|Kyrgyzstan's new president, Almazbek Atambayev|
In one of his first statements as Kyrgyzstan’s new president, Almazbek Atambayev said Tuesday that he would seek to close an important American military base when its lease runs out in 2014, reviving a threat dropped by past leaders after the United States agreed to increased payments.Officially called a “transit center,” the base, which is at the Manas airport close to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, has been a crucial supply hub for the war in Afghanistan since 2001 and is the only one of its kind in Central Asia.Mr. Atambayev, a former prime minister who won the presidency in an election on Sunday, had
indicated earlier that he would seek to close the base. On Tuesday, after his victory was all but confirmed, he told journalists that he feared the that base would become a security risk for his country.
“We know that the United States is often engaged in military conflicts,” he said in Bishkek, according to news reports. “There was Iraq and Afghanistan, and now there are tensions with Iran. I would not want any of these countries to launch a retaliatory strike on the military base one day.”
In 2009, Washington persuaded Kyrgyzstan’s president at the time, Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev, to keep the base open by agreeing to pay over $40 million a year extra in rent and provide an expensive renovation of the Manas airport.
Despite the calls to close the base, Kyrgyz officials, in particular Roza Otunbayeva, the departing president, have expressed fears over a possible security vacuum when and if the United States leaves the region. In such a case, Ms. Otunbayeva has said Kyrgyzstan should look to Russia for security.
Indeed, relations with Moscow may have been a significant factor in Tuesday’s announcement. Russia, which maintains its own military base in Kyrgyzstan, has long been uncomfortable with the idea of an American military installation in a region it deems its sphere of exclusive influence. Pressure from Moscow is widely believed to be the reason Mr. Bakiyev initially ordered the base closed in 2009.
Many of Kyrgyzstan’s newest leaders now view Russia as their country’s most reliable ally. A Russian propaganda campaign against Mr. Bakiyev is credited with helping to pave the way for the mass protests that ousted him from power in April 2010.
Mr. Atambayev has met with Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s prime minister, on several occasions, and has said he would like Kyrgyzstan to join a Russian-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
On Tuesday, Mr. Atambayev said he envisioned building some kind of civilian object in place of the American base, “perhaps together with Russia, the United States or any other interested country.”
He added that closing the base was not a political decision, and said that it could remain open until the end of its lease in 2014. That is the year when President Obama has said he would like to hand over responsibility for security in Afghanistan to the country’s leaders and complete a withdrawal of troops from the region.
American officials did not immediately respond to Mr. Atambayev’s announcement, and it is unclear how or if the closing of the Manas base will affect the withdrawal schedule.