I recently had the opportunity to take a trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan with the CEO of Phenix Brands, former Marine “Godfather,” and creator of Mig Fuel, Ray Edwards. The trip was business in nature but I wanted to take the opportunity to get some information on the political climate firsthand. Due to Ray’s business relationship with the people on the ground, he had made good friends with senior military leadership of the country.
Lucky for me, the Kyrgyz’ love of vodka, bathhouses, and camaraderie provided me with an opportunity to learn how they perceive their current situation and where they want to go. I quickly discovered that the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people was something I had not seen in many of the other countries to which I have traveled. You could tell that they truly cared, and were engaged with you during conversation. They also work very diligently to find common ground to build a relationship upon.
Once we arrived in Bishkek at 0400, we were met at the gate by someone who took our baggage tags and shuffled us into private transportation. (We never saw this guy again.) We then arrived at a private waiting room where we were greeted by the man who runs the Manas International Airport as well as other key leaders in the country. We had chai and exchanged pleasantries while they got our bags.
We were soon en route to the hotel via police escort and armed guard. As we passed through intersections, I noticed that the adjacent streets were blocked off by police officers. It was about a 30-minute ride from the Manas Airport to the hotel. Every intersection along the way had been cordoned off prior to our arrival.
So there I was, drinking vodka with senior leaders of the Kyrgyzstan military and prominent businessmen in a bathhouse, wearing a well-made white robe. I was slightly worried at first about how they’d react to my presence given their country’s history of fighting alongside the Soviets in Afghanistan during the ’80s, and of course our country’s history of ‘intervening’ in that conflict. I quickly learned that they respected me due to my background, given that I had experience on the same battlefield. They saw it as a warrior bond not bound by a country, and offered respect because of it.
Kyrgyzstan and Russia
When Operation Enduring Freedom began, we used Manas Air Base as a transit site for U.S. personnel going in and out of Afghanistan. In June of 2014, Americans vacated the base and handed it back over to the Kyrgyz military. You would think that with the U.S. presence draw-down, the Russian military would have experienced an increase. It did not.
Manas Air Base, now known as the Transit Center at Manas, has been largely transformed, seeing an increase in civil operations and an increase in cargo operations by Turkish Airways and AEROflot Russian Airlines. No Russian training operations have been allowed there, nor have they used any of the property. This has all been restricted to Kant Air Base.
Currently, Russia operates Kant (pronounced “kunt“) in similar fashion to how Manas was operated. It is a sovereign territory observed as if it were Russian territory. At Kant, they operate fixed-wing and rotary-wing Russian fighters, transports, and refueling and aerial support platforms. These are primarily meant to provide support to Kyrgyzstan as part of the Border Protection Agreement under CIS, and would continue in transition should Kyrgyzstan enter the customs union.
Additionally, part of the operations there include adjunct support to the outlying borders of the federation’s interest—an extension of their first-strike capability. Under the current agreement with Russia, Russia provides training and support to Kyrgyz military units using their common weapons systems and platforms.
To maintain their relationship with the U.S., Kyrgyzstan conducts no direct operations on behalf of the Russian military. Everything the Russian military does is out of Kant airbase, anyway.
The closure of the Manas Transit Center seems to have curbed U.S. military support beyond the embassy. The U.S. previously had a strong presence in the country, the Marine Corps and Army Special Forces conducting joint training exercises with the Kyrgyz Spetnaz. The country’s leaders expressed to me that they’ve noticed, with the involvement of the U.S. decreasing, an increase in the radical Muslim population.
The battle against Muslim extremism
What I found very interesting was Kyrgyzstan’s lack of acceptance of radical Muslims, even though they are a Muslim country. There is zero tolerance for Muslim extremists in Kyrgyzstan. Since 2012, there has been an increase in radicalization of Islamic factions within Kyrgyz groups. The largest threats at present are Hizb ut- Tahrir, Salafi, and Akromiya.
Last month, in two incidents, imams who were connected with and vocally supportive of ISIS were detained and arrested in south and central Kyrgyzstan. In both cases, proof of ISIS and terrorist support was found, including weapons and financial streams. Additionally, the visits of mullahs and other influential dealers of radicalism have increased almost 300 percent in the past 18 months. Local journalists have noted that the practicing of rituals and culture of the Muslim faith have significantly increased in the past two years, especially in the territories outside of prominent city zones.
I was curious what their thoughts were on the current status of ethnic tension in Osh since the revolution. Their response was that it was pretty tame; there have only been a few border skirmishes and the annexation of one small town. The Osh situation seems to have stabilized. The current regime blamed the family of the former leader for the 2010 revolution that destabilized the country.
The Chinese have continued investing in Kyrgyzstan in the hopes of preventing the country from joining the Customs Union. If it does join, this will have a profound impact on Chinese trade in Kyrgyzstan, which represents a third of the products imported into Kyrgyzstan. An additional energy project has been announced to transport large-scale gas supplies into Kyrgyzstan through China along the newly opened ‘Silk Road Economic Belt.’
The Eurasian Economic Union
Since my trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan has joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). There have been mixed feelings about this move by different demographics in the country, as well as a wave of fresh incentives to garner Kyrgyz favoritism. Russia has provided over $500 million in aid, forgiveness of $300 million in debt, and the facilitation of additional subsidies for gas from GAZPROM (a Russian energy company). The older populace—those who lived during Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet Union era—seemed to feel that it was a good thing, and that it would unite them with Russia once again.
The younger generation and small-business owners, however, seemed to be adamantly against the country’s move, as it will cause a several-year reduction in the economy at first. There are no Western chains in Kyrgyzstan, so there is a sizable presence of small businesses providing goods and services throughout the country. Those of the younger generations seem to possess a more Western perspective.
The common fight
So, again, there I was in a robe in a bathhouse with a bunch of Kyrgyz Spetnaz commanders shouting the Russian saying, “Welcome to Russian Hell.” The Kyrgyz have a tradition of each person saying a toast around the table throughout the night. This makes it hard to have a conversation, as it typically just results in everyone doing shots as we go around the table toasting, “To your health” with Russin vodka. Ironic, right?
What I found interesting was that the final toast, hoisted by men from two countries previously divided, went as such: “To us collectively fighting terrorism.”
Featured image shows author at range day with Kygrz Spetznaz.