BISHKEK -- The Russian regime is set to own the land on which a runway sits at its air base in Kyrgyzstan -- a move that has sparked widespread discontent among locals and politicians.
Russia has operated a joint air base at Kant since 2003 as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional military bloc co-ordinated by Moscow and to which Kyrgyzstan belongs.
For many years Russia did not pay to use Kyrgyz land and did not establish an agreement to pay rent until September 2012.
On June 12, Kyrgyzstan's parliament approved the third and final reading of a bill amending the agreement on Russian use of the military base, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Under the new deal, the runway at the base will belong to the Russian regime as it undergoes renovation and for 15 years after the completion of repairs.
Moscow is allocating 2 billion RUB ($28.6 million) to repair the asphalt, provided that the Kyrgyz parliament legalises Russian possession of the runway.
News of the transfer has provoked heated indignation both in political circles and among the public.
The text of the agreement had a number of shortcomings, said Ulukbek Ormonov, a member of parliament, as cited by the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
"You're saying now that if the right of ownership isn't transferred to Russia, it won't allocate funding to upgrade it," he said.
"We rented them a military air base. Let them repair it," he added.
Kyrgyzstan's Land Code prohibits the transfer of state land to other countries, said Gulnara Jurabayeva, a Bishkek-based human rights activist and a member of the Central Election Commission.
Kyrgyz authorities should be guided by local laws and national interests, she said.
"As a civil society activist, I don't understand why the legal ownership of the runway is being granted," Jurabayeva said, adding that the Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan does not operate transparently.
"We don’t know how planes and soldiers fly in and out of the country. It was previously considered a CSTO base, but now it will be only Russian. It's impossible to understand anything," she said.
The air base needs to operate transparently, while all the agreements between the two countries have been discussed publicly, she added.
"There is already concern that such an action will lead to the loss of the air base. This bill isn't in the interests of Kyrgyzstan's citizens, and that's why it's causing outrage," said Jurabayeva.
Bakyt Omurzakov, a Bishkek resident, cast doubt on the validity of the revised agreement.
"This is the first time I've heard strange wording like this -- the right of ownership to a concrete slab. Does that mean there's also a right to paving stone, gravel or tile?" he said, referring to the runway.
"History has shown that Russia has encroached on the territory of other countries and then stayed there, a Bishkek political analyst, Ruslan Akmatbek, told RFE/RL.
Threatening Kyrgyzstan's independence
The agreement recently ratified by the Kyrgyz parliament introduced amendments on raising the Russian lease payment for the Kant air base.
Surveys of the plots of land leased by Russia in 2017 ascertained that the base covered 924.52 hectares, rather than the 866.2 hectares indicated in documents, RFE/RL reported.
This means that Moscow had been underpaying Bishkek for five years.
Also in 2012, when the two sides first signed the agreement to pay rent, a combined Russian base encompassing four facilities was established in Kyrgyzstan: the Kant air base; an antisubmarine weapons-testing station in Karakol, near Lake Issyk-Kul; a communication centre in the village of Chaldovar; and an autonomous seismic station in Mailu-Suu.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyz citizens are uneasy about Russia's intensifying military presence in the country.
"Suppose sometime in the future we hear a slogan of Russian flag-wavers: 'Kant is ours!'?" asked Omurbek Dyikanbayev, a Kant resident, alluding to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent appearance of the Russian-language hashtag "Crimea is ours".
An even-handed, in-depth public discussion should have taken place, said Emil Umetaliyev, an entrepreneur and former Kyrgyz economy minister.
"It seems that this decision is leading us away from the path of building a democracy, which we embarked on in the 1990s. The most important question is whether we are still faithful to the oath to protect our independence," he told RFE/RL.