- The Washington Times - Monday, December 26, 2005

It was only two months ago that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev assured Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the United States could continue use of its Manas Air Base in that Central Asian country. The U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan became all the more important after Uzbekistan asked the United States to close its base in July. Now, Mr. Bakiyev has tacked a hefty price tag onto his earlier commitment.

Mr. Bakiyev said Thursday the United States should pay “tens of times more” than it currently does for use of its air base. “Until now the payment has been symbolic,” he said. Mr. Bakiyev apparently wants close to $200 million a year from Washington for use of the base.

That figure is so high that some observers have speculated that Kyrgyzstan wants the United States out altogether. “Sources say the government is under pressure from China and Russia to evict the U.S. from the country,” the Financial Times reported Thursday.

More than likely, however, the new Kyrgyz demands are related to financial, not geopolitical, concerns. A democratic uprising in Kyrgyzstan in March forced out dictator Askar Akayev, but it has not edged out government corruption and other problems. According to a recently issued report from the International Crisis Group: “Property is being redistributed in a chaotic and sometimes violent manner. Government, criminals and others are scrambling for a share of the country’s valuable assets, including many that the Akayev family monopolized.” Amid the chaos and corruption, Mr. Bakiyev is probably looking for a reliable source of income.

In recent weeks, Kyrgyzstan used another approach in its attempt to get more funds from the United States. The current Kyrgyz government asked the United States to pay again for past use of the base and fueling costs, even though the United States had already made payments for those services under the former Akayev government. The current government said that much of that money was lost to graft, and it therefore asked the United States to compensate for the lost resources. The United States, wary of setting an unwelcome precedent, has correctly maintained that graft is an issue for Kyrgyzstan to resolve and declined to make additional payments.

The Kyrgyz president is well aware he has a strong bargaining chip in the U.S. base. About 1,000 troops are stationed in Manas, now the only base in Central Asia for staging operations in Afghanistan. In October, Mr. Bakiyev told Miss Rice that the United States could continue using its airbase “until the situation in Afghanistan is completely stabilized.”

Kyrgyzstan is probably not being unduly pressured by Russia and China to evict the United States, and is more than likely prepared to continuing playing the great powers off each other. Kyrgyzstan has both a Russian and an American base on its soil. If the Kyrgyz government were to price itself out of the U.S. base, Moscow and Beijing would not need to compete as tenaciously for clout in the country.

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