Moscow moves into Kyrgyz energy as US pulls troops from Bishkek base

By Georgiy Voloshin Source:Global Times Published: 2014-4-20 20:18:01

Although the International Security Assistance Force still has time until the end of 2014 to leave Afghanistan, US troops have already started to withdraw from neighboring Central Asia. Earlier this year, several planes carrying US soldiers and some military equipment took off from the Manas Transit Center near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

At a time when US armed forces must definitely leave Kyrgyz soil by July 11, the Pentagon has recently embarked upon relocating them to NATO's military base in Romania.

In the meantime, the future of the Manas International Airport, which has hosted foreign troops since the launch of the military campaign in Afghanistan over a decade ago, looks uncertain.

Kyrgyz authorities are genuinely interested in preserving cash flows from the airport, despite Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev's decision to do away with the US presence there.

In March, Manas airport director Ilim Karypbekov said that several overseas companies had expressed interest in taking control of Kyrgyzstan's key transport facility. They include Russia's oil giant Rosneft and a second Russian firm, Novaport, as well as three bidders from China such as China Machinery Engineering Corporation.

Moreover, the International Financial Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are also said to be in talks with the government over eventual participation in airport management at Manas.

While Kyrgyzstan is trying to ensure a semblance of competition for one of its core transport assets, Russia's desire to strengthen its stakes in the country is worthy of particularly close scrutiny.

Moscow was actually the first foreign capital to make known its intention to get hold of the Bishkek airport on concrete financial terms.

In late February, Rosneft head Igor Sechin, known to be one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest advisors, said that his company might spend up to $1 billion on the deal.

Besides its manifest interest in Manas, Rosneft has further secured the takeover of 50 percent of Intek, a fuel company operating at the second largest Kyrgyz airport in the southern city of Osh.

Another major recent acquisition of Russia's state-run oil firm is the Bishkek Fuel Company which owns a chain of gasoline stations located in the Kyrgyz capital.

Rosneft's efforts to consolidate its presence in Kyrgyzstan are complemented by Russian gas monopoly Gazprom's no less determined advance in that Central Asian republic.

Following July's agreement paving the way for the purchase of Kyrgyzgas by Gazprom for just $1, the two parties finalized the transfer of ownership on April 10.

Gazprom has committed itself to investing over $600 million into local gas infrastructure and paying off the company's $40 million debt. In exchange for that, it has become Kyrgyzstan's exclusive natural gas importer.

This new status enjoyed by the Russian state gas company does not sit well with the Kyrgyz opposition, while the ruling regime is already weakened by a depressed economy and chronic political turmoil.

Despite sporadic protests aimed against Moscow's growing influence over Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan seems unlikely to abandon its rapprochement with the Kremlin. Thus, Rosneft's chances to gain ground at Manas are stronger than ever before.

From the beginning of his presidency in December 2011, Atambayev has attempted to build closer ties with Russia. Partnership with Moscow is viewed from Bishkek as a way to counterbalance its complicated relations with both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, especially over the highly controversial issue of water use.

In 2012, Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed a bilateral agreement providing for the construction of a hydropower plant on the Naryn River.

Moreover, the new Kyrgyz government seems to be more pro-Russian than the previous cabinet of ministers headed by Zhantoro Satybaldiyev. His former deputy Dzhoomart Otorbayev, who has been prime minister since March 26, is said to be a relatively weak political figure and is therefore unlikely to directly oppose either Atambayev or his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, as far as Russian-Kyrgyz relations are concerned.

Bishkek's markedly pro-Russian foreign policy is of particular relevance with regard to the forthcoming signing of a multilateral pact establishing the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Although Kyrgyzstan will not become a party to it as of January 2015 when the EEU will come into force, Moscow's control over Kyrgyzgas, Manas and other critical Kyrgyz assets will seriously limit Bishkek's future margin for maneuver.

The author is a Paris-based international affairs expert who writes for the Jamestown Foundation and the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

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