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.


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.

In the wake of the assumed death of Kyrgyz ex-presidential chief-of-staff, Medet Sadyrkulov, some interesting fissures are coming to light in what has generally been believed to be a monolithic pro-government bloc in parliament.

Three political groupings are represented in the Jogorku Kenesh: the pro-presidential Ak Zhol party with an overwhelming 71 deputies, the soft Communist Party opposition with 8 deputies, and the more combative Social Democrats with 11 seats.

One of the saddest outcomes of the tainted parliamentary elections of December 2007 was that this legislative chamber, easily the most lively in Central Asia, was neutered and turned effectively into a rubber stamp body for President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration. Over the past few months, however, there have been increasingly rumbling about potential schisms within the dominant Ak Zhol group _ a possibility that has become ever more likely with Sadyrkulov’s death.

A substantial section of Ak Zhol deputies have an obvious loyalty toward Sadyrkulov, being former members of the Moya Strana (My Country) party that he once headed and saw merged into the larger grouping.

Galina Kulikova

Galina Kulikova

On Tuesday, former Moya Strana coordinator Galina Kulikova demanded Ak Zhol convene in an emergency meeting and called on Bakiyev to attend. The proposed topic of the meeting is to be what she described as shortcomings in the investigation into the crash in which it is believed Sadyrkulov was killed.

Meanwhile, Ak Zhol deputy Erik Arsaliyev, who lent the Lexus to Sadyrkulov, questioned the likelihood of the accident resulting in a fatality. He noted that the fuel tank in the Lexus is on the opposite side from where the collision took place, and so it was unlikely for the vehicle to catch fire the way it did.

(Incidentally, see this TV report for an interesting computer-generated reconstruction of the collision, which now appears to have taken place on a desolate road by a lake, although pictures from the scene suggested otherwise).

According to this article published in Reporter-Bishkek last year _ one of whose reporters recently fell victim to an unexplained beating _ Arsaliyev lies within the sphere of influence of an Ak Zhol faction headed by Sadyrkulov and Elmira Ibraimova, who also resigned as deputy prime minister in January. Ibraimova has been trenchant in her accusations against the government, insisting that Sadyrkulov’s was indeed murder. It was also she that has been telling all and sundry that Sadyrkulov warned her in previous weeks that he has been under surveillance and had received death threats. The important point here is that while some of Ibraimova’s words may verge on the hysterical, not to speak of self-regarding, she is clearly not a frivolous person without influence. Also, unlike Sadyrkulov, Ibraimova has manifestly pitched her tent broadly within the anti-government camp.

Elmira Ibraimova

Elmira Ibraimova

Zainidin Kurmanov, also formerly of Moya Strana, is yet another voice in the list of indignant deputies demanding a more probing inquiry into Sadyrkulov’s death.

What seems quite probable is that most those deputies (barring Social Democrats) coming out with the kind of stern words on this shady affair that we have seen so far will prove to be members of this broad faction encompassing Moya Strana and the Sadyrkulov-Ibraimova alliance, which may include anything up to 30-40 people, if the Reporter-Bishkek article is anything to go by.

Conversely, Sadyrkulov’s convenient death may have been just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. Any large-scale defections or rumblings may have been suitable averted by this macabre occurrence.

Ak Zhol may be on the brink of an almighty schism, in which case all bets are off. If the break-up of this political monolith is averted, however, it is difficult to see what difference the planned opposition marches will have.

The most bizarre aspect about Kyrgyz ex-presidential chief-of-staff Medet Sadyrkulov’s death is that nobody in government seems willing to allow the fact to be officially confirmed.

Piecing together the facts from official pronouncements and often contradictory media reports, it is not easy to divine specifically what happened that fateful Friday morning.

Medet Sadyrkulov

Medet Sadyrkulov

According to the most credible scenario, Sadyrkulov was returning from Almaty, Kazakhstan, together with political analyst Sergei Slepchenko and a driver. At 2 a.m., Slepchenko is reported to have called his wife to tell her that he was on his way back from Almaty. Half an hour later, their car, a Toyota Lexus 470 sports utility vehicle, crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan. Anywhere between 4 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. the Lexus was involved in a collision with an Audi 100 somewhere in the “Tyopliye Klyuchi” spa resort area situated around 40 kilometers outside Bishkek, where Sadyrkulov is purported to own a dacha.

The exact dynamics of the accident are far from clear, but it appear the driver of the Audi lost control of his vehicle, veered away from his lane, and collided with the Lexus. There are contradictory accounts about whether the Lexus was stationary or in movement at the time, a key detail given the varying age and size of the respective vehicles. According to police accounts, the crash appears to have provoked a furious fire in which the three passengers in the Lexus died.

The driver of the Audi, named by Interior Ministry officials only as O. Osmonov, born in 1985, survived the accident, although his current status and whereabouts are also unclear.

It transpired that the Lexus belonged to parliament deputy Erik Arsaliyev, who had lent the car to Sadyrkulov for the trip.

The Interior Ministry and the Health Ministry are both declining to make any definitive statement on the identity of the dead individuals found on the site of the crash. Oddly, even an examination of the remains by Sadyrkulov’s dentist was seemingly insufficient to allow for a definitive verdict. The Health Ministry says it will only know for sure after it receives the results of DNA tests from a laboratory in Kazakhstan, which could more than two weeks.

Every beyond and including the chronology above is now grounds for speculation, and has been feverishly seized upon by the opposition.

To start in proper order, however, it is worth wondering why naming the victims is so evidently being dragged out. In the primitive mentality of the Kyrgyz authorities, it must be believed that the furore around this death will die down in an information vacuum. Also, since the opposition is planning their major nationwide protests for the end of March, final verification may be delayed until after that, thereby preventing Sadyrkulov from being used a fallen martyr. If that is the case, it is misguided, since the opposition will only be able to make more capital out of the fact the authorities are seemingly trying to cover something up.

At this stage, it is important to ascertain a number of points: Was Sadyrkulov, as his colleagues and opposition representatives have been saying, indeed murdered? What was his current relationship with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev? Could he truly have been described as a government opponent? Who stands to benefit from Sadyrkulov’s death?

Once again, addressing these questions requires in first order a dispassionate assembly of the hard facts at our disposal _ the “known knowns” as celebrated philosopher Donald Rumsfeld once described them.

Sadyrkulov served as the head of Bakiyev’s presidential administration until January, when he tendered his surprise resignation amid a flurry of speculation. Sadyrkulov insisted that his departure from government was taken voluntarily, and Bakiyev pledged at the time that he would offer him a new position.

Most of the hypotheses surrounding Sadyrkulov’s decision to step down revolve around his perceived lack of loyalty to the current ruling establishment. Depending on who you believe, Sadyrkulov was either a key player among the northern clans traditionally opposed to people of Bakiyev’s background _ who comes from the south. Alternatively, he allied himself with no particular grouping and simply acted as a broker between rival camps.

But what is certain is that for as long as Sadyrkulov was at Bakiyev’s side, he served him well and rigorously, playing an instrumental role in strengthening presidential powers in ways that caused much consternation among the opposition.

Less two weeks after resigning, Sadyrkulov met again with Bakiyev, at which time he said he turned down an offer to take up a new job as Foreign Minister.

From there onwards, we must rely on opposition conjectures and claims for the nature of Sadyrkulov’s activities.

Opposition leaders Omurbek Tekebayev and Almazbek Atambayev, of the Ata-Meken and Social Democratic parties respectively, have both claimed that Sadyrkulov has been holding talks with government opponents about backing them against the current leadership. In addition to lending the opposition his political support, Sadyrkulov was also purportedly on a money-raising drive.

Since Sadyrkulov was hardly the model democrat, however, we can only surmise the motivations were predicated on a jostle for power and influence rather than any specific political grievances.

One issue that has been somewhat overlooked is Sadyrkulov’s party political role as the chairman of the Moya Strana (My Country) party, which was rolled into the pro-government Ak Zhol party some time ago. If those deputies with connections to that previous political grouping have been mulling where they stand within the increasingly fissiparous Ak Zhol, the murky circumstances of Sadyrkulov’s demise may help them to make up their minds either way.

Again though, it is imperative to stress that Sadyrkulov was not an opposition politician by any stretch of the imagination, and it is far from evident whether he would ever truly have become one. The danger he posed to the government, however, was that he was instrumentally capable of undermining its authority by drawing away significant support in his capacity as a political actor. In that respect, his departure from the scene could guarantee Bakiyev’s regime some breathing space ahead of further crackdowns and consolidation of power.

For anyone that has not been paying attention, this is a very select highlight of some of the government’s apparent attempts to clamp down on dissenting voices:

March, 2009: Ex-foreign minister and leader of the For Justice opposition movement Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov is arrested on suspicion of murder. If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

March, 2009: Reporter-Bishkek newspaper journalist Syrgak Abdyldayev is stabbed repeatedly and beaten severely by four assailants after leaving his office in an attack that opposition parties described as an attempt to stamp out freedom of expression.

January, 2009: Tekebaev is detained in the Talas region on an illegal weapons charge. He is unable to travel to a Moscow conference on the future development of Kyrgyz politics. The charges are later dropped.

December, 2008: The state radio station takes BBC programming off the airwaves, only days after withdrawing broadcasting rights from U.S.-funded Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service. Both broadcaster feature critical content and give a platform to opposition politicians.

October, 2008: A leading Social Democratic party member, Ruslan Shabotoyev, goes missing. Shabotoyev left his house late at night after being called out to an unexpected meeting. His cell phone was disconnected shortly after and he has not been heard from since.

September, 2008: The former head of the state election-monitoring body, Klara Kabilova, resigns her post and flee the country claiming she has been on the receiving end of threats from Bakiyev’s son.

September, 2008: Police arrest the editor of the Alibi opposition newspaper, Babyrbek Dzheenbekov, for failing to pay court-ordered libel damages Bakiyev’s nephew.

On and on it goes.

This speculation is all very well, but at the heart of it are deaths that remain mysterious and unexplained. As indicated above, the cause of the fire that is reputed to have incinerated the passengers of the Lexus SUV was caused by a collision with an Audi 100, a car considerably older and smaller than that the people-carrier in which Sadyrkulov was travelling.

Scene of the Crash

Scene of the Crash

According to some initial reports, passengers in the Lexus appeared to have made no attempt to escape the vehicle, indicating that at the very least they must have been rendered unconscious on impact. Studying a picture of the wreckage featured on the Radio Free Europe site, it defies belief how this could have been the case.

The Lexus looks as though it was left virtually intact from any collision. If the driver of the Audi, a common second-hand feature on Kyrgyz roads that was last issued in the mid-1990s, could have survived, he would presumably have left the car and made some distance between distance between himself and the flames soon after impact, since his vehicle is also shown to have been completely burnt out. In which case, one would have to ask why he would have done nothing to attempt to assist the passengers in the Lexus.

Even the position of the two cars looks odd. The Lexus looks as though it was parked in the spot, while the Audi appear to have come in from a very odd angle.

If Osmonov is able to regain normal health and is ever able to talk about what precisely happened that morning, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

And where now for Kyrgyz politics?

Opposition parties will attempt to follow through with threats to hold protests later this month, but with the alleged loss of a political and potential financial supporter, it is easy to imagine that the momentum may be too weak for anything significant. If the allegations about “political murder” have any grounds in truth, it is also easy to conclude that some will be genuinely rattled by the latest developments and decide to tone down their criticism.

Make Music Not Revolution

Make Music Not Revolution

Even if protests do proceed, the authorities are already mobilizing to thwart them logistically; in Bishkek at least. As a reader at pointed out recently, city government has announced that it plans to begin renovating Ala-Too Square _ the scene of the dramatic climax to the revolutionary uprising in May 2005 _ just a matter of days before the opposition are due to hold their protests. As if Bishkek didn’t need more important things, the mayor’s office says that it plans to build a 20-meter high musical fountain on the square and that much of the main thoroughfare will be shut off until June.

The upshot of this is that Bakiyev looks to have won the day again, but at what cost does not bear thinking about. Diplomatically isolated in the wake of the U.S. base closure decision, Bakiyev now has free rein to turn his rule into a brutalized and despotic banana republic to all intents and purpose; without the bananas, that is.

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?

In the space of one day, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev offered a handy primer on how to nullify the political impact of the opposition. 

On Monday morning morning news emerged that the leader of the Ata-Meken party, possibly the most viable genuine opposition force, was being investigated by the police on suspicion of “illegally repairing his gun,” as Russian language reports put it. According to the Interior Ministry, police inspected Omurbek Tekebayev’s  Mercedes-Benz 320 on Jan. 17, while he was holding an unapproved political meeting, and found inside it a veritable treasure trove of weaponry _ including a Saiga 7.62 calibre combat shotgun containg 23 military-grade cartridges and a couple of handguns.

Omurbek Tekebayev

Shooting from the Hip: Omurbek Tekebayev

The specific charge is that Tekebayev _ though this detail is not altogether clear _ has upgraded his Saiga to hold more bullets than legally permitted. Ata-Meken officials do not deny he had in the gun in his posession, but insist that there was nothing illegal about it and that it had been given to him as a gift by former Interior Minister Murat Sultanov in 2006.

Not that any of this is particular significance, other than that it means Tekebayev will now be unable to go to Moscow, where he was due to attend a Carnegie-sponspored conference and possibly meet with some public officials.

 Ata-Meken insist the charges are politically motivated, which seems like a perfectly credible suggestion. It is clear that something is afoot in Bakiyev’s camp and the presidential administration does not need any plotting going on.

After all, Bakiyev was due to visit Moscow himself for talks with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, only for the meeting to apparently be cancelled at the last moment. Instead, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov went and met with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to discuss the much-discussed $2 billion loans and investments package that Moscow has been tantalisingly dangling before Bishkek’s nose. The snub _ if it was one _ has set tongues wagging about the possibility that Russia may be about to leave Bakiyev in the cold _ for what reason, other than Moscow’s new-found friendship with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, is far from clear.

Just to be sure, however, the authorities have gone after Tekebayev directly, so as to insure against him forging alliances in Moscow and giving the Russians a Plan B in the event Bakiyev should somehow end up being unceremoniously deposed. Incidentally, a whole gang of opposition politicians seem to have conveniently fallen foul of the law over the last few weeks.

Last month, Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former foreign minister and member of the broad United People’s Movement (UPM) coalition, was put under investigation for abuse of office while he was serving in government until early 2007.

Another UPM member, Ismail Isakov, is being probed for allegedly misusing public money while he acted as defense minister over the past three years. He fell out with Bakiyev over the controversial recent local elections, which also saw the head of the election commission hounded out of the country.

Earlier this month, Green Party leader Erkin Bulekbaev was summoned to the General Prosecutor’s Office for “expressing contempt for the president.”

And it goes on and on.

In short, Bakiyev is exercising tried and tested bully-boy tactics to silence former comrades and increasingly influential opposition activists.

The second development of the day, however, revealed another string to Bakiyev’s power-consolidating skills. In a surprise move, he named opposition figure Omurbek Babanov as first deputy prime minister.

Baby-Face Omurbek Babanov

Baby-Face Omurbek Babanov

Babanov, a well-known Kyrgyz entrepreneur, was the mastermind of some of the last large protests to be seen in the country, held to demand a raft of constitutional reforms. A former member of parliament, he has now decided to suspended his membership in the the Social Democratic Party.

Along with Tekebayev and Jekshenkulov, Babanov represented a more moderate and elite-focused approach to opposition activism, coyly described as constructive opposition.

In welcoming Babanov into his government, Bakiyev has achieved a number of different outcomes. First, he has conveyed an apparent attitude of cooperation with the opposition, thereby signaling his openness to political dialogue and desire to ratchet down political tension. Second, he has effectively removed an influential, and very wealthy, potential opponent from the ranks of his antagonists. Third, by showing he is striving to create a broad church of consensus within his government, Bakiyev demonstrates to the international community that he is not backsliding into despotic practices, which he is frequently accused of doing.

Across the board, his new appointments are distinguished by their youthful and cosmopolitan character, a fact that can do Bakiyev no harm. Whether he is putting himself at risk by embracing the serpent to his bosom, however, it is too early to say.

So there we have it. Persecute, marginalize and co-opt are three keywords that define Bakiyev politics. In having effected this master stroke, he can only hope that the oft-threatened street marches will not materialize in the spring, just in time to ruin all his carefully hatched plans.

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