Last week, Kyrgyzstan announced that it will not renew its agreement with the United States that allowed NATO to use the Manas Air Base as a transit center for military units traveling to and from Afghanistan. Although Kyrgyzstan has threatened to close Manas in the past, in this instance it appears that the decision is permanent. Following the planned NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, Manas will no longer serve as a military center.
The response to the announcement was muted, in large part because the contract will end only after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan, meaning that the site can still be used as an exit point. Despite the diminished military importance of Manas following the 2014 withdrawal, the decision to close the transit center will nonetheless have important geopolitical consequences.
Earlier Kyrgyz attempts to close Manas were largely precipitated by Russian opposition. Like the United States, Russia views Kyrgyzstan as a military partner in Central Asia and leases an airbase at Kant, only 20 miles from Manas. Russia nearly succeeded in pressuring Kyrgyzstan in 2009, but the Kyrgyz reneged on the agreement after the US tripled the rent for the transit center to $60 million per year.
Kyrgyzstan presents the closure of the base as a practical measure that will allow Manas to operate as a civilian transit center now that NATO no longer requires the base for military transit purposes. However, the removal of the base will bring the Kyrgyz administration of president Kurmanbek Bakiyev closer to Russian interests in the region, and remove the largest point of contention between Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Simultaneously, US relations with Kyrgyzstan will wane as the United States will no longer shape policies designed to appease Kyrgyz leaders who have long felt lukewarm about the Manas agreement.
On a local level, the closure of Manas also means a shift in Kyrgyzstan’s budget and economic situation. In addition to losing the $60 million in US rent, Kyrgyzstan will lose the employment and contracts that have accompanied Manas. Reportedly, nearly one thousand companies within Kyrgyzstan have connections with Manas. Kyrgyz opposition to the closure has centered around the impact on the budget. Although a majority within the parliament voted in favor of the closure, a small number have expressed concerns about how the country will fill the $60 million gap.
So far, the US has remained quiet on the issue of the closure. In some ways, the end of the lease fits US interests well, since the US will maintain its connection to Manas long enough to withdraw from Afghanistan, but will also end its relatively expensive relationship with Manas at the end of the war.
However, the long term outcomes of the closure for US interests in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia more broadly remain to be seen. Kyrgyzstan operates largely within Russia’s orbit, but over the last several years the Manas lease has meant that US provided a counterweight to Russia’s pressures. The end of the lease will reshape Kyrgyz relations both with the West and with Russia.