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Trouble in Kyrgyzstan

Trouble in Kyrgyzstan

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev talks to his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiyev on February 3, 2009

As the Kyrgyz Republic threatens to kick the United States out of its Manas air base, which it has been using as a major logistics and supply point into Afghanistan, sources familiar with developments say the back story has to do with payments the United States previously made that did not make it into the Bishkek government’s coffers, but rather, to subcontractors controlled by the family of the previous ruler Askar Akayev.

In 2006, NBC reported that the U.S. government had paid subcontractors controlled by the former Kyrgyz ruling family more than $100 million:

The U.S. military steered more than $100 million in sub-contracts to the Akaev family’s fuel monopoly, according to U.S. contractors who oversaw the payments and transactions.”

An FBI report obtained by reporter Aram Roston “suggests that the [Kyrgyz] ruling family … oversaw a vast international criminal network that stretched all the way to a series of shell companies in the United States.”

“Basically this has always been about money,” says Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College and an expert on U.S. military bases. After the March 2005 Tulip Revolution led to Akayev fleeing for Moscow, the new government looked to the United States for payments for the base. “The new guy comes in, Bakiyev, and gives the right line, predictably, that the base benefited Akayev personally and he should renegotiate basing charges in a way that benefits Kyrgyzstan.”

UPDATE: A source involved with the negotiations for the Kyrgyz side told The Cable that the Obama administration was inheriting the brewing Kyrgyz base crisis, which he said had been neglected for years by the Bush administration.

“The U.S. government could have avoided this if they would have been receptive to Kyrgyz complaints,” said the source.

“When the new government came into power [in Bishkek] and the [payoff] scheme was uncovered, they approached the Americans and asked them to compensate it for the losses. But the Americans were reluctant to acknowledge that there was anything wrong.”

The source said the matter had been raised by the Kyrgyz government with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State Condi Rice, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

“Gates, to his credit, said he was not familiar with this matter and he would get back to them. But he never did.”

A Defense Department spokesman said, “The actual original negotiations and now modern discussions [on the base] were all done by the State Department. … As far as I know, [the Pentagon] doesn’t normally talk to government institutions like that. We defer to the State Department, and the embassy.”

Last month, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus was in Bishkek, but was denied a meeting with the Kyrgyz president, although he met with people in his office who raised the payment issue again.

The source said the Kyrgyz ambassador to Washington had held a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the issue last week. He suggested that several options were being considered, that would be “face saving” for all parties involved. Among them, perhaps, that the United States could announce that it would plan to depart the base after a certain number of years. Presumably some form of payment is also being considered. (Sources said the Kyrgyz had previously been requesting $150 million per year for use of the base, but the cost for staying was expected to go up.)

A State Department spokesman said he would check on such a meeting. In the meantime, he said, the U.S. government position is that it had not officially been notified by the Kyrgyz that they want to close the base.

UPDATE II: More on this from Alexander Cooley in Tuesday’s International Herald Tribune, “How the U.S. lost its Kyrgyz air base.”