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KYRGYZSTAN: A New Great Game Begins

Zoltán Dujisin

BISHKEK, Sep 2 2009 (IPS) - A U.S. base located just 40km from a Russian base – it can happen in Kyrgyzstan, a new focal point in the great geopolitics of Central Asia where China and Turkey are beginning to show their cards as well.

The country of five million is one of the Soviet Union’s former republics in Central Asia, bordering China and the former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The area has historically been the centre of games between big powers: the Mongols, Arabs, the Chinese, the British and Russian empires have all striven to control this strategic territory.

The U.S. is the big regional novelty. Its airbase has since 2001 been located right at Bishkek’s Manas airport. U.S. military airplanes are among the first sights for someone landing in the country.

Shortly after the U.S. set up base there, Russia opened another base at Kant airport, 40km from Bishkek. It has since tried to reassert its presence in what was once Soviet territory.

Following a meeting between Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year in which Kyrgyzstan secured a 2 billion dollar package of loans and investments, Bakiev had ordered the U.S. to close its base.

But after a three-fold increase in rent for the U.S. base to 60 million dollars a year, Kyrgyzstan backed down on its promise to the Russians, though it brought new conditions such as reducing the level of U.S. immunity from prosecution, and getting Kyrgyz troops to guard the perimeter.

The U.S. will also give 36 million dollars for improving the airport infrastructure, another 30 million for navigational equipment, 30 million dollars for counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics operations, and 20 million dollars for development programmes.

“Being a small country with limited economic resources, Kyrgyzstan needs to make the most of this big game of superpowers,” Kyrgyz economist Maksat Korooluev told IPS. “Bakiev has achieved some success in his foreign policy: he managed to receive funds both from Russia and the U.S. while maintaining good relations.”

Kyrgyz officials claim the U.S. base has ceased to exist, and what now remains is a “freight transit centre”, which the U.S. calls a “logistics and transportation hub.” The base will remain a stop-off for military personnel and cargo headed for nearby Afghanistan.

Russia welcomed the new deal, and stressed its difference from the previous arrangement. “I think this will be only good for the common cause,” said Medvedev, who also called the deal a “sovereign right of Kyrgyzstan.”

“As part of the deal Russia is launching another military base in southern Kyrgyzstan that enables Bakiev to fortify strategically important southern borders that protect the country from religious extremists,” says Korooluev.

Russia is using the global economic crisis to aid impoverished Central Asian countries and strengthen its ties with them. Kyrgyzstan’s energy industry is under serious strain, and funds are lacking for developing state infrastructure, which is being heavily privatised.

But it is hardly a game between the U.S. and Russia alone. China and Turkey are making their weight felt.

“Turkey has been always interested in Central Asia to strengthen its position of a big brother in the Turkic world. It subsidises schools and universities, and has a big volume of investments in the economy,” Korooluev told IPS.

Turkish education programmes are especially visible. There are already two Turkish universities, the Kyrgyz-Turkish University of Manas and the International University of Ataturk-Ala-Too. Turkey also funds Turkic academic divisions in other universities throughout the country.

Korooluev says most Kyrgyz are comfortable with the Turkish presence, but the Chinese one is more problematic: “The Chinese are dominating local wholesale markets, and people are anxious about losing jobs. There was a case in which a bus with Chinese shuttle traders was burnt down.”

Between 2004 and 2006 Chinese exports to Kyrgyzstan tripled to 1.64 billion dollars.

Affordable Chinese products are quickly finding their way to Kyrgyzstan’s street markets, and China has invested heavily in upgrading roads to the Kyrgyz neighbour, hoping to boost trade ties and get hold of raw materials to feed its economic growth.

Still, Russia remains the strongest player in the region thanks to a strong diplomatic, military and economic presence, and greater cultural and linguistic proximity.

The U.S. is increasing its presence by helping educate Central Asian elites. In 1997 it set up the American University of Central Asia – located in central Bishkek in front of a statue of Marx and Engels, and in a building exhibiting a stone-carved hammer and sickle.

But ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, foreign and domestic Islamist- linked violence in this overwhelmingly Muslim country has been on the rise. Poorly equipped security forces and the porous borders mean easy entry for militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Central Asian governments are now concerned about these cross-border movements as a result of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that lead militants to relocate to ‘safe’ Central Asian countries.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev defended the new “temporary” deal with the U.S. by reminding the country’s parliament of the “worrying situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“It is no secret that there is no alternative at the moment to the military presence of the USA in Afghanistan, and our decision is correct from the point of view of security,” Sarbayev said.

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