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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII No 27, June 26, 2010

Russia peers into Kyrgyz Void

Sunday 27 June 2010, by M K Bhadrakumar

Eighteen is a difficult age to own decisions or assume responsibility—especially concerning the fortunes of wayward younger siblings. By a curious coincidence, Russia has been tasked with taking a monumental decision of assuming responsibility on the 18th anniversary of its national day when on Saturday (June 12) the Kremlin received a formal communication from the President of the interim government of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbayeva.

By Otunbayeva’s own description, “We need the arrival of outside forces to calm the situation down. The situation in Osh [in southern Kyrgyzstan] is out of control. Attempts to establish dialogue have failed, and the fighting and rioting continues. We have appealed to Russia for help and are waiting for news. We hope that adequate measures will be taken in the earliest possible timeframe.”

The ethnic riots between Kyrgyz and Uzbek have taken a heavy toll—over 100 dead and 1500 injured. Before addressing the Kremlin in writing, Otunbayeva spoke with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin reacted in a measured way to the request form the former Soviet territory. Maybe, as Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychiatrist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, viewed it, birth order can leave an indelible impression on the firstborn’s style of life and habitual ways of dealing with the task of friendship, love and work.

At any rate, Moscow saw no reason for an immediate dispatch of troops. “This is an internal conflict, and Russia does not see the conditions for participation in its settlement,” a Kremlin spokesperson told reporters in Moscow on Saturday. Russia was providing emergency humanitarian support, she said.

However, she made a hugely significant revelation: “In his capacity as Chairman of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation [CSTO] Council, [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev has ordered consultations to be held among secretaries of the member states on Monday to work out a collective response.” (The members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)

The fact that Medvedev took this decision soon after returning to Moscow from a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Tashkent cannot go unnoticed. While in Tashkent, Medvedev categorically ruled out a CSTO intervention. “Only in the event of a foreign intrusion and an external attempt to seize power can we estimate that the CSTO is under attack.”
He added that Russia was ready to help if necessary. But then, “all the problems of Kyrgyzstan have internal roots. They are rooted in the weakness of the former authorities and their unwillingness to take care of the people’s needs. I believe the Kyrgyz authorities will solve all the existing problems. The Russian Federation will help.”

Meanwhile, the SCO summit—China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—adopted a decision to send an observer team to Kyrgyzstan to monitor the constitutional referendum and the situation in general. Medvedev said the SCO “could not stay indifferent to the events in Kyrgyzstan, the SCO reaction was prompt and clear, and our countries promised help to the Kyrgyz people without delay”. He promised “further assistance” to Kyrgyzstan by the SCO’s “authorised agencies”. He explained:

“Kyrgyzstan is one of the SCO founders, our ally and close partner. We are sincerely interested in Kyrgyzstan overcoming the stage of internal shocks as soon as possible and fulfilling the task of forming a new government capable of tackling the pressing issues of socio-economic development... It is important to observe the legal scenario of the development of statehood in Kyrgyzstan. That is why we believe it would be right to send the SCO observers mission to the June 27 referendum on the new constitution and to further conduct a monitoring of the processes underway in Kyrgyzstan.”

Moscow is weighing the consequences of a military intervention in Kyrgyzstan and is pondering deeply. The dilemma is profound. First comes the security of the 750,000 ethnic Russian population. Otunbayeva said: “The situation has gotten out of control, since yesterday [Thursday] and we need military forces to arrest the situation. That is why we are turning to Russia.”

She pointed out that Uzbek, Russian and Tatar ethnic groups were being targeted and the death toll was “higher than you or I know”. The Russian Migration Service noted that the number of ethnic Russians wanting to leave Kyrgyzstan for Russia had risen dramatically.

Moscow cannot appear to be helpless as not only its image as the regional superpower but also Russian domestic opinion come into play. Medvedev will be under pressure to act decisively. However, intervention can turn out to be a slippery path.

ALL the elements of an Afghanistan-like situation are imperceptibly becoming available in Kyrgyzstan: a weak and ineffectual state structure, leadership lacking in legitimacy, impassable ethnic divides, a deepening economic crisis and acute poverty, a heavy dependence on foreign aid, drug-mafia and Islamist militants—and a land-locked geography and demographic spread that invite outside interference and complicate the civil-war conditions.

Moscow will not want to be juxtaposed with the rising wave of ethnic Kyrgyz nationalism, either. It made a catastrophic mistake in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Kyrgyz situation is so extraordinarily volatile that the country’s statehood stands in peril. It shouldn’t turn out that Moscow is biting more than it can chew.

The Otunbayeva-led interim government has yet to gain legitimacy following the April revolution that led to the ousting of president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. It is desperately trying to solidify its standing domestically and it lacks the power to control the country. The unity of the interim government remains problematic, too, and internecine rivalries may already have erupted between competing power centres in Bishkek involving vaulting ambitions of various constituent groups or individuals, many of whom aren’t exactly on comradely terms with Moscow.

Equally, there are question marks about the prospect of the June 27 referendum coming out with a credible verdict of public opinion. As a Russian observer wrote recently, “If the referendum is democratic, unpleasant surprises are possible, while if it is manipulated, then the preconditions will arise for a ‘real’ color revolution.” The referendum concerns parliamentary reform to limit the powers of the president.

The fact remains that the overthrow of Bakiyev in the bloody uprising in April was easily dubbed as a “colour” revolution, but in reality it was more like a coup. Well-known Russian commentator Fedor Lukyanov recently wrote in the independent Gazeta:

“This has resulted in a dangerous and unstable situation exacerbated by the fact that the initiators of the coup have themselves abolished all the formally legitimate institutions, including the parliament. Russia was clearly far from distressed at the overthrow of Bakiyev, but it does not possess a system of organisations whose opinions could give legitimacy to the revolutionary government. Hence Moscow’s persistent calls for the speediest holdings of elections and a return to the legal space. Here Russia hopes that the new government will be able to secure legitimacy through elections, although there is no certainty as to that.

Meanwhile, an orderly holding of parliamentary elections under a new Constitution scheduled for October seems highly problematic. Thus, the Kremlin will visualise the real danger that its interventionist force may find itself operating in is a political vacuum—and this at the invitation of an evanescent power structure that may prove all but illusory in the fullness of time.

Another template is that ethnic Uzbeks who are on the receiving end of the pogrom in Osh form one-seventh of the population of Kyrgyzstan but are a near majority in Osh, which is close to the border with Uzbekistan. Yet, the displaced Uzbeks from Osh are streaming into Uzbekistan for refuge. Any foreign interventionist force will be stepping into the minefield of unresolved nationality questions in the region.

Ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan have been restive and alleging various forms of discrimination from the authorities in Bishkek. In recent years, they have been agitating for equal rights such as the use of Uzbek as an official language and bigger representation in the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies. Bakiyev, who depended heavily on Kyrgyz nationalist support, exacerbated the Uzbek minority’s sense of discrimination.

There has been a mounting struggle for control of economic assets as the settled Uzbek community dominated the business sector and enjoyed relative prosperity, which caused resentment among the traditionally nomadic and impoverished ethnic Kyrgyz population. Clearly, there has been a steady breakdown in recen years of communication between the Uzbek community leaders and the Kyrgyz authorities.

Given these underlying factors of Kyrgyz-Uzbek tensions, Moscow needs to be extremely wary of antagonising Uzbekistan, which is a key country in Central Asia. When Russia proposed the setting up of an anti-terrorism centre in southern Kyrgyzstan last year, Tashkent strongly protested and Moscow ultimately shelved the project. Uzbekistan’s tiny neighbours—Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—suspect that Tashkent secretly harbours hegemonic aspirations and they seek protection from Moscow.

Having said that, even as the central authority in Bishkek continues to weaken, Tashkent may feel the urge to intervene to protect ethnic Uzbek interests and to pamper Uzbek nationalism. On the other hand, Tashkent will be apprehensive of the spill-over of instability. Ferghana Valley, of which Osh forms a part, has been historically a crucible of political dissent and radical Islam. The first priority for Tashkent will be to insulate the Uzbek part of the valley from the anarchy in Osh.

In short, Tashkent’s stance will be a crucial determinant in any final decision that Moscow adopts. As things stood until recently, Tashkent opposed Moscow’s moves to boost the CSTO’s role as a provider of collective security in Central Asia.

Tashkent feared that the CSTO might create precedents challenging Uzbekistan’s emergent role as regional power. But with every reason to fear from the spreading anarchy in Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent may now be open to the idea that the time has come for collective intervention to stabilise the situation.

To boot, the equations between Tashkent and the interim government in Bishkek remain frosty. Bishkek’s pretensions of possessing a vibrant, noisy civil society profoundly irritate Tashkent. Will Tashkent, therefore, look to Moscow to take a lead role?

The big question is whether Medvedev’s decision to call a CSTO meeting in Moscow implies that Tashkent grudgingly accepts that Russia would have no alternative to intervening in Kyrgyzstan except under the CSTO banner. A direct Russian military intervention seems unthinkable, nor is the SCO an appropriate vehicle of collective security.

Kyrgyz statehood is fast dissolving and the survival of the autonomous state is becoming doubtful. It will be tempting to attribute great game theories. But the hard reality is that Kyrgyzstan has come to resemble a heavy burden that no great power will find it agreeable to bear in these times of economic troubles.

THE logic of great-power rivalry will remain a key subplot in Central Asia. This is clear from the stance adopted by the United States. US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said: “The United States supports efforts coordinated by the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] to facilitate peace and order and the provision of humanitarian assistance to the victims of violence and disorder in the Kyrgyz Republic.”

Washington has shrewdly factored in that Kazakhstan, which currently heads the OSCE, too, has aspirations as a regional leader and will be apprehensive about the CSTO upstaging it, although it is a solid ally of Russia and an important member of the Moscow-led alliance. Kazakhstan always regarded Kyrgyzstan as its “little brother”.

Overarching all these regional ambitions is the incontrovertible geopolitical fact that Washington regards Central Asia as prospective turf for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and will find the CSTO’s grip of the region’s jugular veins unacceptable. The US keeps a military base in Manas, which is a vital hub for refuelling tanker planes and the giant transport aircraft that ferry US troops to and from Afghanistan—and a useful listening post adjacent to Xinjiang in China.

Besides, the Pentagon has been eyeing a project to construct an “anti-terrorism training centre” in Osh. “At the request of the Kyrgyz Government, we are putting $ 5.5 million into the reconstruction of a range complex outside of Osh city,” a US Embassy spokesperson in Bishkek was quoted as saying recently.

All the same, the Obama Administration is hardly in a position to militarily intervene in Kyrgyzstan and will be constrained for the present to peer through the prism of its objectives in Afghanistan. Washington and Moscow collaborated in April in a joint operation to “evacuate” Bakiyev so as to avoid an escalation of internecine strife. It showed they are capable of cooperating when there is a shared interest with regard to overall regional stability. Besides, the “reset” of US-Russia ties has commenced and Medvedev is traveling to Washington later this month for his fourth meeting with Obama within the year.

As for China, it is plain that Beijing has its eyes set squarely on the expansion of its economic influence in the region and would lack the desire to get involved in military adventures. Ironically, during his visit to Tashkent on Wednesday (June 9) to attend the SCO summit, even as nearby Osh was waiting to explode, President Hu Jintao seized the opportunity to strike a deal to buy 10 billion cubic metres of gas from Uzbekistan, tying up all of that country’s spare production.

Again, Hu followed up two days later in Astana by signing a deal to double the capacity of China’s oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to 400,000 barrels per day, which is roughly equivalent to the annual production of Sudan.

But Beijing will be concerned about the anarchic conditions in Kyrgyzstan where there is a sizeable ethnic Uyghur population and with which Xinjiang shares a long border. Also, the rising tide of Islamic militancy in Kyrgyzstan has serious implications for China’s security.

“We know that not only criminal but also extremist groups and Islamic fundamentalists have stepped up their activity in Kyrgyzstan itself and are making efforts to gain certain power,” CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha said on May 12. When Islamic militants first burst into post-Soviet Central Asia in 1999, southern Kyrgyzstan figured in their sights. Last year they returned to the scene.

The possibility of a radical group such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was based in the Afghan-Pakistan region and active in Ferghana, stirring up the Uzbek-Kyrgyz ethnic cauldron cannot entirely be ruled out. The underground radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir is also known to be active in Osh.

Conceivably, therefore, Moscow can expect a high level of understanding from Beijing for taking initiatives to try to stabilise the Kyrgyz situation.

As far as Western powers are concerned, they lack any desire to intervene in faraway Kyrgyzstan. The US and European Union have their hands full with problems. The US’ passion for spreading democratic ideals has also significantly cooled.

As Obama pointed out in his recent speech at the West Point Military Academy—and amply reflected in the latest National Security Strategy —the prevailing thinking in Washington is that the US should lead globally by setting its own example rather than resorting to adventurist, wasteful interventions.

In sum, the main political obstacle, if any, to Russia’s historic decision in the upcoming days will come not from the great powers rivalling Moscow for influence in Central Asia, but from the complex, inter-weaving interests of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours—especially Uzbekistan—and the accelerating meltdown of statehood in Bishkek. (Courtesy: Asia Times)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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