BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — When Kyrgyzstan announced last month that it was expelling a U.S. air base after Russia promised it $2 billion-plus in aid and loans, American officials said the decision wasn't final and a U.S. presence was still under discussion.
After the Kyrgyz parliament ratified the accord with near unanimity and the country's Foreign Ministry issued a notice to vacate in 180 days, however, Russia's apparent advance at U.S. expense is almost certain.
The aid package that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government crafted was grounded in a hard-knuckled, realpolitik approach to this impoverished, landlocked Central Asian country.
It appears to be an offer the Kyrgyz government couldn't refuse. All the elements, starting with what had seemed to be its most modest component — a $150 million strings-free grant to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev — filled needs that the United States either didn't see or wouldn't match.
While the Bush administration championed democratic reform in Central Asia, a policy that deeply alienates strongman rulers in the corruption-plagued region, Putin has focused on putting cash on the table and making deals.
The Manas Air Base — which is at the main airport outside the Kyrgyz capital and is used mainly to ferry troops in and out of Afghanistan — became a sore spot for the Kremlin in the years after the U.S. set it up in late 2001, Russian and Kyrgyz officials acknowledge.
Putin had smoothed the way for U.S. military installations to be built across Central Asia in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, but he felt that the Bush White House barely acknowledged the gesture.
"What Bush offered Putin was a hat and a barbecue in Crawford, and that was it," said Alexei Pushkov, a prominent Russian TV commentator with extensive contacts in Moscow political circles.
That anger turned to suspicion as the White House backed a series of pro-democracy revolutions in what Russia calls its "near abroad": Georgia in 2003, Ukraine the following year and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Plans for a U.S. missile defense shield on Russia's borders followed those political upheavals.
While the U.S. government said that those developments had nothing to do with Moscow, there was deep suspicion in the Kremlin that the Americans had begun a strategy of encircling Russia. Putin and his government began to push back against U.S. interests in Central Asia, wanting to be sure that they and not Washington were the ones calling the shots.
"Russia enjoys the role of a gatekeeper. It's trying to defend this. It's eager to spend huge money in order to keep its geopolitical and geostrategic role," said Nikolai Petrov, scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a critic of Putin.
The Kyrgyz, meanwhile, came to see advantage in the U.S.-Russia competition.
"It's a political game," said Erik Arsaliyev, the chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament's foreign affairs committee. "No one is saying it, but everyone knows that's what's happening. We have become a puppet in the hands of these two countries."
The small nation of just 5.3 million people, wedged between China and Kazakhstan, has long been a crossroads for great powers. Bishkek today is home to both faded Soviet monuments and the American University of Central Asia.
The crucial element in the transaction was the $150 million grant, according to Topchubek Turgunaliev, an opposition leader in Bishkek. Even if Russia, which is facing serious financial trouble with low oil prices, doesn't come through with all $2 billion-plus, that $150 million will give Bakiyev's government deep pockets for presidential elections scheduled next year.
Bakiyev's office and the Foreign Ministry in Bishkek declined to comment for this story.
The bigger part of the aid, more than $1.5 billion earmarked for a planned hydroelectric project — of which Russia reportedly will retain 50 percent control — fits a pattern of the Kremlin consolidating its grip on the region's natural resources.
_ In 2007, Russia struck an agreement with natural gas-rich Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to build a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to pump gas for Russia. In 2008, Russia and Uzbekistan agreed to build a pipeline through Uzbekistan to move Uzbek and Turkmen gas to Russia.
_ South of Kyrgyzstan, Russia has invested about $700 million in a major Tajik hydroelectric station scheduled to open this year, of which Moscow owns 75 percent.
The two hydroelectric projects could affect water and power supplies for much of Central Asia. "They (the Kremlin) will be able to decide how much water the different sides should have; this is a lot of power," said Nur Omarov, a political analyst in Bishkek who previously worked as a consultant for the Kyrgyz president's national security council. "That gives you control of the whole region."
Marat Kazakpaev, who's also a Bishkek-based analyst, said that Russia had been much better than the United States at targeting the needs of countries in the area. However, the aid from Moscow comes with a high price, said Kazakpaev, whose research center has worked with Western groups.
"Russia has been working openly in economic terms to trap them (Central Asian countries) so that they depend on Russia, and then they link this economic dependence to political goals," Kazakpaev said. "By that point, the countries have nowhere else to turn."
Kazakpaev said he worried that his country was heading toward similar straits.
When Bakiyev came to office after the U.S.-supported "Tulip Revolution" in 2005, there were hopes in the West that his administration would be a model for democracy in Central Asia, similar to the way Georgia and its "Rose Revolution" were viewed in the Caucasus. As Bakiyev sought to strengthen his political base, however, his allegiances drifted away from Washington toward the Kremlin.
After a U.S. serviceman shot and killed a Kyrgyz truck driver at the air base in 2006, Russian-language newspapers and TV stations played the story big. "The Russian media was just waiting for this case," said Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, an opponent of the U.S. and Russian military presence in his country who served for six years as Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman, a human rights post. "The content of Russian-language mass media in Kyrgyzstan" — especially influential in the capital — "is of course controlled by Russia. They were saying how can a person be killed like this? . . . It was a very good public-relations campaign by Russia."
Officials at the air base also were criticized for failing to reach out to the local population as Russian-backed media hyped any hint of a problem: the shooting, a plane crash or allegations of environmental damage.
As Kyrgyz and Russian officials offered their explanations for the air base being removed last month, public affairs officers at the base didn't respond to McClatchy's requests for interviews. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek declined any comment, even off the record.
After the 2006 shooting, the estrangement between the Kyrgyz government and the West grew. Western organizations widely denounced alleged vote-rigging during Kyrgyzstan's 2007 parliamentary elections, in which Bakiyev's party took 71 out of 90 seats.
At the same time, political opposition groups that Bakiyev had shoved out of the way began to threaten mass protests. There was widespread discontent about corruption. Transparency International's annual corruption rankings have shown Kyrgyzstan slipping from 118th best in the world in 2003 to 166th last year, below Angola. Chronic energy shortages and an economic downturn intensified the pressure on Bakiyev.
The president pushed the United States for more rent for Manas Air Base, but he didn't receive a fast answer. So he turned to the Russians, who were eager to talk.
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