ANALYSIS-U.S.-Russian rivalry on hold over Kyrgyzstan

By Christian Lowe

BISHKEK, March 29 (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan's change of power broke the
mould of recent revolutions in former Soviet republics because the
United States and Russia did not back opposing sides and neither
seemed greatly troubled by the outcome.

While revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were seen as proxy tussles
between Moscow and Washington, in Kyrgyzstan -- which has both
U.S. and Russian military bases on its territory -- the two were happy
to stand back.

The opposition leaders who took power last week after stick-wielding
supporters forced veteran President Askar Akayev to flee the Central
Asian country said both the United States and Russia could keep their
bases.

"With our revolution the U.S. and Russian attitude to our events has
been very neutral and neither had any envy or suspicions regarding
(the other's) intentions in Kyrgyzstan," said interim Foreign Minister
Roza Otunbayeva.

"These two bases are crucial for us," Otunbayeva told reporters on
Monday. "Russia is our close ally (and) ... we want to develop our
relations with the West and first of all with the United States."

STRATEGIC PRIZE

For Moscow and Washington the presence of the two air bases near the
capital Bishkek did not make Kyrgyzstan a strategic prize worth
fighting over like Ukraine and Georgia, many observers said.

Kyrgyzstan is small, poor and mountainous and, though it has a
Canadian-run gold mining concession, the country has none of the huge
oil and gas reserves of some Central Asian neighbours.

"It is not a geo-politically strategic country," said a Western
observer, declining to be identified. "It lacks currently the kind of
strategic resources that Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan enjoy."

A row of U.S. air force cargo planes glisten in the spring sunshine at
Kyrgyzstan's main civilian airport Manas about 30 km east of the
capital, while the snow-covered Tien Shan mountains loom in the
distance.

Since early 2002, the United States has turned part of the airport,
whose runway was built to handle Soviet bombers, into a base for
operations in nearby Afghanistan.

"It's actually the best of some bad options for getting supplies and
special gear into Afghanistan," said defence analyst Daniel Goure of
the Lexington Institute think-tank in the United States.

For Kyrgyzstan, where most people have to live on one dollar a day,
the base means an annual income of millions of dollars.

"NO U.S. FOOTHOLD"

But for Washington it is a convenient location for its supply planes.

"This was not set up as a U.S. foothold in Central Asia," said another
Western diplomat. "It would be wrong to say the U.S. getting the air
base here is part of a geo-political goal."

To the northwest of Bishkek lies Russia's Kant air base, opened in
October 2003 by President Vladimir Putin.

Moscow says the base is part of its contribution to the U.S-led war on
terrorism.

But one Western diplomat said its main function for Russia was to save
face after the United States opened a base in what had been seen as
Moscow's backyard.

"It is not really operational in an effective way," the diplomat said.

Kyrgyzstan, which shares a border with China, is a nominally Muslim
but overwhelmingly secular country of five million people.

Moscow and Washington say they are not alarmed by the revolution,
sparked by two rounds of parliamentary elections in February and March
the opposition accuses Akayev of rigging.

If Kyrgyzstan is not caught up in the rivalry between Moscow and
Washington, there is a third and increasingly important player
emerging in the region: China.

Western diplomats in Bishkek said the proximity of China had nothing
to do with the decision to open the U.S. base.

But one analyst disagreed. "(It) provides something for the Chinese to
think about," said Christopher Langton of the International Institute
for Strategic Studies in London.

(Additional reporting by Michael Steen in Bishkek, Oleg Shchedrov in
Moscow, Madeline Chambers in London and Reuters Washington bureau.)



03/29/05 14:09 ET