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The Crimean Crisis Sparks Fear in Kyrgyzstan

Some are second-guessing the decision to send the Americans packing from the Manas air base.

by Askar Erkebaev 12 March 2014

Like Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan has a pro-Russian president, a Russian military base on its soil, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians. It also has intentions to join the Russia-led Customs Union, although it’s debatable if that was ever the plan in Kyiv.


There is one major geopolitical difference, however, that is especially relevant now: the presence of a U.S. air base 23 kilometers (14 miles) north of the capital, Bishkek, at Manas International Airport. The installation was established in 2001 as Ganci air base in order to support operations in Afghanistan.


Both Russian and U.S. air bases have been in Kyrgyzstan for more than 10 years, but the U.S. base will be closed by July. That decision was made by Kyrgyzstan’s president immediately after his election in late 2011 and confirmed by parliament in June 2013. It is widely believed that it was made under pressure from Moscow.


Most people in Kyrgyzstan supported the closure when it was announced, but Russia’s incursion into Crimea to “protect native Russians” has raised concerns in Kyrgyzstan and has changed some minds about the departure of the Americans.


After the first reports about the Crimean crisis, users of social media in Kyrgyzstan worried that such a scenario might be repeated here. Given the presence of a Russian air base, what would happen, some wondered, if Moscow decided the rights of Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic Russians were being violated?


Small surprise, then, to see calls to keep U.S. forces in Kyrgyzstan after July, whereas I had seen none before the events in Crimea.


It isn’t only online commenters who are worried, but also domestic officials and civic activists. Unfortunately, due to the official pro-Russian course of the president, they don't dare to express their views publicly.


One Kyrgyzstani diplomat told me:


“It is an outrage what’s going on in Crimea now. It’s a raid on a state level, and if the Kremlin succeeds there, nobody can guarantee that scenario won’t happen in Kyrgyzstan. We have a Russian air base not far from Bishkek, and if something goes wrong for Moscow here, Russian troops could quickly be deployed from Kant to anywhere in Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, we should think about keeping the U.S. air base after July in order to keep a balance, or remove all foreign military installations in Kyrgyzstan.”


Moscow has recently reinforced its air base in Kant, sending more attack helicopters and paratroopers.


Many in Kyrgyzstan support the Kremlin, its intervention in Crimea, and the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. forces from Manas. But it is noteworthy that the Kremlin's propaganda doesn't fool everyone, and some can still think independently. It’s another question whether any of our politicians can.


Meanwhile, all the base’s missions have wrapped up and U.S. forces are preparing to leave. Instead of Manas, the United States has already opened a new transit air base in eastern Romania, which started operations a month ago.

Story and photo by Askar Erkebaev, a journalist in Bishkek. He tweets at @aktalov.

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