The Kremlin is playing a geopolitical game of 'can-you-top-this' in Central Asia. Russia is looking to offset its failure to dislodge American troops from Kyrgyzstan's air base at Manas by securing Bishkek's agreement to open a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) base in southern Kyrgyzstan's Ferghana Valley.
Speculation began to build about the opening of a second CSTO base in Kyrgyzstan after Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov visited Bishkek for talks with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on July 7. A Kyrgyz official later confirmed the Russian duo sought the Bakiyev administration's consent to open a base for the CSTO's Rapid Reaction Force -- one that would supplement the existing CSTO facility at Kant. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The envisioned Rapid Reaction Force base would sit close to Uzbekistan, which has had an up-and-down relationship with the CSTO. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On July 10, a Kyrgyz government source confirmed that Russia plans to open a base in or near the southern Kyrgyz capital of Osh, according to local media reports. The president's office could not be reached and the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment.
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, who visited Bishkek on July 12, said that any decision to open a new base was the sovereign right of Kyrgyzstan and that the United States had no objections. "Our view is that any step that strengthens the sovereignty, independence and security of Kyrgyzstan is a sensible one," he told reporters in Bishkek.
Azamat Temirkulov, a political scientist at the American University of Central Asia, believes Russia is looking to boost its image in the region after its Manas setback. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "The Russian Federation is probably thinking about its image because with the transformation of the status of Manas base -- because the base is still here in Kyrgyzstan -- there was some feeling that Russians lost this game and the Americans won," Temirkulov said in an interview with EurasiaNet on July 13. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The new [CSTO] base is another step for the Russian Federation to promote its image, and, of course, to keep balance with the United States," Temirkulov added.
But given the recent Islamist-linked violence in the Ferghana Valley -- notably along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border -- Bishkek, Moscow and Washington are equally concerned about regional security, Temirkulov added. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The base could work to everyone's security advantage, he said.
Ajdar Kurtov at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow agrees the base would improve security and stressed that any new facility would open under the CSTO's auspices, not Moscow's. "The base is necessary for the southern part of Kyrgyzstan because of the problems with religious extremists that have been taking place there lately," Kurtov said. "The role for coordinating the CSTO and its activities was given to Russia, because other countries wouldn't be able to handle it."
Asked if the decision to start talks on hosting another Russian-lead base in Kyrgyzstan had anything to do with Manas remaining open, Kurtov described the timing as a "coincidence."
"Talks on creating a second base in Kyrgyzstan have been going on for about four years," he said. A CSTO base would "definitely strengthen the security situation in Kyrgyzstan. Through past [insurgent activity in] Batken, we saw that the military forces of Kyrgyzstan are not always very good at acting on their own."
The idea of a CSTO base so close to its border clearly makes Uzbekistan uncomfortable. The official Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported on July 12 that Uzbek officials are against the opening of new foreign bases in bordering countries.
Uzbek authorities are perhaps concerned that Moscow is tinkering excessively in regional relations. Already, Tashkent is upset over Moscow's support for Kyrgyzstan's giant Kambarata hydroelectric power plant under construction upstream, which it opposes. "I think Uzbekistan views the future presence of Russian military in Kyrgyzstan as political-moral support for the construction of the hydropower plant," said Kurtov. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russian troops only miles from the Uzbek border would be a major deterrent to any effort by Tashkent to intimidate Kyrgyzstan, Temirkulov suggested.