As the dust settles in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan's erstwhile opposition begins to assemble a new regime to replace ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, U.S. policymakers and international pundits remain preoccupied with Manas air base. This facility, located near Bishkek, has been an important hub supporting the war effort in Afghanistan since the U.S. military opened it in December 2001.
Since then, Manas's operations have been threatened by political instability more than once. Russia, never pleased to have U.S. forces on former Soviet territory, regularly pressures Kyrgyzstan to terminate the base's lease. Certainly, the Kremlin had something to do with Bakiyev's February 2009 announcement, delivered in Moscow, that he would close Manas and accept more than $2 billion in emergency assistance and investments from Russia.
But this explanation neglects how Kyrgyz elites, relatively weak and impoverished, still retain considerable ability to manipulate both the United States and Russia for their own local political agendas and personal gain. After all, last year the Kyrgyz government ended up double-crossing Moscow by accepting an initial $300 million payment before it renegotiated a higher rent with the United States for the renamed "Manas Transit Center." As a result, relations between Moscow and Bishkek plummeted to an all-time low, while Bakiyev's government gleefully cashed in the new checks provided by both Moscow and Washington.
The root of these recurring basing headaches lies in the fact that the United States simply lacks the authority to establish a military presence in Central Asia. Unlike basing facilities in Japan, South Korea, and Germany, Manas didn't come to the United States in the aftermath of a wartime occupation or conflict. Nor do these bases serve the common defense or a security organization, like NATO bases in Italy and Turkey.
Rather, in Kyrgyzstan the United States has to rely on a quid pro quo, usually in the form of economic incentives, to secure the ongoing acquiescence of local governments. The United States perceives Manas as part of the Afghan theater of operations, and Kyrgyz officials typically cite this rationale for the base's existence as well. However, from the outset they have also viewed the U.S. military presence as instrumental in securing a significant foreign revenue stream.
When the base was first established, U.S. officials agreed to pay takeoff and landing fees based on international civil aviation standards to the Manas Airport Authority, an entity tied to former President Askar Akayev's regime. This unusual arrangement was designed to provide Akayev's government with economic incentives to support the coalition effort in Afghanistan. Of these local revenue streams, by far the most lucrative remain the contracts to supply jet fuel. Indeed, an FBI investigation following Akayev's ouster in March 2005 revealed that he and his family members had embezzled funds from these fuel contracts and transferred them into overseas bank accounts.
After Bakiyev assumed office in the wake of the "Tulip Revolution," he criticized these Akayev-era arrangements and claimed that future base-related revenues would be used for the good of the Kyrgyz nation, not personal profit. They were not -- but Bakiyev nonetheless demanded even more rent from Washington. In 2006, he secured a new agreement that increased annual rental payments from $2 million to $17 million, within a total $150 million annual package of U.S. payments and bilateral assistance. But even this did not satisfy the Kyrgyz president, who subsequently engineered the 2009 Russia-U.S. bidding war that resulted in the tripling of the annual rental payment to $60 million and an additional $117 million in aid.
For the Kyrgyz opposition, excluded from these base-related revenues, Manas became a daily reminder of the Bakiyev family's greed, corruption, and use of Kyrgyzstan's state assets for their private purposes. Following their rise to power, members of the interim government have already signaled their intention to re-evaluate the deals surrounding the base. Roza Otunbayeva, the new government's head, stated in a recent news conference her intention to investigate the structure of fuel contracts. At issue might be ties between the Bakiyev family and the Mina Corporation, which in July 2009 was awarded an annual fuel contract worth potentially more than $200 million.