Dual investigations probe Manas fuel sales

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — As deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the country, both the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan's provisional government are investigating the sale of fuel to the crucial Manas air base outside of Bishkek. Among the questions: Were members of Bakiyev’s family involved in the fuel trade, and did the U.S. pay an inflated price? 

The questions are crucial, since outrage over the Bakiyevs’ alleged participation in the fuel trade is stoking sentiments among the population to close Manas altogether — at a moment when the base provides an increasingly critical supply hub for the U.S.-led escalation of the war in neighboring Afghanistan.  

Today the ousted Kyrgyz leader flew from Kyrgyzstan to neighboring Kazakhstan, capping a turbulent day in which gunfire erupted while Bakiyev was attending a rally in the southern city Osh. Last week, Bakiyev fled to the south, his powerbase, after blood-soaked clashes between demonstrators and security forces left at least 84 dead. 

Agency reports said that Bakiyev’s security detail fired into the air at the Osh rally when the gathering was challenged by about a thousand anti-Bakiyev demonstrators. Bakiyev left for Kazakhstan to continue talks to resolve the crisis. 

The president’s departure will not halt investigations on either side of the globe, however. Today Temir Sariev, finance minister in the provisional government that replaced Bakiyev, said that he is compiling a list of the Bakiyev family’s holdings. In the United States, a congressional subcommittee is trying to determine if the U.S. government willingly turned a blind eye to allegations of corruption surrounding the procurement and sale of fuel at the Kyrgyz air base. 

“It has been alleged to not have been a fair market price for the fuel,” said Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the national security and foreign affairs subcommittee, part of Congress’ committee on oversight and government reform. “It's part of the investigation. We're looking into that.” 

Tierney added that the committee’s investigations have indicated so far that fuel is dramatically less expensive just a half-hour drive away from the base. He could not provide any further details however. 

Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who is visiting Bishkek, said "the U.S. is committed to full transparency in regard to contracts. If there were irregularities, we are prepared to review and possibly rebid the contracts."

One of the main points contributing to the base’s unpopularity is the widely-held (but so far unproven) perception here — fortified by accusations from the provisional government — that U.S. officials permitted Maksim Bakiyev, the president’s son, to reap millions from the fuel trade at the base.

Although the Bakiyevs' involvement would not necessarily break any U.S. or Kyrgyz laws, their participation could potentially cause lasting damage to America’s reputation in the region, given that Washington appears open to the accusation of cozying up to a corrupt regime.

The mechanics of Maksim Bakiyev’s involvement in the fuel trade — if he was indeed involved — are so far unclear, however. Mina Corporation, a Gibralter-based services company run by an ex-U.S. military attache, Chuck Squires, holds the fuel supply contract for Manas. GlobalPost has so far not received an answer to an email (to an address that Squires himself provided), asking if Mina did business with any companies associated with the younger Bakiyev. 

Fuel sales to Manas moreover are a highly controversial subject in Kyrgyzstan. The family of Bakiyev’s predecessor (President Askar Akayev, who was also overthrown in a popular uprising) earned millions by selling to Manas. Bakiyev, when he came to power, accused U.S. officials of complicity in the Akayevs’ enrichment and demanded compensation. 

Given the potential damage to America’s reputation in the region, U.S. representatives decided to look into whether the Bakiyev regime was also involved in fuel sales. Tierney acknowledged however that much of the information is submerged. 

“It's hard to find the exact connections,” he said. “It is presumed publicly that the connections are there — but nothing concrete.” 

At the same time, the congressman would like to know if the U.S. government itself explored the allegations of the Bakiyev family’s involvement.

“The allegations of corruption at the base and the selling of fuel began in 2005,” he said. “We want to know what [U.S. officials] knew? When did they know it? And what should they have known?”

Manas air base is a major troop transit and re-fueling hub and its importance has spiked since President Barack Obama announced a surge of troops into Afghanistan, in an effort to quell the Taliban. Further boosting Manas’ significance is the fact that the preferred overland supply route through Pakistan has come under increased attack in recent months.

Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s acting leader, has said that her government will honor its standing agreements. Philip J. Crowley, U.S. State Department spokesperson, said yesterday that Washington had notified the Kyrgyz that it would renew the lease on the base in July, according to a five-year agreement that is renewed annually.

“As far as I know, the interim [Kyrgyz] administration has indicated that it plans to make no changes with respect to that agreement,” Crowley said at the daily state department briefing, according to a published transcript.

But the base’s continued presence in Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous nation wedged against the Chinese border, is nonetheless still an open question.

The provisional government is divided on the issue. Deputy Prime Minister Azimbek Beknazarov said that he is for closing it down. Otunbayeva, for her part, said also that there are “questions” over the lease deal between the Bakiyev government and Washington. The agreement’s details, for example, have never been published, she said.