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Kyrgyzstan ditching US military influence in favor of Russia's?

Fred WeirThe Christian Science Monitor

Russian President Vladimir Putin, visiting the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan Thursday, cut a new deal with Kyrgyz leader Almazbek Atambayev that will strengthen Moscow's military and economic presence in the former Soviet region even as it sets the stage for the departure of the US from Manas airbase near Bishkek in about two years.

Mr. Putin won a 15-year extension of Moscow's lease on Kant airbase, where about 600 Russian servicemen and a small squadron of warplanes are based. Kyrgyzstan's request for a rent increase above the $4.5 million Moscow has payed annually since 2003 was not met, but Putin agreed to gradually write off Kyrgyzstan's nearly half-billion dollar debt to Russia.

In exchange, Moscow will take large stakes in several Kyrgyz industries, especially the Dastan torpedo plant near the remote mountain lake Issyk Kul, which post-Soviet Russia has long coveted, because it manufactures the hyperfast VA-111 Shkval underwater rocket, one of the world's most advanced weapons.

As for the US airbase at Manas, which the Kremlin has repeatedly asked Kyrgyzstan to close, Mr. Atambayev said he recently informed Washington that the US will have to vacate the facility after its lease expires in 2014. A joint statement by the two leaders said that "Kyrgyzstan intends to transform the transit center at Manas airport into a civilian facility free of any military component." Putin denied that he played any role in the Kyrgyz decision to shut the US out of Manas.

But the years of secret infighting between Moscow and Washington over the base's fate was recently discussed in a public lecture by US Moscow Ambassador Mike McFaul, who subsequently faced a severe rebuke from the Russian Foreign Ministry for bringing it up. Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous republic of 5.5 million at Asia's heart, never had much in the way of industry or resources and has been badly buffeted by two revolutions in the past decade.

By some accounts, the Kyrgyz government is nearly bankrupt after running a budget deficit of 30 percent for the second year in a row. In addition to debt relief, Russia is offering up to $5 billion to help build hydroelectric plants and other desperately needed infrastructure. Growing Russian influence tracks well with Putin's aim of creating a Eurasian Union of former Soviet states to offset US influence and restore some of the economic and strategic synergies that Russia lost when the USSR was disbanded two decades ago. Moscow, increasingly alarmed over the threat of regional chaos when NATO forces leave Afghanistan in 2014, is also moving to shore up its ties with Tajikistan, another former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan.

"A Russian military presence both in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is a significant factor in stability," Putin said in a joint news conference with Atambayev on Thursday. Atambayev appeared to agree. "We are entwined with Russia by a common history and destiny," he replied. "We cannot have a future without Russia."