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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyz Pressuring U.S. Over Air Base

ReutersU.S. soldiers standing at attention at the Manas air base on Monday as Colonel T. Harrison Smith Jr. takes over command of the unit from Colonel Joel Reese.
MANAS AIR BASE, Kyrgyzstan -- Alexei Mischenko's job driving a garbage truck at the U.S. military base here doesn't just provide him with a steady income of $200 per month. It offers him a front-row seat for a high-stakes, international political struggle.

As Mischenko collects the trash, fighter pilots from a nearby Russian base occasionally scream overhead, rattling nerves and causing U.S. airmen to scramble.

"They immediately begin to panic, grab their binoculars and look at the sky," Mischenko said with a smile. "But the fighter is already gone."

Small, poor and politically unstable, Kyrgyzstan is nevertheless being aggressively courted by three major powers -- Russia, China and the United States. Central Asia has been a strategic crossroads for thousands of years and remains so today. But its importance is growing due to the region's vast natural gas and oil reserves and soaring world energy prices.

When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrives in Kyrgyzstan early this month, he will find pressure from Russia and China, as well as some Kyrgyz officials, to close the air base. It is a key outpost of U.S. military might in the campaign against international terror.

The U.S. military and its Kyrgyz hosts have faced conflict and misunderstandings. There have been disputes over payments, a fatal shooting and the mysterious reported kidnapping of an American.

When Kyrgyzstan's only Tu-154 passenger airliner -- which doubled as the president's personal jet -- was damaged in a collision with a taxiing U.S. military tanker, the U.S. blamed Kyrgyz air-traffic controllers while the government blamed the U.S. tanker crew.

Putin, sensing an opportunity, stepped in and generously donated a new presidential plane.

Bagauddin Gasanov, who runs the fire company at Manas airport, which shares the field with the U.S. base, complained that Americans never accept the blame when something goes wrong. "They think because they are paying us dollars, they can do anything," he said.

Last December a U.S. serviceman shot and killed a Kyrgyz driver at the base, purportedly after he threatened the airman with a knife. Co-workers of the slain man said U.S. airmen did not treat them with respect.

The Russian military wants Kyrgyzstan to oust the U.S. base, said Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asian analyst. That will not happen soon, he said, but only because there are more important issues dividing Washington and Moscow.

Many Kyrgyz said that if the Americans were sent packing, they would not miss the base, its generous local salaries or the 1,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there.

"Their mentality is totally different," said Lyudmila Fomina, a retired economist from Bishkek. "Russia is closer. We marry one another, we share one culture, language."

Gulya Abdyldayeva, a 50-year-old teacher from Bishkek, noted that thousands of Kyrgyz depend for their survival on money sent to them by relatives working in Russia. She's not sure what the U.S. base provides.

"How long has it been here, two years? Is it of any use for us?" she asked. "All I hear about the base is that someone was killed there, that someone was shot."

Manas, though, remains a significant revenue source for the Kyrgyz government.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev last year threatened to evict U.S. forces unless Washington agreed to pay 10 times more for use of the base, from $20 million to $200 million.

The United States eventually agreed to pay Kyrgyzstan $150 million in 2006, in the form of aid and rent.