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U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan at risk (again)

If the Kyrgyz opposition is able to maintain control after toppling the government, the Pentagon and State Department may have to renegotiate the U.S.-Kyrgyz agreement on a crucial U.S. air base there, experts warn. It’s only been a few months since the now-deposed Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbak Bakiyev, signed a new deal upping the rent on ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

If the Kyrgyz opposition is able to maintain control after toppling the government, the Pentagon and State Department may have to renegotiate the U.S.-Kyrgyz agreement on a crucial U.S. air base there, experts warn.

It's only been a few months since the now-deposed Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbak Bakiyev, signed a new deal upping the rent on the Air Force Transit Center at Manas, which the U.S. depends on for critical supplies en route to Afghanistan.

If the Kyrgyz opposition is able to maintain control after toppling the government, the Pentagon and State Department may have to renegotiate the U.S.-Kyrgyz agreement on a crucial U.S. air base there, experts warn.

It’s only been a few months since the now-deposed Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbak Bakiyev, signed a new deal upping the rent on the Air Force Transit Center at Manas, which the U.S. depends on for critical supplies en route to Afghanistan.

Last February, there was a vote in the Kyrgyz parliament to end the arrangement, egged on by a Russia wary of the growing U.S. military presence in its near abroad. The man who led the opposition to the base in the legislature was former parliamentary speaker and opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev, who now seems to be in control of the country, after being arrested and then released on Wednesday.

"We have to probably renegotiate the Manas basing agreement, because it was the opposition that pressured Bakiyev into renegotiating in the first place," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow with the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. "The leading opposition figures are not anti-American or more pro-Russian than anyone else in Kyrgyzstan, but because they led the drive to raise the rents they might have to reopen negotiations for political reasons."

And where there is a negotiation in Central Asia, there is a U.S.-Russia angle to worry about as well.

"This could be a relatively friendly negotiation, but the Russians could very well take the opportunity to meddle again," Petersen said.

Although Russia would have an interest in getting back at Bakiyev for finally striking a deal with the U.S., Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has condemned the violence and denied any Russian role in today’s events.

Meanwhile, it’s still "business as usual" at Manas, according to a U.S. military spokesman.

"As of right now the air base is still open, the unrest has not impact operations on the base," said Shawn Turner, Pentagon public affairs officer. "It’s getting a little tense."

Turner said he had no information that Bakiyev, who took over from Askar Akayev during the 2005 "Tulip Revolution," was holing up at the U.S. base, despite some rumors in the capital city of Bishkek to that effect.

"Folks at Manas tell us that business as usual and if he was there, that would be something that we would be aware of," Turner said.

Petersen said he was hearing Bakiyev has taken refuge in his home turf of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan where he still has a power base. If he hasn’t actually left the country, that could indicate the power struggle isn’t over, he added.

The broader implication for the international community is the realization that the era of popular revolutions in Eurasia toppling unpopular government is still ongoing, and even democratic governments that don’t live up to their ideals are vulnerable.

Although this latest unrest was sparked by the government’s decision to raise utility prices by 200 percent, Bakiyev has been moving toward cronyism and corruption for some time, Petersen said.

"Color revolutions are not dead in this part of the world," he said, noting that what’s going on in Kyrgyzstan has implications for Ukraine and Georgia. "If a color revolution goes authoritarian, you can have another revolution right on top of it."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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