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Looming closure of Manas transit center met with economic concern, ambivalence

Karachach Iskazhaeva, a shopkeeper at a market in rural Kyrgyzstan, says she's more worried about the loss of jobs when the nearby American Air Force base closes than she is about pollution or other problems that have marked its existence.

MANAS, Kyrgyzstan — In a small village market frosted by an early December snow, the shopkeepers gathered to discuss an economic future that looked as bleak as the weather.

The U.S. Air Force transit center at the nearby Manas International Airport is shutting down, with the last troops scheduled to be gone by July 2014. At least 700 local jobs are leaving with those troops, and the untold economic impact has some residents worried.

“The most important concern is that … our young people who work there will lose their jobs,” said Karachach Iskazhaeva, who, like the other women attending their booths, was wrapped in layer upon layer of scarves and aprons to protect against the cold. “It’s like half our village works there.”

Ever since American forces arrived in nearby Afghanistan after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, residents of Manas have lived in the shadow of daily flights by U.S. military aircraft.

Now, 12 years later, the American base in the Central Asian highlands, which is used for transporting troops to Afghanistan, is finally closing. The Kyrgyz parliament voted 91-5 in June to end the lease with the U.S. government.

Standing next to her small stall crammed with everything from pencils to nuts, Iskazhaeva expressed worry about the people who will lose their jobs and about the likely decline of her business as money leaves the local economy.

But Iskazhaeva and the other women at the market are a minority in Kyrgyzstan. While the American presence has brought economic perks to their poor community, the average Kyrgyz had only the vaguest idea of the base’s benefits or disadvantages. Outside Manas, its disappearance is likely to go largely unnoticed.

Outreach has its limits

Like other American bases around the world, the facility at Manas has faced its share of controversy and suspicion from local residents, media and politicians.

In 2006, an American airman shot and killed a local truck driver at a security checkpoint on the base. The Kyrgyz government demanded that the airman’s immunity be lifted and that he face prosecution in Kyrgyzstan, but a U.S. Air Force investigation concluded he acted according to his training, and he eventually left the country.

The shooting sparked a chorus of complaints that the soldiers and airmen on the base were behaving disrespectfully toward their host country.

Over the years the U.S. Air Force has also faced criticism that fuel dumps from aircraft have damaged the gardens and crops that local residents depend on.

And Kyrgyz leaders, including President Almazbek Atambayev, have raised concerns that the base could be used for purposes other than fighting terrorism — such as launching an attack on Iran — that could potentially open up Kyrgyzstan to retaliation.

The U.S. contingent at the base says it has tried to overcome such concerns through outreach to the community, touting efforts such as volunteer services at local hospitals and orphanages, as well as the benefits of 700 jobs and the injection into the economy of more than $100 million per year.

Among the villagers at Manas, those outreach efforts seem to have paid off.

“We have a really good relationship with the American soldiers,” said Aziz Sataly, who identified himself as one of the village’s representatives. He pointed to recent projects in which Americans helped renovate windows and a heating system at a school.

Said U.S. Air Force Col. John Millard, who oversees the facility: “They’re sad we’re leaving. Over the past 12 years we have made thousands of friends. Look, there are 700 people who work here, and they know it’s coming to an end. I think that point is kind of hitting everyone right now.”

Mostly an agricultural economy, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the world. With a population of fewer than 6 million, it has a per capita GDP of $2,400, which is comparable to that of Cambodia and Cameroon.

Among the women gathered at the market in Manas, there was a collective snort as they dismissed concerns about fuel dumping or other pollution. To them, the economic benefits outweigh the costs.

Iskajaeva acknowledged that she thinks pollution is a problem and said the Americans broke promises to compensate residents. But while the pollution may or may not leave with the U.S. aircraft, she said, the jobs certainly will.

“They don’t disturb us, so it would be better if they stayed,” she said of the troops on the base. “We need money; we need work.”

Not all of the benefits have been so straightforward or innocent. Former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his family were widely seen to have profited from shady contracts and financial arrangements involving the base. That perception was only furthered in 2009, when Bakiyev pitted the U.S. against Russia in a bidding war over Manas.

The ex-president threatened to close the base, only to relent when the U.S. agreed to triple its annual lease payment, from $17.4 million to $60 million.

But in the end, analysts say, those who gained the most from the base were a tiny political elite and a few local workers and their villages.

Deep ties to Russia

Even if Bakiyev and the residents around Manas seemed willing to overlook the American presence in exchange for certain benefits, other factors were at play that pushed Bishkek into Moscow’s embrace: longstanding historical and cultural ties; the public perception that the base had enriched two discredited ex-presidents; and more generous economic assistance than the U.S. was willing to offer.

The two Kyrgyz presidents who first agreed to the transit center - Bakiyev and Askar Akayev - lost power in popular protests. As a result, in the minds of many Kyrgyz, the U.S. became linked to to corrupt and authoritarian regimes, analysts say.

Atambayev was elected in 2011 on a platform that included a “deep conviction” that the U.S. troops had no place at the civilian airport just outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.

That conviction was likely strengthened by Russia, which has long chafed at the U.S. presence. Moscow reportedly put great pressure on Kyrgyz leaders, who depend on it for economic and other aid.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, set off a flurry of controversy last year when he openly suggested that Moscow had basically won over Bishkek by giving a bigger bribe than Washington was willing to offer.

Russia, which also operates an air base about 20 miles from Manas, and which has recently signed a deal to cancel a $500 million debt owed by Bishkek over a 10-year period. Kyrgyz leaders have also been in discussions with Russia about joining a Moscow-dominated economic bloc.

“A combination of significant pressure from Russia and a growing distrust of the base’s purpose and value practically meant that even additional quid pro quo, beyond the $60 million paid by Washington annually, probably would not have been enough,” said Alexander Cooley, a professor at New York’s Barnard College.Cooley, who has done research on U.S.-Russian relations in Central Asia, said Russian influence was likely “a significant factor” in the decision to end the lease, but Bakiyev’s fall from power coincided with a growing view that the base was no longer just being used to fight terrorism.

“Instead, the base became a source of geopolitical intrigue, a symbol of Kyrgyz elite graft with U.S. acquiescence and, increasingly, a lightning rod for Russian misinformation about U.S. regional activities,” he said.

But even before that, public opinion was cooling to the idea of an American base.

According to a 2009 Congressional Research Service report, opinion polls showed Kyrgyz citizens divided over the American presence. One survey, conducted by Kyrgyz El-Pikir agency in 2008, found that nearly 50 percent of respondents had a negative view of the base, seeing it as a “symbol of U.S. aspirations for global domination.”

“The decision was most likely one emanating from the Kyrgyz themselves given the declining utility of the base for the U.S. and demonstrated by the overwhelming support in Parliament to not renew the base agreement,” said Andrew Yeo, an assistant professor at Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University, who authored a book about protests against American bases overseas.

He and other analysts attribute the success of russian lobbying efforts to an overall lack of support for the base among the Kyrgyz population.

They don’t necessarily hate the foreign troops, but given the ties to Russia, they don’t see them as a great loss.

Because of the influence of widely consumed Russian media and lingering cultural and economic ties, the Kyrgyz people also tends to be pro-Russian, said Medet Tiulegenov, who teaches political science at Bishkek’s American University of Central Asia. But that hasn’t automatically translated into opposition to the American presence.

Nargiza Ryskulova, a local freelance journalist who has covered public perception of American, confirmed that the people she interviews express indifference.

“Most people don’t care,” she said. “Many people don’t know much about it.”

After weathering more than a decade of geopolitical maneuvering and local controversies, the American base at Manas is going out with a whimper.

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith
 

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