With a mounting death toll, an Uzbek refugee exodus of unmanageable proportions, and fears that the strategic route for NATO supplies to Afghanistan will be disrupted, international attention has been rapidly drawn to the question of how to quell the violence raging in Kyrgyzstan. The Kremlin’s non-committal reaction has, this article in the FT suggests, prompted the Kyrgyzstan government to consider reviewing the existence of the US Manas airbase, an irksome presence for Russia in its former satellite state, as leverage to secure intervention from the Kremlin:
Ruslan Kazakpaev, Kyrgyzstan’s interim foreign minister, said the government might review the decision to extend the US lease on the base after parliamentary elections in October this year, emphasising that the current agreement was concluded by the government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in a violent coup in April.
“It’s possible, that the question might be looked at by the new parliament after its formation, but until then, Kyrgyzstan will fulfil its international obligations,” he said, adding: “The Russian Federation was and remains the main strategic partner for Kyrygzstan.”
Mr Kazakpaev’s comments will harden speculation that Russia may be holding out for some sort of commitment to close the US base as a condition for its stepping in to put an end to the ethnic violence in the country’s south, in which more than 170 people have died so far.
Newsweek is also pondering Russia’s apparent disengagement, given that unrest of such a scale could easily serve as an occasion to reassert influence in its backyard, an occasion it has in the past chosen to use:
Now, though, it seems that Russia is playing a smarter game. For one, the Kremlin has long been trying to build itself up as the leader of a regional security group called the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO. A power grab in south Kyrgyzstan would be self-defeating because it would spook the largely totalitarian leaders of the CTSO countries in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Instead, Moscow hastily convened a CSTO summit that promised vaguely worded “joint action.” That could include a multinational CSTO peacekeeping force if unrest continues.
But Russia also knows that if it gets too greedy in Kyrgyzstan it would also endanger another key component of its new foreign policy–a rapprochement with the United States. The U.S. air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan is a key staging point for operations in Afghanistan, and until last year it was the subject of an ugly tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington. Moscow offered the former Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a $2.5 billion loan in return for an agreement to throw the Americans out. Washington in turn offered to quintuple the rent for the base. Bakiyev accepted money from both sides, angering Moscow and fueling Russian support for Bakiyev’s political opponents, who eventually overthrew him in April.
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