Russia's long-heralded military base in Kyrgyzstan, due to be opened this summer as a counterweight to the American base at Manas, is nowhere near to completion, IWPR can reveal.
The Russians have already postponed the official opening of the Kant aerodrome twice, at the beginning of June this year, and again in July, and this IWPR reporter found that it still existed only on paper, on a visit to the site.
The aerodrome, 20 kilometers from the capital, Bishkek, has been waiting eight months to be granted official status as a component of Russia's Collective Rapid Deployment Forces.
But IWPR found no evidence that major construction work had even started. A display stand on the site claimed construction at the aerodrome had begun on April 7.
So far, the Russians have laid concrete over a large area and built a new barracks for about 100 people. But the only recent work that IWPR could observe was a small group of Russian soldiers pouring tar into gaps between concrete slabs on the runway.
An independent news agency AKIpress, citing foreign media reports, said Moscow had invested 70 million rubles (2.3 million dollars) in reanimating the former military site, but the concrete runway and the new barracks are unlikely to have cost this much.
Two Russian Su-25 fighter planes were spotted at the aerodrome, under the guard of a young Russian soldier.
The hundred or so Russians at the base, comprising soldiers, officers, technicians and builders, live in the barracks but say they do not yet feel comfortable on Kyrgyz soil.
We are “nobodies” here, we-re more like guests, complained Vladimir Samsonov, a Russian airforce ensign.
We even have to bring groceries from Russia, because we don-t have the right to buy anything from local producers.
Kyrgyz defense minister Esen Topoev blamed technical hitches for the delay in opening the base at a press conference on July 9.
He said the final agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Russia on the facility was "currently being examined by the government".
A Russian embassy official in Bishkek, Sergei Tsetsenko, confirmed. The agreement has to go through many ministries and departments, and each one tries to make its own amendments.
But financial troubles are also widely held to be responsible for the slow pace of work.
Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, an opposition Kyrgyz deputy, told IWPR. The Russians do not have enough financial resources. They are not in any hurry now, because they have got their space for themselves, and have shown they don’t intend to lose their sphere of influence."
As Kadyrbekov suggested, rivalry between Moscow and Washington has played a key role in the affair.
Russia is intensely jealous of the US, which appropriated the old civilian airport at Manas in December 2001 as a hub for its military operations against the Taleban government in Afghanistan.
Moscow was dismayed when Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev agreed, saying this was his country's contribution to the fight against international terrorism.
The deal ruffled feathers in Moscow, which regards the former Soviet republic as part of its own sphere of influence.
Vladimir Sidora, the Kyrgyz deputy commander of the Kant base, confirmed that big-power rivalry lay behind Russia's determination to open the base. Russia decided to gain a foothold in Kyrgyzstan because the American base appeared here," he said.
"If the Americans hadn’t stationed themselves in Manas, the Russians wouldn’t have deployed their forces here.
Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin referred openly to this rivalry when he arrived in Kyrgyzstan on July 5 for a vacation. Russia is displeased with the stationing of American soldiers in Kyrgyzstan," he declared.
"Central Asia is Russia-s zone of interest. But my friend Askar Akaev has promised me that as soon as the [US] agreement expires, the Americans will leave.
Some Moscow commentators have offered other explanations for the slow progress. A Russian Academy of Sciences expert, cited in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on July 8, linked the delay to Kremlin worries about spoiling relations with Uzbekistan, which is regularly in confrontation with Kyrgyzstan.
But Russian diplomats in Bishkek dismissed this as a red herring. Relations with Uzbekistan have nothing at all to do with it," one said.
One Russian journalist has suggested that the delays have more to do with the schedule of the Russian president than with diplomatic concerns or even money worries.
Arkady Dubnov said the Moscow authorities might well want to open the base in the presence of President Putin, whose schedule does not yet permit him to visit Kyrgyzstan. We never have any money, but money can always be found for things like this, he suggested.
By Leila Saralaeva,
IWPR's Reporting Central Asia No. 217, July 15, 2003