Game Over for the US Airbase in Kyrgyzstan?

After over a decade of scandal, intrigue and significant contributions to the state coffers, the Kyrgyzstani people are preparing for the consummation of their love-hate relationship with the American military installation located on the outskirts of their capital, Bishkek.

On June 26, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev renounced the agreement under which the Kyrgyz government hosted the Transit Center, a crucial supply link for Washington's military efforts in Afghanistan. Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the renunciation, which should see US forces leave the country in 2014, the same year they exit Afghanistan. While US officials have made no secret of the fact they would like to maintain some sort of a presence in the strategically positioned republic, it seems the Transit Centre – something of a thorn in the side of Kyrgyzstan's main ally Russia – is now destined to be a footnote in the country's history.


Will Kyrgyzstan miss the US airbase? Image widely distributed, shared by, cropped by Global Voices

A delicate question

Since its establishment in December, 2001, the airbase has maintained a controversial profile in Kyrgyzstan. In 2006 there was an incident when a US soldier, Zachary Hatfield, shot and killed Alexander Ivanov, a Kyrgyzstani driver who worked at the base. The Kyrgyz authorities wanted to prosecute Hatfield and began an investigation, but the American serviceman was granted diplomatic immunity and repatriated. Ivanov's family was initially only offered $1000 compensation from the US government, and the incident resulted in negative publicity for the base. Three years later Kyrgyzstan appeared to be on the verge of getting rid of the military installation, when then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev suddenly u-turned, extracting more money out of Washington, infuriating Moscow and inspiring a scholar on the region, Alexander Cooley, to write the book Great Games, Local Rules.

Nevertheless, the Transit Center has helped Kyrgyzstan's troubled state budget. According to MP Omurbek Abdyrahmanov, Kyrgyzstan will lose about $200 million every year without it. Abdyrahmanov, one of the few MPs who voted against the closure, says Kyrgyzstan gains $60 million from the rent and about $140 million from goods and services provided to the base. Moreover, the vice-president of the adjacent civilian airport, Nurlan Mamyrov, believes that airport revenues will fall by 40% ($13.5 million) after the agreement ends. Both agree that the decision to close the installation was spontaneous and unwise – roughly 1,000 locals work at the Transit Center, while an informal economy has also grown up around the airbase.

But that is only half the story. Erica Marat, a Central Asia analyst, cites Russian enticements and pressure as the reason for President Atambayev's decision. Recently Russian authorities promised to write off $500 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt and build hydropower facilities on the country's Naryn river. For Kyrgyzstan, Russia is a permanent political reality – more than one million Kyrgyzstani citizens work there  – and without Russian financial assistance the republic's budget deficit would look even worse for wear. Moreover, Russia's own relations with America entered a period of steep decline after the beginning of Vladimir Putin's most recent presidential term.

Kyrgyzstani netizens have reacted differently to the news about the decision to close the Transit Center, with roughly a 50/50 split between those for and against the decision. One pocket of discussion emerged [ru] on the Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper's website.

The user Poronzo (Поронзо) wrote [ru]:

Теперь этот Атамбаев должен сделать второй шаг – найти 150 млн. долларов, которые мы потеряли. Очень большие сомнения, что этот “оратор” сделает это. 

Now this [President] Atambaev must make a second step – find the $150 million that we have lost. I have big doubts that this “orator” can do it.

Emirates CCrew chimed [ru]:

да че вы народ из за америкосов плачете, панику строите??? жили раньше без них, то и щас без них проживем. Война где нить начнется так америкосы эту базу и начнут использовать в риск нашему народу наивному.

Why are you guys crying and throwing a fit – because of the Americans??? We lived without them before, so we will get by now. If a war starts somewhere the Americans could use this base, thus creating risks for our naïve people.

MP Bekeshev's straw poll

On his public Facebook page, Dastan Bekeshev, a Kyrgyz MP, asked [ru] his followers on June 20 what they thought of the decision to do away with the Transit Center.


Screenshot from Dastan Bekeshev's Facebook profile

Sergei Eremeev said [ru]:

Ну а те люди, которые работают на авиабазе, наши с вами сограждане, им как быть? На биржу труда?..

What about those people, our fellow citizens, who work at the airbase? What should they do? Hit the job centres?..

Julia Barabina wrote [ru]:

Меня не устраивает военная база другого государства по соседству с гражданским аэропортом, невдалеке от Бишкека. На базе уже погиб кыргызстанец, не так давно дозаправщик упал под столицей…в СМИ просочились сведения о том, что одного из офицеров Америки в КГ обвиняют по 30 статьям…и натворил он дел будучи на нашей территории. Вы хотите рисковать Бишкеком…его гражданами за несколько миллионов долларов в год? Вы хотите быть мишенью для противников США?

I don’t like the fact that the military base of another country is located near a civillian airport, not so far from Bishkek. One Kyrgyz citizen has already died at the base, and not so long ago a [US] airplane crashed close to our capital… according to some mass media, one American officer is accused under 30 separate articles of our criminal code… all crimes he committed whilst on our territory. Do you want to risk Bishkek… and its citizens for the sake of a few million dollars per year? Do you want to be a target for the enemies of the US?

She than added [ru]:

Все прекрасно понимают, что мы не только выводим базу. Мы выбираем стратегического партнера. Итак….что сделали для нас США? Кроме того, что кормят огромное количество НПО?*)) Какие театры они построили. ГЭСы? Может долг нам списали огроменный?

Everyone understands well that we aren't just removing the base. We are choosing our strategic partner. So… what has the USA done for us? Besides the fact that they feed an enormous amount of NGOs?*)) What theaters have they built? HEP [hydroelectric power] stations? Have they written off any of our debts?

Maksim Bratukhin replied [ru]:

Россия слаба и ей нужны сателлиты которыми она будет прикрываться в случае чего. Россию за 12 лет довели до нищеты, до дурости, до ненависти, народ в ней разделен, а правителям нужно доказать свою власть, вот они и давят на Кыргызстан.

Russia is weak and she needs satellites which can be used to protect itself in difficult times. Russia was brought to poverty, foolishness and hate during the last 12 years; people are divided there; and its leaders need to prove their authority, that’s why they pressure Kyrgyzstan.

Azim Azimov explained[ru] the situation:

Мы говорим про Россию, потому что Кыргызстан не по своей воле базу прогоняет, согласитесь? Суверенитета какбэ и нет. В идеальной ситуации надо бы и российскую базу прогнать. Но куда мы теперь еще и без России? Слабые и незащищенные. Пусть хоть Россия остается, чем талибы с хизбутчиками вторгаются

The reason we are talking about Russia is because Kyrgyzstan has not denounced the basing agreement on its own initiative, agreed? We have no sovereignty at all. In an ideal situation it would be great to close the Russian base too. But what can we do without Russia? [We are] weak and unprotected. Let Russia stay, it’s better than the invasion of the Taliban and Hizb ut Tahrir.

Umar Shermatov responded [ru]:

С уходом базы Россиия с нами церемонится не будет. У нас будет никаких рычагов. Надо отдалятся от России.

After the base is closed Russia will not start treating us well. We will have lost our leverage. We should keep Russia at arm's length.

Rasul Aidarov added [ru]:

Атамбаев перед Путином свое обещание выполнил. Вот и все.

Atambaev did what he had promised to Putin. That’s all.

While Take Sha chose [ru] another way to describe Kyrgyzstan’s decision:

Также мучается проститутка, наверное, выбирая клиентов. А вот то, что можно стать порядочной и иметь порядочные отношения ей в голову никогда не придёт. Проститука она и есть проститутка

This is probably how a prostitute feels while choosing between clients. She never supposes that she can become decent and have legitimate relations. A prostitute is still a prostitute.

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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