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New US Military Bases In Central Asia? Guess Who Isn't Happy

Manas air base in Kyrghizistan
Manas air base in Kyrghizistan
Elena Chernenko, Kabai Karabekov in Bishkek, Kirill Belyaninov in New York

TASHKENT - Fundamental changes are afoot in the relations between the United States and Uzbekistan -- and Russia isn't happy.

Until recently, the central Asian country was on the U.S.’s black list of human rights offenders to whom it was forbidden to provide any sort of military technology. But with a special decree, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently took Uzbekistan off that list, and also sent a high-powered delegationof representatives from the White House, Pentagon and State Department to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Sources close to Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry explained that these intensified contacts are a result of the increased partnership with the U.S. in the arena of military technology. According to those sources, Washington and Tashkent have been discussing the construction of a U.S. Center for Operative Reaction on Uzbek territory. The Center’s main function would be to coordinate actions in case of an escalation in violence after the majority of American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.

The number of American troops that would be permanently stationed at the Center is still being negotiated. The Center’s equipment would be primarily made up of the weapons and equipment that is being taken out of Afghanistan by the U.S. and other coalition members.

Kommersant reported on July 15 that most the technology removed from Afghanistan would be given to Central Asian countries, but it is now clear that it is specifically Uzbekistan, once a part of the former Soviet Union, will receive most of the equipment.

Central Asia as strategic as ever

The Center’s name is preliminary, but it is also loaded with meaning. In 2012, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional military alliance of which Russia is a part and which forbids military alliances with non-members. In effect, CSTO countries can’t allow outside countries to build military bases on their territory.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Blake announced last week that the U.S. did not plan to build a “long-term military base,” in Uzbekistan. On the other hand, some sources say that the terminology is not really that important.

“We are talking about a large U.S. military base in Central Asia,” explained one Russian source.

Moscow considers the potential construction of a U.S. military installation in Uzbekistan as an extremely negative development, and is still hoping that Tashkent will change its mind. “Our Uzbek partners should really analyze the possible consequences of increased military partnership with the Unites States,” said one Russian diplomat. “It’s possible that if they thought about it they would realize that if there is a deterioration in the security in the region after 2014, then it will be the CSTO partners who provide security in the region, not the U.S.”

At the same time, Russia is actively pursuing connections with other strategically important countries in the region - namely Kyrghizistan. According to sources in the governments of Russia and Kyrghizistan, the two countries are planning to sign three key agreements regarding military, economic and energy partnerships.

On the other hand, Kyrghizistan has said that it would not refuse partnerships with the United States. “If the Americans were to give us military goods, we would not turn them down,” Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov told Kommersant. Sources in the Kyrghiz defense ministry said that Bishkek is “primarily interested in military transportation and communications,” but “is prepared to take weapons as well.”

According to Kommersant’s source, it is possible that the American base at the Manas International Airport in Kyrghizistan would stay open after 2014, “with a change in name,” directly contradicting promises made by president Almazbek Atambayev.

Sources in the Russian government said that Bishkek has promised to make a presentation about the development of the Manas Air Base to the CSTO partners in the near future. “President Atambaev has engaged himself politically by publicly announcing that U.S. soldiers would not be there after 2014,” Kommersant’s source said. “We are assuming that he will keep his word.”

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