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Moscow is interpreting the opening of a U.S. military base in Central Asia as a desire for America to develop a “permanent military presence” in a “traditional zone of Russian influence,” according to official Russian sources.

The new base in Kyrgyzstan, used by the American military in anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, will give the U.S. a “pretext for penetrating” into an area which Moscow still considers to be vital to Russian interests.

The statements were broadcast by the Voice of Russia World Service, the official broadcasting service of the Russian government.

The Voice of Russia’s remarks came in response to both the opening of a U.S. rapid deployment base at the airport in Manas, and the visit to Central Asia by a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

The U.S. states that the Manas base is intended as a center for anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, but the Moscow broadcast stated flatly that “this should not be taken as true,” claiming that the base is the beginning of a long-lasting military presence.

The Kyrgyz government has given the U.S. permission to use the base for one year, and reports indicate that the facility will be home to several thousand troops, an undetermined number of whom could be Kyrgyz soldiers.

The Lieberman delegation also came under severe criticism, accused of having both an “official” and more questionable “unofficial” purpose for its trip.

Officially, the visiting senators are acknowledged as assessing the social and military situation, while unofficially they are seen by Moscow as having a “much more important agenda” of examining prospects for U.S. influence in the region.

Central Asia is known to possess vast quantities of oil, natural gas and precious metals. The region’s geographic position in relation to the Middle and Far East gives it great strategic value.

The itinerary of the Lieberman delegation has included Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Central Asia, as well as visits to Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf state of Oman.

Russia has continually sought to maintain firm control of Central Asia, beginning with the Tsarist conquest of the region in the 19th century and continuing with the formation of Soviet republics during the era of the USSR.

Following the collapse of the USSR, thousands of Russian scientists, teachers and technicians fled Central Asia to escape the eruption of anti-Russian hostility and steadily worsening economic conditions in the newly independent Central Asian nations.

As the first blush of Central Asian nationalism subsided, Russian experts began to return to the region, and native experts were trained in Russian schools and universities. At the same time, Moscow continually sought to work closely with the Central Asian heads of state, all of whom had close ties to the former Soviet power structure.

Over the past decade, Moscow has succeeded not only in firming political relations with Central Asia, but also extending its cultural dominance over the region.

In Kyrgyzstan, Russian is the preferred language of the news media. Russian language newspapers, radio and television stations are more popular than their Kyrgyz-language counterparts.

Politically, Kyrgyzstan stands with Moscow.

In February 2000, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev declared that his government would seek to join the Union State of Russia and neo-communist Belarus. Akayev stated that the possibility of joining the Union “has been received,” and that “step by step we are going toward such integration [with Russia],” affirming that Russia “remains our main strategic partner.”

Although Kyrgyzstan thus far has been the sole state in Central Asia to express overt interest in joining the Union State of Russia and Belarus, a number of bi-lateral and multi-lateral arrangements exist to anchor the region close to Moscow.

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