|Moscow marches into
By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - Following countless delays, Russia and
Kyrgyzstan have finally clinched an unprecedented
airbase deal. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his
Kyrgyz counterpart Askar Akayev witnessed their
respective defense ministers, Sergei Ivanov and Esen
Topoyev, signing the agreement on Kant base on Monday in
Moscow. The Russian air force can now move into the
military airfield in Kant, about 20 kilometers east of
the capital Bishkek. The deployment, say commentators,
comes as the most significant outside Russia's borders
since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
No big wonder
that Ivanov hailed the deal as "the first and the only
purely Russian military base that we have opened in the
13 years of the existence of the Russian Federation". He
added that although the Russian military was present in
all Commonwealth of Independent States, except
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, formal arrangements to set
up a new base come as a novelty.
The move is
presumably designed to reassert Russia's military
influence in a region where the United States has its
own semi-permanent military presence, with bases also in
Kyrgyzstan (Manas) as well as Uzbekistan.
Russian force at Kant is ultimately due to include more
than 20 Russian aircraft and more than 300 troops. In
all, Russia is expected to deploy five Su-25 attack
jets, five Su-27 fighters, two An-26 transports, two
Il-76 transports, five L-39 training jets and two Mi-8
A task force will provide the air
power for a contingent of ground forces. Known as a
rapid reaction force, this group could total more than
5,000, with troops from Russia as well as from
Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, members of an
alliance of former Soviet republics known as the
Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO.
Kyrgyz defense minister Topoyev had earlier
stated that the Kant base would not be "purely Russian".
It will operate under Russian jurisdiction, but will be
under the tactical control of the CSTO rapid reaction
force's commander, Topoyev said.
During a brief
stopover in Bishkek in December 2002, Putin endorsed
Russian deployment of fighter jets, bombers and other
aircraft in that country. He stated that Russian air
force deployment was very important and brought "a new
quality" to security arrangements in the region. At the
same time, Akayev urged Russia to become a "main
strategic cornerstone of Central Asia".
time Russian and Kyrgyz officials also signed the
Bishkek Declaration, pledging closer security and
economic ties. This agreement is not directed against
third countries, Putin stated. A deal to write off some
US$40 million of Kyrgyz debt to Moscow was also agreed.
The Russian deployment now means that Kyrgyzstan
is formally host to two foreign air bases, the other
being the US facility at Manas, a Bishkek suburb, just
30 kilometers from Kant. The US base, which was
established in the aftermath of the September 11
terrorist attacks, is designed to provide air support
for regional operations by the anti-terrorism coalition
in Afghanistan. Some 2,000 American personnel are now
based at Manas. The US forces also use former Soviet
bases in neighboring Uzbekistan.
Kyrgyzstan have maintained close political and military
ties, and Akayev has tended to support the Kremlin's
policies in the region. Akayev came to power as
president of Soviet Kyrgyzstan in 1990. A year later, he
was elected president of independent Kyrgyzstan as the
sole candidate on the ballot. In 1993, Kyrgyzstan
introduced its first post-Soviet constitution. In 1995,
Akayev was elected for another term. According to the
constitution, a person can only run twice for the
presidency, for two five-year terms. However, in 1999
the Constitutional Court paved Akayev's way for a
further term, ruling that after the adoption of the new
constitution, Akayev had sought office only once. In
2000, Akayev won a new term.
Moscow has backed
Akayev's regime and warned against interference in
Kyrgyz internal affairs. The security deal over Kant air
base arguably indicates that Akayev's regime still
depends on Russian backing.
implications of the base deal were kept low profile.
"The Russian military personnel will not interfere in
Kyrgyz internal affairs," Russian General Oleg Latypov
said on Monday. He added that the Kant base agreement
included clauses stipulating - in case of need -
Russia's reimbursement of environmental and other
damages to Kyrgyzstan.
Russia has reportedly
spent more than $2 million to upgrade the Kant base.
Kyrgyz Finance Minister Bolot Abildayev has stated that
Kyrgyzstan was not going to fund the air base. On
Monday, Latypov confirmed that Russia would be financing
the base in full.
However, the total bill is yet
to be revealed. Last December, Ivanov dismissed rumors
that Russian deployment at Kant would cost up to $300
million a year.
Incidentally, the Russian
officials conceded that the country did not really need
its more famous overseas military bases. On Monday,
Ivanov stated that the liquidation process of Cam Ranh
base in Vietnam and Lourdes facility in Cuba "had been
completed". "General efficiency of these two bases
raised serious doubts," Ivanov commented.
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