europe.
“We want for the Ukrainian (gas transportation system) to work reliably, for it to be able to pump certain amounts of gas to Europe — the more, the better. And we want it to be technically modernised,” he said.
And, going by what Ukrainian officials said last month during Yanukovych’s visit to Ashgabat, some of that gas should be Turkmen and sold onward to Western Europe for Kiev’s profit.
Yanukovych is now also talking about “de-monopolising” the gas market, which sounds a signal for allowing in Russian and other investors. He has also made more positive noises about the Moscow-dominated Customs Union, tentatively committing his nation’s fate eastward.
The European Union, meanwhile, looks on with a degree of trepidation. Interfax cited the EU envoy to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, as saying Friday that one option was was a three-way EU-Russian-Ukrainian consortium running the pipelines.
Whatever the outcome, the Ukrainian pipeline taboo is now broken, and that could set the stage for Turkmenistan’s long-held ambition to see its gas delivered to European households.
The finer details of the arrangement — which will be mired in the standard opaqueness and doubtless subject to all manner of financial chicanery — are yet to be decided.

For all its fabulous wealth, Turkmenistan has stooped once more to asking the Chinese for a staggering $4.1 billion loan to develop the huge and untapped South Yolotan field. Not wanting for a brass neck, President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov ordered his cowering minions to begin negotiations with the China State Development Bank for a loan on preferential terms.

The debt will pile on top of the $4 billion, of which $3 billion is also for developing South Yolotan, China has lent Turkmenistan last year. But why does a country supposedly awash with gas money and whose outlays on the provision of social services are seemingly risible suddenly need all this cash? Will China puts its hands in its pockets and where is the money likely to end up?

Turkmenistan is unwilling to embrace the more unmanageable aspects of modernity like an open society or the even vaguely comprehensive provision of healthcare, but it is striving nonetheless to convey the notion that it is speeding ahead towards the ranks of developed nations. Accordingly, state television and newspapers are little more than a wall-to-wall eulogy to the wisdom of Turkmenistan’s leader, the greatness of the country’s textile industry, the wonderfulness of its schools, the sterling dynamism of its army, the modernity of its confectionery factories, and so on and so forth. The most visible, and expensive, aspect of this tireless striving to some indefinable historical apotheosis has manifested itself in a gargantuan construction boom in the weird capital city, Ashgabat, and the utterly potty Caspian resort town of Awaza.

The numbers speak for themselves. Lording over his terrified browbeaten Cabinet, perennially smug-looking Berdymukhamedov announced in January that no less than $23.6 billion will be spent on hundreds of new buildings over the coming two years. Laughably, he suggested that some of this money would wash in courtesy of foreign investors. The only foreigner that would dream of parting with cash for Turkmen real estate, probably in Awaza, would do so exclusively in the hope it might put them in good stead when bidding for some government tender. Heaven only knows what proportion of the country’s economy that eats up, although with an official real gross domestic product of around $16 billion in 2009, it is safe to say that Turkmenistan may be spending a little beyond its means on things that it probably doesn’t really need. Plus ca change.

The bulk of construction work in Ashgabat appears to be focused on residential apartments, although no Turkmen building boom would be complete without a fair share of waste. As usual, dictator-serving French construction titan Bouygues has cornered the market for official buildings with its orders for a new Oil and Gas Institute, Makhtumkuli University, the Sport and Tourism Institute and extra premises for the oh-so-busy parliament.

Presumably, Ashgabat thinks that $4 billion here or there will come out in the wash, and that it can always offset the debt against future sales of gas. Because, of course, by the time the pipeline to China is pumping 40 billion cubic meters of gas annually, the country’s economy will be fully diversified, what with German teenagers clamoring for Turkmen-made jeans, Turkish children nibbling on Ashgabat choccies and German tourists hogging the sun-beds along the Caspian coastline. At least this is the hazy vision that appears to Berdymukhamedov in his sleep, amid dreams of grateful subjects willfully prostrating themselves at his diminutive frame as his pudgy face beams contentedly. Chinese economic policy is made of somewhat more reality-bound stuff, and they will likely part with requested cash as much of it will end up in their own pockets anyhow.

In December, the Turkmen state media announced that the government had awarded $9.7 billion to several foreign companies to develop South Yolotan. Among those companies was CNPC Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Company, which won a $3.13 billion deal to produce 10 billion cubic metres of gas annually. That is to say, please lend us $4 billion, so we can pay a company you own $3 billion to do work in our own country.

On the face of it, none of this necessarily makes bad economic sense, but being that it is Turkmenistan we are dealing with here, much room must be reserved for pessimism and cynicism.

Turkmen President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has by and large been able to get away with being cast in the reformer role, especially since not that many people have been paying attention.

The latest news is straining that impression now, however, especially with the Turkmen government wasting U.S. time and money.

Peace Corps, you shall not pass!

Peace Corps, you shall not pass!

On Friday, news emerged that Turkmenistan has taken to barring entry to Peace Corps volunteers, for reasons that remain utterly baffling. As Peace Corps country director Chris Leal told The Associated Press:

“We had the paperwork in place, and they were approved to come, but the day before they were due to leave the U.S., we received a diplomatic note from the embassy saying that they would be invited next year, but not for this year.”

Not much more seems to be clear beyond the fact that the Turkmen authorities saw fit to spring this surprise last minute.

This comes on the heels of the potentially even more disturbing story that has been unfolding for months; the Turkmen authorities’ decision to prevent students at the American University of Central Asia and the American University of Bulgaria from leaving the country (see here and here).

While the Peace Corps case is redolent of the kind of paranoid Turkmenbashi-style policies that one has long come to expect of Ashgabat, actually forbidding people from leaving their own country is beyond the pale.

"Oh, you're not going anywhere, young girl"

"Oh, you're not going anywhere, young girl"

As the U.S. Embassy in Turkmenistan noted in a recent statement protesting officials action to bar students from leaving via Ashgabat airport last month:

“As recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to leave his or her country and to return to his or her country.”

To the U.S. government’s credit, they have been candid in effectively calling out Turkmenistan for what it is; a violator of human rights.

And so much for Assistant Secretary Robert Blake’s surreal observation that “human rights is not as big an issue in Turkmenistan as it is in some of the other Central Asian countries.”

Well, Turkmenistan breaching human rights? So what, one might well be expected to retort. There is hardly anything surprising about this, especially against the backdrop of an increasingly sycophantic bureaucratic deference to Berdymukhamedov.

The issue is that, as usual, these Central Asian tin-pot dictators demand international respect, without being able to conduct themselves with a modicum of civility. Quite literally in Berdymukhamedov’s case.

In his recent meeting the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he is reported to have pressed on the two issues raised above. About the Peace Corps, he spoke highly, praising the valuable contribution they make to the country. On the students issue, he is supposed to have been receptive.

Yet the outcome in both areas could not have been more catastrophic. North of 200 Turkmen students will have their university careers possibly irreversibly ruined, while Peace Corps will be operating with one armed tied behind their back for at least the coming year.

Berdymukhamedov comes out of this as not just a petty dictator thug, which he is; but a dishonest and cowardly one too. At this rate, he will be making Niyazov look good.

The mystery here is what it is that has possessed the Turkmens to pursue this line of PR self-destruction. Evidently, Ashgabat feels confident enough of the fact that flagrant breaches of human rights and reversion to backward isolationism will not do excess damage to its commercial ties with international partners, including the West.

As nose-tweakings go, this is about as bad as it gets, and if the United States doesn’t take a firm position now, well, then it probably never will.

Depending on who one asks, Russia has either sunken its claws further yet into Central Asia, or it has had to settle with an embarrassing compromise in its strategic designs over the region.

On Aug. 1, Russia appeared to seal a double whammy by getting Kyrgyzstan to allow it to drastically increase the number of troops it deploys in the country, while also all but being assured a new base. The former achievement would imply the latter, but that issue was cunningly hidden in the bilateral for reasons I shall explore below.

Specifically, the Russians will get to send down an additional battalion – which could mean something in the area of around 300 or so troops, plus hundreds of other service employees – and will create a joint anti-terrorism training center.

That agreement will only be officially confirmed by Nov. 1, before which time anything could happen, knowing the Kyrgyz government capricious ways. In the meantime, Moscow and Bishkek will trash out some finer points, all clearly very much sought after by the Russians.

First, “the status of personnel at the joint military bases (Ed: note the plural) and their family members will be equal to that of administrative and technical staff at the Russian Embassy in Kyrgyzstan”. This means that while the Americans at Manas base are theoretically _ and only theoretically _ subject to prosecution, the Russians will be able to raise hell with impunity. This is not necessarily such an important point in reality, but it does make a mockery of Kyrgyz claims of wanting to be able to have the scope to apply criminal sanctions to miscreant foreign military staff.

"I swear I will never double-cross anyone ever again. Probably."

"I swear I will never double-cross anyone ever again. Probably."

Second, Russian soldiers will work to protect the sovereignty and security of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the safety of Russian military facilities, against attacks by international terrorist groups. Kyrgyzstan’s government has in effect tendered out its national security, which is a deeply humiliating admission of its own wretched inability to enforce its writ and defend its borders. Since any group or any person seem prone to being assigned with terrorist designs in Kyrgyzstan these days, Moscow may very literally be finding itself militarily propping up President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s banana republic (without the bananas). Bakiyev is evidently highly paranoid, not just about Islamic bogeymen, but also the malign elite schemers that he keeps closest to himself. Increased Russian military presence sends a clear signal that Bakiyev is Moscow’s man; until they tire of his double-faced chicanery, that is.

Another all but settled issue is the term of the increased Russian deployment. Under the memorandum signed by Bakiyev and President Dimitry Medvedev in Cholpon-Ata, the Russian will be able to stay for a whopping 49 years, with the option of an additional 25-year extension. All in all, that could end up being almost as long as Kyrgyzstan’s existence as a Soviet republic, which seems appropriate.

No matter how you look at it, this has to be a good deal for Russia, although heavens only knows what it is that Moscow actually wants all those troops knocking about Central Asia for anyway. Unlike the United States, there is no actual war that Russia can usefully be engaged in around this part of the world. It is for this reason that some of the media coverage has been fairly misleading about the significance of the Cholpon-Ata Accord, as it shall henceforth be known.

Reuters went rather speciously with the headline: “Russia trumps U.S. with new Central Asia army base,” which misses the point altogether. Washington may have long-term concerns about this kind of Muscovite military hegemony in the region, but as long as it has its own base, it really does not care. On a recent visit to Bishkek, U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns spoke in terms very similar to the Cholpon-Ata accord when answering a question about the possibility of a second Russian base:

“Our view is that any step that strengthens the sovereignty and independence and security of Kyrgyzstan is a sensible one.”

That is weasel opt-out response that suggests either that a Russian base either (a) strengthens Kyrgyz security (b) weakens Kyrgyz independence or (c) all the above. What it really means, though, is that the United States has its base and all the rest, including democratic standards in Kyrgyzstan, can go to hell.

On a less positive note for Russia, supposedly, would be the failure to achieve a consensus among Collective Security Treaty Organisation members on the creation of the NATO-style rapid reaction forces.

The Moscow Times suggests this was down to intransigence from the Belarusians, who must still be crying over Russia’s milk export ban. President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly “refused to sign an agreement Saturday that would create [the] rapid-reaction security force.”

That claim is factually erroneous as the only full session of the CSTO was in any event held on Friday, a day that I am reliably informed Lukashenko mostly spent cycling with his son on the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake.

Most likely, the fly in the ointment is perennial party-pooper, Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov. If the notion of rapid-reaction force irks Uzbekistan, the suggestion they should be camped just minutes drive away from the borders of its volatile Ferghana Valley will be enough to send it into conniption fits. Hence, the Cholpon-Ata Accord makes no mention of the locations in which extra Russian troops will be dislocated.

Sure enough, Karimov flew out Kyrgyzstan around midday on Saturday, leaving Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to laze by the beach, apparently.

Reports of the Uzbek digging trenches around its Ferghana border, which recently emerged to much hilarity, may indeed have been a sharp diplomatic reminder to dispel any Russian schemes of deploying CSTO rapid-reaction forces in their general direction.

Of course, Russia would never think of doing that, unless the unthinkable happens; Karimov dies unexpectedly and the country descends into violent civil war. But it could happen, and that is the idea that disturbs neurotic Tashkent so intensely.

Wanting to be less cynical, one could give Kyrgyzstan and Russia the benefit of the doubt, and surmise that the anti-terrorism training center will be purely engaged in maintaining domestic security and ensuring that militants take over the whole region. But this scenario has always seemed fanciful, even in southern Kyrgyzstan, where a politicized brand of radical Islam has long enjoyed a robust following.

As is often the case, it is wisest in these apparently global strategic tussles to try and adopt a smaller domestic viewpoint. Instead of seeing this as the latest chapter in the tiresome fabled Great Game, it would be more instructive to understand Russian activity in Central Asia as the inevitable outcome of Kyrgyz political weakness and the result of petty regional rivalries.

For largely sentimental, revanchist reasons, Moscow is enamoured with its image as a benevolent father figure that sows, or rather imposes, harmony among its fractious offspring. By achieving what it has, Russia has turned itself into a stakeholder in future Central Asian developments, a role that the United States should keep at a safe distance.

Bridging the Panj River

 

U.S. 'R' US: Bridging the Panj River

 

Joshua Foust over at Registan has weighed in on the Manas air base saga, but I feel he may have wandered into some factual and analytical inexactitudes that I wanted to raise here for the conscientious Central Asia observer.

The most interesting point has to do with the apparent revelation in an Associated Press report that the Pentagon intends to resume “military cooperation” with Uzbekistan. Foust scoffs at the suggestion that this is a novel revelation, but I think that is a mistake.

The suggestion that the U.S. is trying improve military ties with Uzbekistan is indeed news, if it is actually true. Any negotiations we are so far aware of have focused on using the country as a transit point for non-military goods, such as food, building material and medical supplies. Military cooperation would entail engagement of quite a different order and could indeed raise ethical questions, if you are the kind of person that asks them.

My issue with the report is that rings decidedly false, and I would not be surprised if this is the United States military’s attempt to play its own card in the now-desperate information war it is waging with Kyrgyzstan; an attempt to scare Bishkek into desisting from overplaying its poker hand in the bid for extra money, which is clearly how Washington views this whole affaire.

Again, the story just doesn’t seem very likely, for a number of reasons. While there has been some rapprochement between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, it has been slow and pretty low-key. Resurrecting the K2 base is probably never likely to be on the agenda in Karimov’s lifetime for any number of reasons. Also, Uzbekistan looks as though it is prepared to commit to its membership in the CSTO _ the fact that Karimov deigned to go the body’s summit in Moscow is a rare concession that should not be underestimated.

Foust is also wrong in saying that March 2008 marked a turning point in that the Uzbeks allowed NATO countries to resupply from Termez. The Germans have been using that as a supply facility since coalition operations began in Afghanistan. What Robert Simmons said in Moscow last year was that U.S. personnel were travelling through a facility in Uzbekistan _ though he never actually mentioned Termez by name, contrary to what was claimed by some Russian news reports. All in all, it was a fundamentally pretty trivial development, regardless of what the media reports may have suggested.

It might also be nitpicking to question whether the United States thought (or thinks) Uzbekistan is the only choice for transit, but here goes. What is becoming clear is that the policy is now to pursue multiple routes, for the simple reason that it undermines attempts by any single rogue state from making a nuisance of itself.

Foust says Uzbekistan has the only high-capacity border crossing into Afghanistan, meaning the misnamed Bridge of Friendship. That is an assertion easily made if you have never tried crossing the bastard thing, but I know what he means.

However, the United States is clearly intent on making further use of Tajikistan in the future, which explains why they are in talks with authorities there to fund the building of yet another bridge to match the spiffy one across the Panj River that they already paid for a few years back. While there could be no talk getting there from Europe overland, which would either take you through Uzbekistan anyway or go via some hellishly winding and bumpy roads, there is always the option of sourcing goods locally. This is something U.S. diplomats have already spoken about doing in Kazakhstan, and there is no reason the approach could not be used elsewhere _ it would after all be a useful economic boost for particularly poverty-stricken areas like southern Tajikistan.

It is also glib to dismiss efforts to engage Turkmenistan’s role to play. At least the U.S. military thinks so; or General David Petraeus, CENTCOM commander, would not have bothered going there last month with the express intent of discussing how Ashgabat could assist operations on Afghanistan. On paper, Turkmenistan has said it is interested in helping stability in Afghanistan, and given its insistence on the neutrality formula, that could really only possibly mean assisting in transportation arrangement for non-military supplies.

Again, a lot of people seem to labouring under some kind of misapprehension about what these transit routes are all about exactly. It is not even clear that any military personnel will even be engaged in moving these goods from point A to point B, until they get to the Afghan border. It is, after all, almost certainly cheaper to contract these logistical services to private companies, which helpfully obviates cause for concern among any of the affected states that the operation would in any way be impinging on their diplomatic and strategic status.

On one point I am still just about in agreement with Foust, though I may in time have to eat many of the words I spent on my previous post. It is clear to any fool with eyes that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is angling for money. That fact alone lets in the slightest chink of light into the gloom, if you are someone that believes Manas air base should stay put. The United States, though, have clearly not been very forthcoming on this matter, a fact that must frustrate Kyrgyzstan more than somewhat.

Even so, they have allowed some slight room for a demarche. In spite of government officials harping on endlessly about how it is the end of the road for Manas, the parliamentary vote on a government-sponsored draft bill to revoke the basing agreement has been delayed till at least Thursday, while deputies really chew it over, at the urging of the government itself no less.

This is patently a lot of hogwash. The bill is a work of febrile stupidity even by Kyrgyz parliamentary standards. Although it is true that Manas has been in situ far longer than most Kyrgyz people could have expected, it is quite absurd of the government to argue the base is no longer needed because operations to bring stability to Afghanistan have been successfully completed. It is quite peculiar that a government that squeals with terror over Hizb Ut-Tahrir should express such airy confidence about a country besieged by the Taliban.

In one of the more breath-taking passages in the statement accompanying bill, the government actually quotes Human Rights Watch as saying that too many civilian casualties have been killed in U.S. and NATO bombing sorties. Presumably, this is not the same Human Rights Watch that just this week criticized Kyrgyzstan for allowing Uzbek special services to snatch refugees and asylum seekers off its streets.

No, the process is being dragged out for longer than it needs to be, specifically because there must still be some hope that the U.S. will come up with an offer that Bishkek can’t refuse.

It is interesting to speculate what such an offer might be. Last time that Bakiyev was making rent demands it was $200 million per year. The U.S. currently pays $150 million between rent and other assorted goods and services.

Pig Wearing Lipstick

Aid Package: Pig Wearing Lipstick

For the sake of perspective, we should consider looking at what the Russians brought to the table. A lot of figures are being bandied about, but this is the full breakdown of the four-point deal:

1) Russia will issue a line of credit of $300 million to be paid on April 30 this year. The interest charged on the loan will be 0.75 per annum, and the sum is repayable over a 40-year period in biannual installments. The first payment is due on March 15, 2016, and the final payment has to be made by Sept. 15, 2049.

2) Russia will cancel all Kyrgyzstan’s remaining g debts, which total a little over $193 million. In exchange for that, however, Russia gets a 48 percent stake in Dastan, a company that produces marine torpedoes, oddly enough. It will also receive ownership of some building in Bishkek, although I’m not quite certain which one they are talking about.

3) The Russian Finance Ministry will give $150 million in financial assistance to be transferred on April 30, 2009.

This part is the only real gift as such, and it would be an interesting parlour game to speculate where all this cash will end up. Already, lobbyists are said to lining up to ask for money to build dairy and tobacco factories.

4) Most interesting, is the last agreement on the construction of the Kambaratinsk hydroelectricity generation plant. The Russian and Kyrgyz governments will take joint 50/50 ownership of a company that will oversee the construction of the facility via their state-owned power companies _ OAO Inter RAO UES and OAO Electrical Stations respectively.

Russia will “enable the raising of $1.7 billion for the construction building of Kambaratinsk in credit (with a grace period of eight years and loan maturity of 20 years) for the company” building the plant over a four-year period, starting from 2009.

Since this is the part of the deal that is the most eye-catching in numerical terms, it might be worth considering its exact significance. Again, it seems that the money is in fact little more than a loan, which will not in all likelihood even be issued by the Russian government. Not that it makes any difference if the government is stumping up the cash or not, but what investor in their right mind would sink their money into a project fraught with as many disastrous possibilities as a Central Asian hydroelectric dam. In any event, the actual building work will most likely be done by a Russian company. At best, this is a grand job creation scheme that could employ a few hundred people for a few years some time over the coming decade. The actual electricity won’t come online for probably six-seven years at a generous estimate.

It is also odd that Russia should backing this giant hydroelectric plant only a couple of weeks after President Dimitry Medvedev angered the Tajiks by suggesting they should ask permission from all their downstream neighbors if they wanted to build Roghun Dam.

Bakiyev plays hardball

Bakiyev plays hardball

The upshot of this all being that Kyrgyzstan hasn’t really got that great a deal. Really, money in the pocket _ pocket being the operative word _ totals no more than $450 million. The cancelled debt is a bad joke; as if Kyrgyzstan could pay it back even if it wanted to. If the United States had been prepared to look at $200-250 per annum in Manas fees and aid over the next two to three years, it would have easily presented a tempting offer of no-strings-attached cash on the table. Indeed, since operations at the air base were set to step up a few notches, it is quite likely that figure would have been reached without breaking too much sweat anyway.

As things stand now, the Kyrgyz parliament may possibly have passed the point of no return on Friday, however, by ratifying the four-point agreement detailed above. Strangely, this decidedly suspicious bit of legislation passed quickly and without the slightest murmur of discussion about what might lie behind it, or how and when the monies in question will be spent.

Having given the aid the green light, it remains to see how Kyrgyzstan could even begin to weasel out of its obligations to Russia on Manas. Provided it did commit itself at all.

After all, is it beyond the realms of possibility that this whole plot has been cooked up in concert by Bishkek and Moscow?

Consider the following premises and possibilities:

          While Russia wants Manas closed, it should really be fairly low on its list of actual practical priorities, and it does see some benefit in somebody addressing the problems of regional instability.

          Medvedev has talked in recent days about wanting to see movement on halting NATO expansion and plans to develop the missile defense shield in Europe.

          Linking these issues allows for reaching a compromise that sees Russia getting its way on either NATO or the defense shield, the United States holding onto Manas, and Kyrgyzstan getting much-needed cash from Moscow and Washington.

Ultimately, if it is a gambit, it is likely doomed to failure because of the perceived strategic costs to the U.S., but not because of the monetary concerns. Its failure would also mean Bakiyev has been played like a chump: No Manas rent, no diplomatic leverage, and a pretty meager pot of real cash to show for it.

Well, it seems that Kyrgyzstan may have finally have gone and done it. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced Tuesday while in Moscow that his country will end U.S. use of Manas airbase, apparently striking a mortal blow for U.S. plans to boost troop presence in Afghanistan.

But wait a minute, let’s not forget that in Bakiyev we are dealing with a man so slippery he could slide under a snake while wearing a top hat, to quote a a long-dead British parliamentary wit.

The standard line that has been recited for weeks now is that Kyrgyzstan is acting at Moscow’s behest and on pain of losing what was confirmed today will be $2 billion in loans and $150 million. Taking a good look at those numbers, it is far from clear what exactly Bishkek gets out of this quid pro quo deal. It is true that in the age of subprime, some people have lost all understanding of basic economic principles, but presumably everybody is familiar with the concept of a loan. This is not a gift and will only serve to weigh Bishkek yet further under the Muscovite yoke. Gazprom has already taken a sizeable bite out of the Kyrgyzgas state gas monopoly, and we can only imagine what else the Russian government will eventually claim ownership to.

"Something about this deal reeks," says Manas-based U.S. officer

"Something about this deal reeks," says Manas-based U.S. officer

As for the $150 million in aid, the sum is too pathetic for words. Again, basic economics comes in handy here. The United States already pumps roughly that amount of money through rent at Manas, service contracts, catering and so forth every year.  By booting the Americans out, Kyrgyzstan is not just killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but also wiping its behind with it, in the style of Henry VIII, for good measure.

Add to that the fact that in diplomatic terms, this makes Kyrgyzstan just another breadbasket that nobody cares about and that they no longer have any cards to play in dealings with Moscow.

It will have proved to be a staggeringly stupid decision; if it actually happens of course.

Like the scheming two-bit bazaar operator that he is, Bakiyev again raised the issue of cash in his remarks on Tuesday. Extract from AP:

“It should be said that during this time… we discussed not just once with our American partners the subject of economic compensation for the stationing (of US forces at the base),” he said on Russian state-run TV. “But unfortunately we have not found any understanding on the part of the United States.

“So literally just days ago, the Kyrgyz government made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Money seems, in fact, to have been the only motivation for this decision _ so it is not inconceivable that he could be persuaded to change his mind if the situation changes.

Bakiyev also has another “get out of prison card” in the shape of parliament, which is the only body authorized to make the final decision on whether Manas should be shut down or not. They will discuss the Manas situation later in the month, according to their schedule announced earlier Tuesday. If they should decide not to support Bakiyev’s order and perhaps suggest instead that rent negotiations could resume, well, Bakiyev being a servant of the lawmakers would have no choice but to concede to the will of the people’s representatives.

If Bakiyev is not an idiot (and this is a matter of some debate) he will play this so that he comes out of this smelling of roses, gathering handsome cheques from all and sundry. The potentially unpopular decision to keep Manas open would be deflected onto parliament, which is the product of essentially rigged polls anyway, so no loss there. But remember that political opposition is heating up in Kyrgyzstan and Bakiyev needs all the PR he can get.

For all we know, this little pantomime was cooked up by none other than the Kremlin itself. There is constant talk about Moscow’s disgruntlement with U.S. presence in its strategic backyard, but this is to misunderstand where Russia’s real priorities lie. Logically, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan suits them just fine and they should be compliant with anything that preserves the status quo. Any public signal of discontent from Moscow really should be read as nothing more than a sop to the dying generation of Brezhnev-era military brass who still cling to outdated notions of Russian military greatness and strategic girth _ a tragicomically absurd notion.

If Bakiyev eventually does the right thing, he gets the money and saves Moscow having to shell out even more aid cash by pumping the Americans for more. Russia get to have the U.S. still mired in the Afghan mess, while actually doing some useful work. And the U.S. get to keep their base another day and splurge a few more bucks for it. But what’s $50 million here and there between friends?

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