Continuing to Not Read Too Much into Atambayev’s Manas Airbase Politics

by Joshua Foust on 11/10/2011 · 13 comments

Joshua Kucera flags an interesting article by Columbia professor Lincoln Mitchell:

The situation today is different. Atanbaev’s [sic] position does not appear to be a case of simply trying to line his pockets with more American money, but has expressed his view based on his country’s geographical and strategic proximity to Russia and a fear that having a U.S. air force base just outside of his country’s capital could create security concerns for Kyrgyzstan. While this position is not what the U.S. wants to hear, it is also reasonable and can plausibly said to be representing the interests of the Kyrgyz people…

The U.S. is in a difficult, but not impossible, position of having to find a way to, at least in the short term, to continue access to Manas while avoiding undermining the vulnerable democratic aspirations and exprssions [sic] of the Kyrgyz people which Atanbaev [sic] represents. The U.S. must work with Atanbaev [sic] respectfully, avoiding threats and avoiding overpaying for access. Of course, if the Obama administration is serious about winding down the war in Afghanistan this task will be easier. A solution that allows both sides to claim some kind of victory, through a timeline or other similar commitments, and which offers some assistance to Kyrgyzstan is a plausible outcome to this conundrum.

I’m not really sure why he spelled Atambayev’s name with an N, but whatever. The meat of his argument is, basically, that Atambayev’s public opposition to the U.S. base at Manas is not only “representing the interests of the Kyrgyz people,” but that it is a statement of intent to be taken seriously and not, as I argue, routine political messaging with very little teeth (In his piece, Kucera reads a bit too much into what I wrote at that post—I don’t discount that some Kyrgyz dislike the base, I was merely noting that American policymakers try to assuage that dislike through extra payments).

So, is Atambayev’s threat to close down Manas to be taken seriously? Is it a ploy? Is it truly representative of the wishes of the Kyrgyz public? Or is it just empty talk? There is a lot that goes into such a consideration. As Kucera put it:

It’s safe to say that Atambayev, who hasn’t been shy about his affinity for Russia, does not depend on the U.S. for political power. It would be too much to say that the outgoing president, Roza Otunbayeva, “depended” on the U.S., but she was about the most pro-American politician that Washington could hope for in Central Asia. And while she complained about the base, in particular the murky fuel supply arrangement, she focused on getting that agreement changed, not on getting the base removed altogether. But if Cooley’s hypothesis holds, the more Russia-oriented Atambayev will be less conciliatory. And Manas’s days really may be numbered.

This doesn’t quite play well with Kucera’s own hypothesis that American withdrawal from Afghanistan—and subsequent supposed abandonment of Manas—would actually ratchet up tensions with Russia. For Moscow, Kucera argued recently for the Atlantic, “Cooperation on Afghanistan has been win-win, and its importance has cooled heads on both sides.” So the fact of Atambayev being pro-Russia does not necessarily mean very much.

There’s another angle to consider. Under the 2010 constitution, the President of Kyrgyzstan does not have much power over foreign policy. Article 28, section 5 of the new constitution (rough translation here) gives the Kyrgyz Parliament the power to decide matters of foreign policy, the use of force, and so on. Article 37 gives the Prime Minister, Atambayev’s old job, the power to negotiate and sign treaties—like the one governing the American use of the Manas airbase.

So, I’m not really sure Atambayev can do anything by himself to affect the U.S. basing agreement at Manas. He can build a coalition in the Parliament and appeal to the Prime Minister to alter the terms of the U.S.-Kyrgyz treaty governing the base. But I don’t think that’s very likely in anything like the short run. As Kyrgyzstan’s first permanent President under the new constitution, Atambayev will have his hands full handling all the fallout from their only sort of kind of free election.

Over the next six months or so, Atambayev will probably be butting heads with the southern bloc in the Parliament over a number of issues, and no one is really sure just how workable the permanent structure of this constitution is. These things take time. And the substantial irregularities of the vote make me wonder if it’s correct to use Alexander Cooley’s framework of a democratic transition, as Kucera does. Atambayev is the undisputed President, but that doesn’t mean he was elected in a manner we’d consider democratic.

The Parliament, which has actual control over these kinds of decisions, does not have a clear bent one way or the other about the base. The new Prime Minister, who has the power to negotiate future terms (not Atambayev), has said he thinks the CSTO should have a say in whether the U.S. stays or goes. It is Babanov, and whomever replaces him, that should dominate any speculation on Manas. Not Atambayev.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 13 comments }

Joshua Kucera November 10, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Those are good points on the constitution and separation of powers. But I think it may be murkier than you describe. From another EurasiaNet story (http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64420):

“Under the 2010 constitution, which was written after Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in a bloody uprising that April, Kyrgyzstan’s president is elected to a six-year term, without the right to run again. The president manages foreign policy and security, appointing the defense minister and head of the national security committee. When a single party does not hold an absolute majority in parliament, the president also appoints the prime minister.”

I scanned the constitution, and while I’m not at all a constitutional scholar, it did seem like there were places where the president had some authority over defense/diplomatic issues. In any case, I don’t the parliamentary system is written in stone yet. Some candidates campaigned on reverting back to a strong-presidential system, if I recall correctly.

And that it was Atambayev saying something about Manas isn’t necessarily the most important thing, anyway. The point is that closing Manas will become more of an issue for domestic politics than it has been before, that Cooley’s theory is useful for considering what the effect of that might be.

I also didn’t intend to single out you guys as the only people suggesting that Atambayev was bargaining, or that that was your only point. And if you’ll recall, I agreed with you: http://twitter.com/#!/TheBugPit/status/131746497107722240. And I still might agree with you. I just think Mitchell and Cooley’s arguments have some merit.

Nathan November 10, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Josh K, at the same time, their theories show the limits of comparative politics as a discipline. Why should we expect the dynamics to change? Lincoln is missing the trees for the forest. To be blunt, Atambayev’s argument is a load of BS, and I’m skeptical he believes it very strongly. Bakiyev pulled the same thing when he argued Manas should be closed because the Taliban was all but defeated and peace had come to Afghanistan. When Russia failed to be a reliable (lucrative) partner, his tune changed. Manas is the third rail of Kyrgyz politics and rational, unemotional positions on it are rare. (And it’s a stretch to suggest the public has considered its geopolitical interests vis-a-vis Iran stemming from the base.) There simply is no other position a politician can have but to say it should be closed, but there are upgrades to be had an contracts to skim, so none of these elites are in too much of a rush to shut things down.

Let’s not lose sight of the actors. None of these guys are honest, liberal democrats. (As an aside, Cooley isn’t saying this is a democratizing regime, you are, using his theory. I see no evidence this is true apart from a mostly okay election that definitely was less free than the 2010 vote. Rule of law and responsiveness to the public is still far off.) They don’t care too much what the public wants and the question elites have isn’t whether or not they depend on the base for political power but whether or not the base provides opportunities to enhance their power.

The argument that makes more sense to me here is that the base goes away at some point because parliament wants to deny the president the opportunity to use it to enhance his wealth and influence or because they can’t come to an agreement (on time to execute a renewal maybe) on how to divvy the wealth.

Stefan G November 11, 2011 at 12:32 am

What are you guys on about, “closing the base”? Evidently, none of you appears to be particularly familiar with what the candidates said before and after the election.
Atambayev said that the base lease would not be renewed (after it expires in June 2014), not that he would close it. Do you understand the difference? Madumarov effectively said the same thing and Tashiyev, as far as I am aware, said pretty much the same, although his grasp on foreign affairs is somewhat limited.
Why?
Because the United States will neither want nor need Manas after 2014.
The only way a little more money could be made for Kyrgyzstan is extending the lease a few months or reformatting the base (again) after June 2014, and guess what, Atambayev spoke about that as well. He spoke about Manas (AFTER THE LEASE EXPIRES) being used as a purely civilian transit facility. That is a sufficiently loose phrasing that would allow the airport to be used for ferrying out the departing troops, but not for basing airborne fuel tankers, which is one of its primary purposes now. This will likely be an arrangement agreeable to the United States.
Joshua, we see that you have been to Kyrgyzstan recently for the first time and that you appear to have spoken to a fairly select number and type of people. Yet you so airily will not “discount that some Kyrgyz dislike the base.”
I have some news for you, but the base is deeply unpopular. Not because they have done anything objectively horrible, with the some exception of high-profile cases, but because there is suspicion about its ultimate purpose, a perception fueled by years of bad press, Russian television smears, gossip, and criticism from local politicians. While the base represents a subject of a range of sentiments – from contempt to indifference – to most people, you probably only find people that directly and palpably benefit from it being enthusiastic about its presence.
So, a combination of developments in Afghanistan and local pressure will likely spell the end for Manas in 2014. You know, when the lease ends?
All this sneering about venal Kyrgyz kleptocrats trying claw money away from the ever-patient Americans is insulting and irrelevant at this point. Bakiyev is gone, remember?
As for the Russians, their designs (whatever they might be) on Kyrgyzstan are longer-term. A year here and there is trifling at this point.

Joshua Foust November 11, 2011 at 10:51 am

Stefan,

Let us add some specificity of language. “Not renewing the U.S. lease for access to Manas” will, in fact, shut down the U.S. base. The Kyrgyz can use it for other things, or hell so can the Russians. The U.S. base will be closed. You’re picking nits on that to try to make a point, and it isn’t one.

Saying “the United States will neither want nor need Manas after 2014” doesn’t fit, either. There will still be troops in Afghanistan after 2014, certainly in June of 2014 which is before the official “drawdown” date. And since you’re so aware of everything going on, you also know that the U.S. government is trying to rebuild the Silk Road — something they would most certainly like to build off of their largest base in the region. So that’s wrong too.

Your comments about the base’s popularity don’t make sense, either. If it represents indifference, then that’s not really deep unpopularity. Some Kyrgyz are vehemently opposed to the base, lots are vaguely opposed to it or don’t care much, and some like the income they derive from it. Like most things, there are a range of sentiments, and it’s misleading to pretend the opponents are the only ones who matter. U.S. bases in other countries poll poorly (South Korean, Japan, sometimes even Germany), but that doesn’t mean the governments – regardless of slant – want the bases gone, or that said opposition dramatically affects the ability of the U.S. government or its citizens to go about their business. It does in some cases, and it does not in others. If you argue that it does, you need to muster up some evidence and causation, buddy.

And who said anything about Bakiyev? Please, next comment respond to what is actually written and not what you wish was written.

Stefan G November 12, 2011 at 3:25 am

Wow, you sure got me there with the specificity. The problem is that you want to be right about how this is all another renegotiation gambit, but you happen to be wrong. The mantra across the board has been that Kyrgyzstan will stick to its obligations, and that is what will happen.
Let us, for the sake of argument, say that there is appetite for extending the lease beyond June 2014 (I don’t think there is), that new deal would be forged on purely legitimate grounds, so please spare us the condescending tone.
As to the vexed popularity issue, it is risible that you appear to have such a clinically intimate understanding of what support the base enjoys, despite having minimal contact with local people and not being able to read any of the local press. Or, apparently, having acquainted yourself with anything the local politicians have said for that matter.
If people are indifferent, it is because they have better things to worry about. That notwithstanding, note that a group of presidential candidates that has garnered at the very, very least more than 90 percent of the vote (more like 99 percent), say that the base needs to go in 2014. Atambayev said it AFTER the election, so you cannot exactly accuse him of pandering to the electorate. But, oh well, you’re probably right, you know, because of that two weeks you just spent taking photos of your lunch and learning useful phrases.
I mentioned Bakiyev because he was the president when the base deal was last renegotiated that. Look him up, he has his own wikipedia page.
@Nathan: About the corrupt elites you are quite right, and this is the main area of grey. By 2014, however, I suspect that there may be other avenues of self-enrichment to explore.

R.Duke November 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

@Nathan Stephen is right about the base being unpopular. Russian media in the capitol hammers this point to the brink of absurdity about what they purport to go on at the base, from prostitution, drug smuggling, murder…it goes on. In my two+ years there the only people that liked the base were the ones that worked there.

@Stephen Although I think its silly to assert the US is going to give up a base in a region where is has no other bases and which presents a useful tool for US foreign policy against Russia. Saying the US will have no use for the base after 2014 is really only looking at in terms of Afghanistan.

Nathan November 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Nobody said anything about “ever-patient Americans.” There are no angels here. And Bakiev is far from the only corrupt elite in Kyrgyzstan.

Catherine Fitzpatrick November 12, 2011 at 1:54 am

1. The date of 2014 might well slip. Such things have happened before.

2. No country really likes having an American base on its soil, so if it has the opportunity to have it expire and go, Kyrgyzstan may take it.

3. But no base occurs isolated in nature. Manas isn’t just a base, but a base hooked up to a big fuel contract. Now, the Kyrgyz government shares this new contract 50/50 with Gazprom to keep Russia happy. Dierdre Tynan at EurasiaNet reported that depending on market conditions, the contract could yield $4.5 million a month for the Kyrgyz government.

http://www.eurasianet.org/node/64232

That’s a lot of money for this small and poor country.

And of course the base needs other goods and services too and that’s revenue for Bishkek.

4. So if the US convert the war against the Taliban into a war on drugs, or convert it to the Silk Road or whatever, they might keep civilian plans and keep that fuel contract going.

5. The constitution can’t decide this, i.e. the president’s powers because there isn’t a strong constitutional court.

David November 14, 2011 at 9:39 am

I’m a little surprised that seasoned observers are taking any of this seriously or paying attention to what the president says on the subject. ‘Follow the money’ works better here as a theory than constitutional niceties or Cooley’s democratisation stuff or the unpopularity of the base (as if anybody cared about that…)

Nathan November 14, 2011 at 11:43 am

I need to add a +1 button for individual comments because this deserves one.

R.Duke November 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Base talk has always been just that, so for the most part I agree with Joshua’s assessment. Coming out against the base is nothing but a win for the president.

-Pat on the back from Russia
-Public approval because of the unpopularity of base
-More money from the US next time

@Catherine I think a war on heroin in Central Asia is of much more importance to Russia than the US, it alone wont justify the base in itself.

ETJ November 17, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Very much sympathetic to Stefan G’s arguments, here—they resonate for a person having spent years in Kyrgyzstan in the region (rather than stopping through on a Lonely Planet-inspired visitation). Certainly, there are variables at play, but there is a difference between calls for the base shutting previously and where Atambayev (and others, and the US) stand now.

Catherine Fitzpatrick November 18, 2011 at 1:22 am

@R.Duke Blake said in answer to questions at the Jamestown conference on Nov. 14 that the US has no plans for long-term bases in the region. That’s the line. But I believe it was in an answer to another question he talked about the “reset” cooperating with Russia on counter-narcotics. And I think that counter-narcotics operations, with or without a base, with landing rights short of a base, are likely a chapeau under which the US will keep its hand in Central Asian affairs.

A war on drugs is great that way because it enables you to keep having a war, but ostensibly not against militants but merely drugs that some people happen to have. That those people tend to be militants doesn’t even have to be tacitly acknowledged. I just see signs of this morphing here and there in preparation of post-2014 troop withdrawal. Silk Road stuff isn’t going to be terribly big business but drug-fighting is always a big business and the actual routes of drug-trafficking are kind of the negative image of the Silk Road the US imagines.

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