Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 20 visit to Kyrgyzstan ended with half a dozen bilateral agreements and some anachronistic-sounding rhetoric about Moscow’s benevolent role in Central Asia. On the face of it, Russia won an extension of military basing rights for another generation, while Kyrgyzstan got millions of dollars in debt forgiveness and promises of investment in the construction of two major hydropower projects. But all the deals have yet to be finalized and some won’t kick in for years, with multiple strings attached.
The visit was Putin’s first to Kyrgyzstan since an April 2010 uprising toppled the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had angered the Kremlin by effectively misappropriating a $300 million Russian loan and backtracking on some of his promises. Moscow has been slow to warm to the post-Bakiyev leadership, expressing frustration earlier this year, for example, with Bishkek’s constant attempts to get aid while maintaining a so-called multi-vector foreign policy.
Publicly, Putin’s host, President Almazbek Atambayev, did everything he could to assure the Russian president that Kyrgyzstan is a firm friend. At a cheerful midday press conference, Atambayev suggested the two had stayed up together until 5 a.m. – Putin had arrived in Bishkek late September 19 – and expressed wishes for everlasting friendship. "Russia is our main strategic partner. With Russia, we share a common history and a common destiny. […] Our future will be in partnership with the great Russia,” Atambayev said in comments broadcast by local media.
Before Putin’s visit, perhaps the most talked-about deals involved defense cooperation. On September 20, the countries signed two related documents: an agreement about the terms on which Russia would keep its military installations in Kyrgyzstan and a protocol on military cooperation before that agreement comes into force, presumably in 2017. While details have been scarce, Russian news agencies reported that Moscow would retain use of its facilities in Kyrgyzstan until at least 2032 for a fixed annual rent of $4.5 million. An opposition lawmaker noted that the agreement would have to be ratified by parliament.
At their press conference, both presidents insisted they had not talked about the American-run Manas air base outside of Bishkek, which Putin had allegedly sought to have closed in 2009. But another of the six signed documents, an 18-point joint statement by the two heads of state, says Russia supports Kyrgyzstan’s decision to turn Manas into a civilian transit hub, ridding it of any “military component,” and is even willing to consider helping with infrastructure. The US military is scheduled to leave Manas in 2014.
In another of the signed agreements, Moscow has promised to write off $189 million of Bishkek’s debt. But when? The actual deal, as reported by Kyrgyz news agency Tazabek, says the two sides will work out the finer points by mid-October. Kyrgyzstan’s debt is crippling. The Finance Ministry said this month that the country’s foreign debt totals $3.1 billion, or over 47 percent of GDP. As for the remaining $300 million of Bishkek’s debt to Moscow, Putin promised to write it off over the course of 10 years beginning in 2016.
The set of deals that could perhaps most impact daily life in Kyrgyzstan, however, regard energy. The country is prone to frequent blackouts, especially in winter, but has great hydropower potential. Most of Moscow’s 2009 loan was to help build a giant, 1.9-gigawatt hydropower plant called Kambarata-1, with an additional $1.7 billion promised down the road. But when Bakiyev reneged on his promises (including one to kick out Manas), the Russians refused to deliver.
Since Bakiyev’s ouster, Bishkek has again sought Russian help with the project, estimated to cost between $2 billion and $4 billion depending on the plant’s capacity. Local media report that Bishkek and Moscow signed a deal on the project during Putin’s visit, but a spokesperson for the Energy Ministry told EurasiaNet.org on September 20 that final details are still being discussed and refused to share a copy. A draft circulated in the press suggests the tortuous process is just beginning: It calls for Russia to provide funding for a feasibility study within three months, then for Kyrgyzstan to solicit bids for the study, which could take up to five months.
The sixth of the signed deals also concerns hydropower, calling for a feasibility study into the Upper-Naryn Cascade for a series of smaller hydropower plants on the eponymous river, the Naryn (which becomes the Syr-Darya downstream).
The draft energy agreements give Russian companies a 50 percent stake in the projects, though earlier in the year Russian sources said Moscow was seeking a larger share.
Both Putin and Atambayev sought to allay the fears of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, who has long opposed projects like Kambarata, fearing they could hurt his downstream country, and recently said attempts to build massive hydropower projects could spark a military conflict in the region.
Atambayev argued that Kambarata, a project designed in the Soviet-era, has always been meant to help Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, also downstream, to meet their irrigation needs. He claimed Kyrgyzstan currently uses existing hydroelectric plants to supply power domestically in winter and, as a result, can’t provide its downstream neighbors with sufficient water in the planting season, but the new station would change that.
“If Kambarata-1 gets built, then in winter we will be able to release water from Kambarata-1 [to produce electricity], while holding it in Toktogul, preserving it, so as to give it to those same neighbors in spring."
He added that Bishkek and Tashkent should “calmly sit down … and discuss this” and “must live in peace and friendship."
Putin went even further, saying Russia and Kyrgyzstan both favor involving Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in work on these projects. “This would include managing the future hydropower enterprises we're talking about and the realization of which has already begun," he said.
Putin showed signs of his characteristic nostalgia for Soviet greatness as well. Reiterating that many of the region’s proposed hydropower projects were designed in Soviet times, he said Kambarata "was going to be implemented within a single state and no one had any doubts about that single state doing anything that would harm any of the republics making up the USSR. What does that show? That shows that if we form such rules of interaction and cooperation in the region, then the realization of such projects poses no threat whatsoever."
One can only guess what role the Russian president has in mind for Moscow when he says "such rules of interaction and cooperation."