Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev's wishes for the U.S.'s Manas air base are well known: he wants it to become a civilian transport hub after the U.S. leaves, which Atambayev has said should be in 2014. The U.S.'s own plans for its military posture in Afghanistan are up in the air, and its plans for continuing using Manas are contingent on that, but it has at least demonstrated some interest in helping Kyrgyzstan transform the base into this civilian logistics center.
But now, the plot is thickening: Russia is getting involved. Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Transportation and Communication announced that a delegation of Russian government and business aviation officials visited Manas recently and held "consultations on the creation of a joint Kyrgyzstan-Russian logistics center" at the airport.
The announcement made no mention of the U.S.'s air base at Manas, the airport outside Bishkek which also operates as a civilian airport. But the idea of Manas becoming a logistics center is so tied up with the U.S. leaving, that the message here is unmistakeable: Russia is hoping to take the place of the U.S.
Russia has been making some pretty aggressive moves in Kyrgyzstan lately. The state gas company Gazprom has tried to take full control of Kyrgyzstan's gas company, and the Kremlin has offered a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, which Russian officials have said is intended to shore up their geopolitical position in Central Asia, at the expense of the U.S.'s. Is Russia now trying to gently show the Americans the door out of their air base?
A year ago, The Bug Pit predicted that the two most likely conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia would be between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or in Tajikistan. The region did escape full-blown conflict in 2012, but those two situations did get significantly tenser: Azerbaijan/Armenia over Baku's pardoning of Ramil Safarov, and Tajikistan during heavy fighting in Khorog over the summer. If we look ahead at 2013, those would still seem to be the most likely conflicts, in the still unlikely event that one were to break out in the region. (The third most likely conflict scenario from a year ago, an interstate conflict between Uzbekistan and either Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, didn't come to pass, and 2012 did seem to see a decrease in the number of border skirmishes, troop movements, etc. that raised tension in 2011.)
A year ago, there seemed to be some possibility of civil unrest, or worse, in Georgia over the hotly contested elections there in the fall of 2012. That didn't come to pass and there, too, conflict seems less likely than it was a year ago, given that the country proved it could carry out a peaceful transition of political power, and that the potentially erratic President MIkheil Saakashvili will be kept in check by an opposition government.
Secretary of State nominee John Kerry has been deeply involved in U.S. foreign policy for many years, and so has left a large trail of policies and statements regarding just about every element of U.S. foreign policy. It's not clear how much Kerry's own personal views on these issues will affect his actions as secretary of state -- he's a cautious person, and so unlikely to agitate too much to make his own policy independent of the White House. And, a review of his record -- including in Central Asia and the Caucasus -- shows that in any case, he's pretty firmly in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and his views don't differ much (if at all) from those the Obama administration has already been advocating. Most characteristically, this means high-minded rhetoric about human rights and democracy with less indication of how those principles can stand up when confronted with the realities of running international military operations.
In Central Asia, Kerry has consistently advocated democratization and human rights. He was among a small group of senators to write then-Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev to complain about the treatment of human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.
In 2010, Kerry wrote an op-ed here on EurasiaNet entitled "Washington Must Show Commitment to Kyrgyz Democratization," in which he argues that "the security-democratization debate is not a zero-sum game":
There has been a growing worry within Kyrgyzstan that the United States cares more about its security needs than those of the Kyrgyz people. We must prove this perception false, with actions rather than with rhetoric....
Presidents of all CSTO member states at the group's summit in Moscow. Absent: Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov.
For months, Uzbekistan's erstwhile allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization have been discussing in public what they intend to do in regard to Tashkent's suspension of its membership in the group. When the CSTO finally held its summit meeting last week in Moscow, the group did the only thing it really could: accept the inevitable and try to put the best face on it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tashkent just before the CSTO meeting, saying "It is Uzbekistan's sovereign choice [to leave the CSTO]. We regret it, but the decision has been made... However, Uzbekistan, remains our ally, our strategic partner."
The CSTO did suggest that Uzbekistan can't just float in and out of the group, as it did once before, reported Russian newspaper Vedemosti:
“"Regrettably, it did certain damage to the image of the organization," admitted Russian Representative to the CIS CSTO Igor Lyakin-Frolov. "All I can say is that the door back remains open. Membership is Tashkent's for the asking." President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko meanwhile said that certain terms of the renewed membership had to be met... if it ever came to that. "Uzbekistan will have to ratify all our decisions and agreements first," said Lukashenko. When Tashkent returned to the CIS CSTO in 2006 after the suspension in 1999, it never bothered to ratify guideline documents of the organization..
Kyrgyzstan has agreed to allow Russia to create a unified military base in the country, combining all of the various facilities that the Russian armed forces now operate there. This is something that Russia has been seeking for some time -- two years ago they proposed paying for such an arrangement in weapons. (So, one wonders if this new announcement is connected to the recent agreement to supply Kyrgyzstan with over a billion dollars in weaponry.) The agreement was reached in September, though just formally signed (and announced) by President Almazbek Atambayev this week and will go into effect in 2017, reports RIA Novosti:
It will include the four military facilities Russia has in Kyrgyzstan at present.
The agreement was signed for a term of 15 years with an option to extend for five years.
Russia has a weapon test range in Karakol, a signals center in Kara-Balt, a radio-seismic laboratory in Mayly-Suu and a Collective Security Treaty Organization airbase in Kant.
So why was this sort of bureaucratic reorganization so important to Russia? It will make it harder for Kyrgyzstan to kick out any of the particular facilities, notes Vasily Kashin, an analyst at the Moscow defense think tank Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. He tells The Bug Pit:
NATO says its logistics hub in Russia will become operational soon, reports the Moscow Times:
General Knud Bartels, who chairs the alliance's military committee, told reporters Friday that containers are being shipped from Afghanistan to Britain via that route.
"A live trial along the northern distribution route is running since Dec. 3," the Danish general said after meetings with Russia's top military brass in Moscow.
Russia signed an agreement with NATO in June to allow the alliance to use Ulyanovsk, on the Volga River, as a multimodal transit hub for getting military cargo in and out of Afghanistan. But in all those intervening months, NATO has still not used the route. There has been some reporting in the Russian press that there are commercial disputes holding up the transit. Again, the Moscow Times:
National media have speculated that money is an issue and that Volga-Dnepr, the freight company that would handle the flights from the Volga Federal District hub, is demanding more payment than NATO countries are willing to spend.
But a senior representative of the alliance said Tuesday that although to his knowledge no shipping contract had been signed, both sides were testing how the hub could work in practice.
"A dry run has been completed, and a real test to ship containers from Latvia to Afghanistan and back via Ulyanovsk is expected for the next days," said Robert Pszczel, head of NATO's Information Office in Moscow.
Pszczel would not comment on why it was taking so long for the agreement to lead to actual results. He merely said "mundane commercial considerations" play a role.
It wasn't exactly a surprise last week when Russia and Azerbaijan announced they had failed to agree on terms to extend the lease of the Gabala radar station which the Russian military operates in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan had little incentive to let Russia keep using the radar, and so demanded a huge increase in the rent from $7 million a year to a reported $300 million. Russia, meanwhile, doesn't have much leverage over Azerbaijan, and anyway is in the process of setting up a next-generation radar system on its own territory, in Armavir in the North Caucasus. That system is apparently set to become operational in the first quarter of 2013.
Still, Russia clearly wanted the station to remain, though it's not clear on what terms. The post-mortems of the failure of negotiations, interestingly, differ markedly depending on which country they come from. In Azerbaijan, the public consensus seems to be that there will be no serious ramifications. From APA:
“Russia's refusal to use Gabala radar station will not negatively affect relations between the two countries, said Deputy Chairman and Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijani Party (YAP) Ali Ahmadov....
“The decision on refusing exploitation of Gabala radar station has been passed at the negotiations between the states. If this decision was made on the basis of mutual agreement, it can not cause the tension in the relations between the two countries.”
Member of Parliament Rusam Musabayov echoed that sentiment. And Vestnik Kavkaza quotes an Azerbaijan analyst:
The U.S.'s Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan could be a target for "enemies," there's no way to be sure that corruption has been rooted out from the lucrative fuel contracts for the base, and Russia is Kyrgyzstan's strongest military partner. That's according to Roza Otunbayeva, the former president of Kyrgyzstan who made her first visit as ex-president to Washington this week. She was in town to receive an award from the Eurasia Foundation, and also took a bit of time to sit down with The Bug Pit to discuss some of the big issues in Kyrgyzstan and the region. Below is our interview, edited for clarity.
The Bug Pit: It's been argued that the focus on Afghanistan has distorted the U.S.'s policy toward Central Asia and made it “oversecuritized.” Do you agree?
Otunbayeva: No, it's not fair.... The United States responds to all our needs immediately. When we had the tragedy in 2010, we had two [military] bases, Russian and American. None of them were involved in our internal affairs, but the U.S. responded to our tragedy immediately, with the OTI program. Of course, I can't deny that that Manas is a tool for the U.S. But I don't think Kazakhstan or Tajikistan either will tell you that now only Afghanistan is the highlight of our relations, no.
BP: Manas has strengthened your relations with the U.S. and brought the government a lot of revenue, but it's also led to a lot of corruption, including at very high levels. Overall, is Manas a good thing for Kyrgyzstan?
Two days after Kazakhstan's top space official suggested that the country was reexamining its agreement with Russia on the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the country's deputy prime minister sought to tamp down such speculation.
While Kazcosmos head Talgat Musabayev was quoted as saying the Russia-Kazakhstan agreement -- which is supposed to last until 2050 -- "has run its course" and that Kazakhstan was "formulating a new, all-encompassing agreement on Baikonur," Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov quickly sought to clarify Astana's position, that it was committed to the current agreement. Reports Central Asia Newswire:
“As you know, in 2004 [Kazakh] President Nursultan Nazarbayev and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the term of the lease of the Baikonur cosmodrome until 2050,” state media reported Kelimbetov as saying.
“The Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, of course, confirms the commitment of those arrangements. In October 2012, Presidents Nazarbayev and Putin instructed the intergovernmental commission to study the question of sharing the Baikonur cosmodrome and the following year to work out the appropriate changes to the regulatory framework of our cooperation.”
The story also notes the Russian press reaction to Musabayev's comments, which it describes as "explosive":
Russian media, including Pravda and Kommersant, has dismissed the threat as a low-level official posturing before the Kazakh parliament and does not believe the threat to preclude Russian use of the facilities to be viable.