The Kyrgyz crisis and regional security

An ethnic Uzbek boy stand in front of a burnt house in the Osh district Unadyr, southern Kyrgyzstan, Thursday, June 24, 2010.   | Photo Credit: Sergey Ponomarev

Indian discourse on regional security has traditionally paid scant attention to the country's extended neighbourhood of Central Asia. No discourse on the Afghan problem will be complete without co-relating it with the geopolitics of Central Asia, and yet our strategic thinkers somehow manage without it.

The crisis in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan no doubt holds out grave implications for regional security and India cannot remain impervious to them. Kyrgyzstan too is a land-locked country like Afghanistan that at once becomes highly susceptible to foreign interference. Again, the deepening crisis in Kyrgyzstan contains a mirror image of almost all the elements associated with the Afghan civil war. The international community's reaction to the Kyrgyz crisis, especially the glaring absence of a coordinated regional response, is bound to cast shadows on the endgame in Afghanistan.

Briefly, the established government in Kyrgyzstan headed by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in April in a bloody uprising whose mainsprings still remain to be fully understood. Conspiracy theories are aplenty and the great game theorists hastened to view the uprising as the manifestation of a proxy struggle for regional influence between the United States and Russia. But these estimations remain insufficient to explain the eddies that have since surfaced. True, a range of protagonists are available on the Kyrgyz political landscape in recent years with the capacity to directly or indirectly fuel instability — Islamist militants, terrorist groups affiliated to the Al Qaeda and based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, Uighur separatists, the drug mafia and criminal networks and so on. These forces are willing to be pawns of big powers striving to carve out “spheres of influence” in Central Asia while acting as agents of regime change.

Added to this are the objective realities of post-Soviet Central Asia — the nascent stage of state formation, chronic problems of poverty and economic disarray, gross mis-governance, rampant corruption and cronyism, incessant clan struggle, weak regional integration processes, and so on, — and the brew becomes explosive indeed. That is, even leaving out the backlog of history in the form of the unresolved nationality question dating back to the Soviet era when Joseph Stalin arbitrarily carved Turkestan into “autonomous republics” that today appear on the map as the five “Stans” of Central Asia.

The interim power structure in Bishkek headed by Roza Otunbayeva, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to the U.S. and the United Kingdom, who replaced Mr. Bakiyev in April, has found it hard to consolidate power and to gain political legitimacy. The interim government comprises disparate elements that came together to oust Mr. Bakiyev but are increasingly falling apart in the pursuit of raw power. They have been exposed as being ineffectual when large-scale ethnic violence involving ethnic Kyrgyz Uzbeks erupted in the southern regions of Osh and Jalalabad resulting in the death of hundreds of people. (In Ms Otunbayeva's estimation, close to 2,000 people were killed.) Whether the brutal violence was pre-meditated remains unclear, but it took the form of an ethnic pogrom against ethnic Uzbeks, who form roughly 15 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's population and are concentrated in the southern regions.

That Osh is an extension of Ferghana Valley adds a sensitive dimension to the crisis since the latter region has been historically the cradle of political dissent and religious extremism in Central Asia. As if all this were not enough, Kyrgyzstan is the only country where both the U.S. and Russia maintain military bases, which overlook Russia's “soft underbelly” and can eavesdrop on China's volatile Xinjiang province. In short, the Kyrgyz denouement at once becomes a litmus test of big-power equations in the contemporary international system.

There are several templates to the Kyrgyz crisis that are impacting on regional security. One, the genesis of the crisis lies in the 2005 “colour revolution” driven by the neoconservative agenda of the George W. Bush administration to introduce western-style democracy in the post-Soviet space. Clearly, countries like Kyrgyzstan or Afghanistan have their history and traditions of governance, and imported ideologies simply do not work in the local milieu. Just as well that Afghan President Hamid Karzai finally began charting his own path to develop his political base and consolidate power. Equally, Ms Otunbayeva may be an amiable figure for the U.S. strategic community but her staying power in Bishkek ultimately depends on her power base — which seems narrow, to say the least.

Two, both Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan suffer from the absence of any regional security architecture. There has been no regional initiative to address the Kyrgyz crisis. At the end of the day, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) limited its role to one of mounting a team of observers to monitor the national referendum in Kyrgyzstan on June 27 apropos of a new constitution and the parliamentary elections in September. The SCO summit in Tashkent did not contemplate any role to try to stem the cascading violence in Osh.

Three, neither the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) — in sum, neither Russia nor the U.S. — has shown willingness to depute peacekeeping forces to Kyrgyzstan despite the desperate cry from Bishkek for intervention by foreign forces to put down the violence. The CSTO lacks a rapid reaction force and some of the member-countries like Uzbekistan remain ambivalent about creating the precedent of outside intervention in the name of collective security. Similarly, NATO, despite pretensions of becoming a global security organisation, did not volunteer to wet its toes in a peacekeeping role, given its overstretch in Afghanistan and the battle fatigue. Ideally, NATO and the CSTO could act in concert. But then, Washington disfavours any move that amounts to tacit acceptance of the Moscow-led alliance's pivotal role in the post-Soviet republics' security.

For fear of repeating their respective “Afghan experiences,” Moscow and Washington remain chary of any direct military intervention in Kyrgyzstan, either. Indeed, there is a real danger that any foreign interventionist force could get bogged down in a Kyrgyz quagmire.

Of course, the “great game” remains a key subplot. For Washington, the airbase in Manas is not only a vital hub for rotating its troops in Afghanistan but also a useful “listening post” close to Xinjiang's border and Russia's vast open space. Washington banks on its excellent equations with Ms Otunbayeva to ensure that Bishkek does not demand the vacation of the Manas base. For this reason, the U.S. would prefer any peacekeeping initiatives in Kyrgyzstan to be left in the hands of the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe rather than a Moscow-led alliance that might browbeat Bishkek. To be sure, Russia and China remain wary of U.S. intentions. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Moscow expects the U.S. to quit Manas once the NATO-led Afghan operations ends. China too revealed its mind when the Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Beijing, “China has taken note of the CSTO meeting on the Kyrgyzstan situation and understands the organisation's efforts to preserve peace and stability in Central Asia.”

Evidently, the U.S. does not see eye to eye with Russia and China on regional security in Central Asia. Meanwhile, Washington maintains constructive ambiguity about setting a timeline regarding Manas. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake has visited Bishkek twice since the April uprising. It is during times like this that the “hidden agenda” of the ostensible war on terror in Afghanistan surfaces — and Washington's dependence on Pakistan to transform the Afghan war becomes comprehensible.

The fault lines in Kyrgyzstan form an extension of the geopolitics of the Afghan war, where the U.S., unsurprisingly, shows reluctance to give up its monopoly of conflict resolution. An open-ended American military presence is on the cards. Without doubt, it is the Islamists and the drug mafia who stand to gain most from the big power rivalry in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The radicalisation of Kyrgyz politics is only likely to accelerate in the event of the return of the Taliban into mainstream politics in Kabul in whatever form, which, in turn, will give a fillip to the Islamist forces that are already active in Ferghana Valley. The Kyrgyz developments are in this sense a wake-up call regarding the profound implications of an Afghan settlement involving reconciliation with the Taliban.

Finally, it is only through patient economic reconstruction that the roots of instability can be eliminated in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Whereas the Afghan economy was devastated by three decades of modern war, the Kyrgyz economy got derailed with the disintegration of the Soviet material supply system. The prerequisite of economic reconstruction is security, to safeguard which sustained international commitment is needed both in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is fortunate insofar as it does not face the sort of foreign interference that Afghanistan faces from Pakistan. Its two big neighbours — Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — have behaved with restraint. The big question is: what happens if the Kyrgyz statehood continues to dissolve.

( The writer is a former diplomat.)

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