Atambaev the Unreliable

Hustler. Shark. Atambaev.

by Joshua Foust on 3/22/2012 · 2 comments

ITAR-TASS has some unkind things to say about new Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambaev:

Russian-Kyrgyz relations have deteriorated sharply. Russia is dissatisfied with Kyrgyz plans to shut down a russian military base, and Bishkek demands to replace the General Secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The new apple of discord became the Dastan torpedo producing plant, which Moscow is seeking to control.

Last year, when Atambaev threatened to shut down the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, analysts seemed to react in one of two ways: Atambaev was steering Kyrgyzstan toward a new, pro-Russia stance (focusing as well on his endorsement of the Eurasian Union), or he was just sort of angling for more money to coast out the last six months of 2014 until the whole question becomes moot anyway (I still lean toward the latter interpretation).

However, the latest round of tensions between Bishkek and Moscow might suggest something more: Atambaev doesn’t want any foreign domination or bases on Kyrgyz territory, including from Russia. Seeing this paired with Atambaev essentially rejecting the Russian bid to take a major share of Dastan is interesting in that sense. In 2009, Russia offered Kyrgyzstan a $300 million aid package and $2 billion in other spending, which was widely presumed to have inspired then-president Kurmanbek Bakiev to demand the U.S. leave the Manas Transit Center (he eventually agreed to a massive increase in lease payments in exchange for continued U.S. presence). But Russia also offered, as a part of that deal, to buy a 48% share in the Dastan munitions plant as part of a $198 million debt forgiveness package. It was meant to be a double-whammy: erase debt, get a hundred and fifty million dollars on top of that, all in exchange for a torpedo factory.

Atambaev doesn’t seem to consider that such a good deal. And if he’s both rejecting the Dastan deal and telling the Russians to get out of their base at Kant, and suggesting the CSTO get a new General Secretary… well things in Kyrgyzstan are getting a lot more interesting.

In a way, though, it’s not really a surprise that Atambaev is not terribly interested in being Russia’s patsy in Central Asia. No leader there really wants to be, even if Kazakhstan seems much more like Russia in many ways than it does the rest of Turkestan. One of the few constants in Central Asian politics, I think, and especially in their foreign policy, is the quest to successfully triangulate between the many foreign powers seeking to gobble up resources and access. While Russia enjoys warmer relations with most of their governments than does the U.S. China, they aren’t that much warmer, and all told the memory of being part of the USSR lingers just enough to keep any leader from selling the farm, so to speak, to Moscow.

So where does Kyrgyzstan go from here? That’s a big question. Atambaev isn’t showing his cards just yet, but we can make some speculation based on his public statements. He has requested, repeatedly, that the U.S. military leave Manas when the lease expires in June of 2014. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was in Kyrgyzstan just the other week trying to lay the foundation for a longer U.S. military presence there. From what we know in public, it hasn’t worked yet.

At the same time, Atambaev has also rejected Russian bids to maintain a permanent military base there, and is not enthusiastic about allowing Russia controlling ownership in that Dastan torpedo plant either. That, might mean that he’s not swining back and forth like a pendulum (US–Russia–US–Russia) but actually trying to carve out a separate, independent space from which to negotiate his external relations.

Of course, everyone wants to do that in the region. And Kyrgyzstan has famously failed to execute the so-called “multivector foreign policy” under Bakiev. So there’s no guarantee that this will stick. In all likelihood, one power or another is going to offer some outrageous amount of money and throw the system into imbalance again… which is probably what Atambaev wants anyway: more currency, more wrangling over Kyrgyzstan’s hand, more competition for influence.

At the end of the day, Kyrgyzstan can only benefit from playing hard-to-get. So long as Afghanistan remains unsettled, Kyrgyzstan (and especially access to basing in Kyrgyzstan) will be coveted by both the U.S. and Russia, and they will pay dearly for it. Figuring out how to maneuver and gain advantage in such a space is not an easy trick for U.S. or Russian policymakers, and as long as they don’t quite have congruous goals in the region it’s not likely they’ll team up to force concessions out of the Kyrgyz government.

So in a few months, let’s check back and see how all the various deals and arrangements have changed. They’ll mostly be much the same as they are now.

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This post was written by...

– 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 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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Don Bacon March 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Sounds like hard-nosed negotiations on the plant, with Russia throwing off the previous agreement.

Mar 22, 2012 – Russia is now asking for a 75 percent-stake in the torpedo plant, citing the depreciation of its equipment, or says it is willing to write-off a lesser share of the Kyrgyz debt for the previously agreed 48 percent stake in Dastan..

“Bishkek has been offered to either a write off a lesser debt for the same assets or to increase the stake transferred to Russia,” Kommersant said, citing a Russian government source.

The Kyrgyz government, which owns an 80 percent stake in the plant, rejects Russia’s claims of equipment depreciation and insists the previous agreement must be honored.

On Kyrg bases, Russia looks good to go.

Mar 21, 2012 — Kyrgyzstan won’t close Russian military facilities on its territory, the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev said Wednesday.

According to him, the term of the deployment of the Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan was automatically extended last year till 2017.

He also said that the term of the deployment of the air base in Kant had been extended till 2020.

Atambayev said that all the talks about a possible closure of Russia’s military facilities in Kyrgyzstan are rumors and added that Kyrgyzstan was ready to fulfill the terms of the international agreements.

Charles Marlowe March 22, 2012 at 11:59 pm

Good post. At the end of the day, the US can throw some big bucks, but Russia can make an offer Kyrgyzstan can’t refuse . . . Seems almost silly to go through all these motions again and again.

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