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12 February 2009

Don’t play it again, Stan

The US base is crucial to operations in Afghanistan, so threats to close it are usually a ploy for m

By Sorrel Neuss

A little-known Stan in central Asia has the US hanging by a thread. On Tuesday 3 February, Kyrgyzstan threatened to evict all 1,200 US troops stationed there, apparently at Russia’s request, and by Friday the government’s decision was “final”. Washington has used Manas airbase outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, as a launch pad for crucial operations in Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. It is the gateway for US and coalition troops into Afghanistan and the sole refuelling point for in-flight aircraft. If its closes, Nato will have to rethink plans to send more troops into the country later this year.

The US-Kyrgyz agreement on Manas has always been troubled. Governance in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has been blighted by corruption, and the parliament routinely threatens to kick America out when it is strapped for cash in order to extract millions more in rent. But recent calls by politicians from the ruling Ak Zhol party for the base to go were louder than usual. Richard Hipkin, a British pub manager in Bishkek whose biggest-paying customers work at the base, says: “This is as far down the line as it has ever got.”

The furore began when Dmitry Medvedev offered to write off Kyrgyzstan’s debts and lend the impoverished nation $2bn if it agreed to close the base. Russia’s deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, has denied that this is the case and the Kyrgyz prime minister, Igor Chudinov, is adamant that parliament’s decision to vote on the base’s future this month has nothing to do with money. Very few believe them. A foreign ministry official says: “The government is just holding out to see if the US will match that offer, but I don’t think they can.”

Russia can easily buy Kyrgyz acquiesence. The global food crisis, high wheat prices and the credit crunch have hit the republic hard. A national power shortage has also disrupted production and fuelled political tensions, springing the usually disorganised opposition Social Democratic Party into action.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan’s coal mines were seized by regional clan leaders and fell into disrepair. The bulk of electricity now comes from one hydroelectric power station, which for the past year has been working at very low capacity due to -30° temperatures in winter which have kept water frozen in the mountains, and low rainfall in summer. As the power station almost ground to a halt, most of the country had to survive on six hours of electricity a day at the height of the crisis, in the autumn.

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Over shashlik, I unwittingly made my friend Dinara cry by talking about the power cuts and rising poverty. Up the road, huddled around candles at the Metro American bar, private military contractors were downing shots of Russian Parliament vodka, talking about whether it was better to take girls they fancied to Istanbul or the Maldives over Christmas.

The lights in the city are back on for the time being, and the conversation in Metro has changed from holiday plans to career moves. They don’t have much to go on. The government issued frequent statements to the local press this past week, saying that the base has to go at some point and Kyrgyzstan wants it to go now, but neither the US embassy and state department nor contractors have yet received an official eviction notice. In previous years, when the government announced it was reviewing the Manas agreement, a handful of protesters gathered in the capital’s main Ala-Too Square wearing silk bandanas and yelling “Yankee go home”, but not this time.

Public opinion has warmed to the base. Tensions were high in December 2006, when a US serviceman shot dead a Kyrgyz worker suspected of carrying a knife, but around 10,000 locals work there as interpreters, shop staff, truck drivers and builders. The threat of unemployment is of greater concern.

Under the current agreement, Kyrgyzstan must give the US 180 days’ notice to get out. If parliament votes to issue that notice, Washington really has nowhere else to go. It has already been thrown out of one Stan. In 2005, neighbouring Uzbekistan ejected the US from a critical airbase at Karshi-Khanabad after its diplomats criticised the Uzbek government for ordering armed forces to open fire on protesters in the eastern city of Andijan, killing hundreds.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan both border Afghanistan, but Tajikistan’s landslide-prone, shoddy roads are a liability, and Turkmenistan is opening up only very slowly after the death in 2006 of Saparmurat Niyazov, the crackpot dictator who banned beards and renamed the days of the week after his family. Iran is out of the question, and Nato has no bargaining chips in the region.

Kyrgyzstan’s government is “so damn dumb”, bawls Mike Haughland, a barrel-chested Nebraskan who works for Task Force Innovations International, a private company that constructs lavatory blocks and other buildings at the base. Local politicians have not seen the benefit of working with the US military, and the Kremlin’s continuing dominance over the region doesn’t give them much cause to do so.

The prime minister insists the decision has nothing to do with money.

Very few believe him

An apparent thaw in relations between Russia and the US at the two-day Munich Security Conference, which began on 6 February, did little to resolve the Manas question. Russia has its own base just 60km west of the base, and rumours are that its aircraft might relocate there in a last two fingers up to America.

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