Outgoing Kyrgyz leader: fate of US base uncertain

November 29, 2011 - 9:35 AM

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Kyrgyzstan's outgoing president said Tuesday that the decision on whether to allow the U.S. air base to remain in the country after its lease ends in 2014 depends on developments in nearby Afghanistan.

Roza Otunbayeva said she favors turning the Manas base at the capital's main airport into a civilian aviation facility, but conceded that the illegal drug trafficking business poses a security threat to Kyrgyzstan.

The United States has used the base in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation as a key logistical hub for military operations in Afghanistan since 2001.

Otunbayeva's successor, Almaz Atambayev, who will take power on Thursday, has said the base should be closed when the lease expires out of fears that it could leave Kyrgyzstan vulnerable to retaliatory strikes from targets of U.S. military action.

Manas has been the subject of protracted wrangling between successive Kyrgyz governments and the United States over the size of lease payments. That has prompted some observers to speculate that Kyrgyz authorities may be willing to extend the lease past the current June 2014 expiration date in exchange for better commercial terms.

Also in her final statement Tuesday, Otunbayeva voiced pride at the progress she says her country has made in deepening democratic values.

Atambayev won more than 60 percent of votes in October's election, easily pushing aside nationalist rivals. Authorities hope his presidency will usher in a period of political stability in a country that has been roiled over the past year and a half by political and ethnic violence.

Otunbayeva took over after the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010 and often struggled to impress her authority on a country that looked on the verge of collapse.

For all the enduring tensions bubbling under the surface, Otunbayeva said her government had managed to pursue an agenda of transparency and equality.

"There are no people here that do not see themselves in this country, nobody is being harassed, nobody is being persecuted," she said.

Those claims will likely ring hollow to many members of the minority ethnic Uzbek community, however, who complain that they were disproportionately singled out for police action after a wave of ethnic clashes in June 2010 that left almost 500 people dead. The Uzbek minority, which suffered the heaviest losses in the violence, has seen its role in the local economy relentlessly stamped out.

The most notable achievement registered under Otunbayeva's 20-month leadership has been the transition to a more parliamentary style of government and the watering down of the presidency.

Central Asia is a region dominated by strongman presidents, and Kyrgyzstan's attempt to forge a model of governance that uneasily balances the various branches of power is viewed with barely veiled hostility by neighboring countries. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that the parliamentary system could prove catastrophic for Kyrgyzstan.