Following the May 21 visit to Bishkek by Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ordered the government to form a special commission to investigate the expediency of the U.S. military base at the Manas airport vis-à-vis Kyrgyzstan’s national interests. The commission will review the advantages and disadvantages of hosting the U.S. military base and is likely to adopt an official policy that will aim at limiting the U.S. presence in the country.
During the past few weeks discussions criticizing the U.S. military presence have intensified in Kyrgyzstan. The country’s political establishment has used every possible reason to question the rationale for the U.S. base – from the ecological damage the base could potentially bring to the possible use of the base in a U.S. war against Iran.
Rumors that the base could be used should the United States attack Iran have recently saturated Kyrgyzstan’s mass media outlets. Local experts have been speculating on the possible repercussions on Kyrgyzstan should Washington attack Iran. The popular opposition newspaper Bely parohod even tried to guess what weapons Iran is likely to use against Kyrgyzstan if the United States starts a war there (May 21). Other reasons listed by opponents of the U.S. military base include Kyrgyzstan’s damaged image in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the CSTO.
On May 21, Kyrgyz MP Almanbet Matubraimov urged the parliament to find reasons to legally expel the U.S. base from Kyrgyzstan before the country gets drawn into any war against Iran. “I don’t know if this is true, but there is information on the Internet that [U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice said that in case Iran is attacked, it first will be attacked from the Ganci airbase,” he said. Furthermore, “Iran replied that the there will be a counter-attack on the location from which it will be attacked” (Akipress, May 21).
Kyrgyz parliamentary speaker Marat Sultanov is among the most outspoken critics of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan. At a May 21 press conference in Bishkek, Sultanov noted that the U.S. base at Manas would be shuttered immediately should any uncertainty about its mission arise. Along with warning Washington, he spoke favorably regarding the Russian military base in Kant, arguing that by no means does it represent a foreign military base, because it is part of Kyrgyzstan’s membership obligations within the CSTO framework (Akipress, May 21).
On May 22, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanovitch told Akipress that the main goal of the U.S. base in Bishkek remains facilitating the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Ambassador Yovanovitch once again refuted rumors about the possible use of the base in military actions in Iran (Akipress, May 22).
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabayev is among the few top officials to maintain a balanced approach toward the current status of the U.S. base. Karabayev recently reminded his countrymen that the base has been fulfilling its initial goals and does not contradict Kyrgyzstan’s interests. He also mentioned that Kyrgyz-U.S. military cooperation efforts do not conflict with the interests of the CSTO (Akipress, May 21).
When the U.S. base was first introduced in Kyrgyzstan in late 2001, citizens and the government saw it as a form of external protection from the possible spread of Islamic extremism and terrorism. However, the political image of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan considerably worsened after the U.S. attacked Iraq and Russia stationed its own military base in Kant in 2003.
The December 2006 killing of Kyrgyz truck driver Alexander Ivanov by U.S. soldier Zachary Hatfield added fuel to the anti-U.S. moods in Kyrgyzstan. Last week Ivanov’s widow finally received a $50,000 settlement from the U.S. government. However, the compensation was awarded only after Marina Ivanova’s arduous attempts to draw more attention to her husband’s death (see EDM, May 17). Ivanova and her legal representative, Galina Skripkina, will participate in an anti-U.S.-base rally scheduled for June 2.
Bakiyev’s order to form a special governmental commission to review Kyrgyz-U.S. military cooperation was inspired by a series of events that took place over the past few months. First, Ivanov’s tragic death and the slow U.S. response to it quickly stirred public anger in Kyrgyzstan. Second, speculations about Washington’s willingness to use the Ganci base in its war against Iran were successfully picked up by populist politicians and mass media outlets that used the story to spread fear among the population. Third, Bordyuzha’s recent visit furnished the Kyrgyz government with more confidence to pursue anti-U.S. politics. All three events indeed elevated Russia’s image in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps if all these incidents had taken place at different time periods, they would have had less significance.