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US hurrying to save its bases in Central Asia


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Pyotr Goncharov.)

Monday's visit by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld to Kyrgyzstan was expected. Washington had to make a statement after the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization - Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states - called on the counter-terrorist coalition (read: the U.S.) to set a date for the withdrawal of its military bases, synchronized with the end of operations in Afghanistan.

General Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained what these bases mean to the U.S.

"Central Asia is important to the United States for lots of reasons, not just for operations in Afghanistan," he said in a first reaction to the SCO's statement.

One of the main reasons is the bases' strategic proximity to China and Russia, which still dominates the region. But the key reason is Washington's ability to use the bases to influence the foreign policy of Central Asian states and domestic political processes there. Losing the bases would be tantamount to losing the region.

The U.S. has bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Judging by the resolute tone of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the American base at Khanabad will have to go. This will greatly increase the importance of the Gansi base at Manas airport outside the Kyrgyz capital.

Monday's visit was Rumsfeld's second to Bishkek, and both were made in an emergency. During his first visit after the March unrest there, the Pentagon chief seemingly convinced Kurmanbek Bakiyev to carry on the previous regime's policy vis-a-vis the bases, regardless of operations in Afghanistan. But Bishkek's stand has changed, and this does not please the U.S.

Will Rumsfeld convince Bakiyev, whose inauguration is set for August 14, to let the bases stay? Does he have arguments for this?

Stephen Young, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, said on the eve of the parliamentary election in the republic that the U.S. had invested heavily in the development of democracy and civil society in Kyrgyzstan, and would like to see the fruits of this assistance.

Will Washington demand that Bishkek agree to "synchronize" the stay of the Gansi base not to the threat of terrorism coming from Afghanistan but to some other, regional or global, threats?

Former Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev viewed the U.S. bases from this angle, although the Manas base was a small change in bilateral relations then. Bishkek knew that the U.S. might use the factor of Kyrgyzstan's giant (by local standards) foreign debt, which it hoped to repay through restructuring via the Paris Club. By allowing debt repayment, Washington risked losing the base, which Bishkek said almost openly.

The situation has changed, and Washington knows this. It plans to make a new offer that Bishkek "cannot refuse" in return for a promise not to raise the issue of base withdrawal.

It does not matter what Washington will offer Bishkek. What matters is that the SCO declaration's call on the counter-terrorist coalition to set the date for the withdrawal of its bases in Central Asia is not a pullout demand. The coalition can set different dates. In other words, the idea is to negotiate the preservation, not the withdrawal, of bases.

Bakiyev said at his first press conference after the presidential election that Kyrgyzstan's relations with the U.S. "should not be limited to the American base at Manas." Will he confirm this stand now?

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