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Central Asia: Is Regional Turbulence Return Of The Great Game?

  • Daniel Kimmage

Pressure mounts for the U.S. to pull out of Central Asia Just as the wildebeests migrate across the Serengeti, commentary on Central Asia periodically turns to talk of the Great Game. In its 19th-century variety, the Game pitted England against Russia in a scramble for control of Eurasia. Early 21st-century interpretations expand the number of players -- bringing in such regional heavyweights as Iran, Pakistan, and especially China -- but retain the central premise: big powers projecting their designs across Central Asia.

The wildebeests are now on the move en masse for the first time since 2001. The last spate of Great Gaming flared up in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, when the United States gained the use of military facilities in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to support military operations in Afghanistan. In 2004, long-cool Russian-Uzbek relations warmed to a rapprochement against a backdrop of deepening Western dissatisfaction with Uzbekistan's human rights record. On 24 March 2005, a suddenly restive Kyrgyz street brought down long-ruling President Askar Akaev, prompting parallels with earlier changes in Georgia and Ukraine. And on 13 May 2005, Uzbek police and military units used force to put down an uprising in Andijon, outraging public opinion in the West even as Russia and China chimed in with warm words of support for Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

The momentum has continued to build. In early July, the leaders of member states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, held a summit in Astana. The summit's final communique called on the forces of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to provide a deadline for withdrawal from the military facilities they are currently using in Central Asia, a clear reference to the U.S. air bases in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan.

Since the summit, Russia has suggested it may double its military presence in Kyrgyzstan, reports hint at increased Russian-Uzbek military cooperation, Uzbekistan's government-controlled press has mounted a campaign against various forms of U.S. meddling, and China looms large in the wings.

Still The Same Game?

Clearly, another season of Great Gamesmanship is upon us. Or is it? A closer examination reveals that the 19th-century paradigm of great powers at play amid the nomads' yurts and sundry Central Asian backdrops obscures at least as much as it explains.

In Kyrgyzstan, regime change produced a delicate domestic situation with numerous conflicting pressures, and the keynote in statements by the post-Akaev leadership has been a desire to avoid conflicts on the international arena.

Conditions are somewhat less than propitious. After violence in Andijon, nearly 500 Uzbek citizens fled to Kyrgyzstan, where they remain as asylum seekers in a camp in Jalal-Abad Province. Uzbek authorities have made it clear that they would like to have many of the asylum seekers back, while international organizations (and Kyrgyz NGOs) have strongly urged against their extradition, warning that they could face torture at home.

Precarious Balance

Against this contentious backdrop, Kyrgyz officials have strained to strike a balance. On the one hand, Kyrgyzstan has put at least 29 Uzbek asylum seekers in detention in response to information received from Uzbek authorities, who have requested the extradition of over 200 Uzbek citizens from Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 7 July. Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov has stressed that Kyrgyzstan will honor its international obligations -- which would not permit the extradition of asylum seekers to Uzbekistan -- while adding that it will also check the information it is receiving from Uzbekistan.

With international organizations currently seeking a third country, or countries, to take in the asylum seekers, the official Kyrgyz stance clearly suggests an attempt to mollify its large, angry neighbor while hoping that the international community will engineer a solution to the dilemma sooner rather than later.

Kyrgyz statements in the wake of the SCO's demand for a U.S. withdrawal timetable also resembled an attempt to tack against the wind. Immediately after his victory in the 10 July presidential election, President-elect Kurmanbek Bakiev voiced his support for the SCO declaration. Since parliamentary and presidential elections have taken place in Afghanistan, Bakiev carefully stated, "Now we can begin reviewing the issue of the advisability of the U.S. military presence [in Kyrgyzstan]," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 11 July.

Kyrgyzstan's ambassador in Moscow went even farther, saying that the U.S. base "will become unnecessary as tension eases in Afghanistan," Interfax-AVN reported. But by 18 July, Kyrgyz presidential spokesman Avazbek Atakhanov had walked those statements back considerably. In an interview with Kyrgyz Radio 1, he noted that the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan is a "bilateral issue" and stressed, "We are not talking here about the withdrawal of the U.S. air base from Kyrgyzstan."

The maneuvering extended to Russian plans for an expanded presence in Kyrgyzstan. On 14 July, Kyrgyzstan's Defense Ministry confirmed that Russia might double its current troop presence of approximately 500 servicemen at its base in Kant, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. But a spokesman noted that "an additional intergovernmental agreement in the framework of the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan] between Kyrgyzstan and Russia" would be required to boost troop strength. As in the case of the asylum seekers, official Kyrgyz statements appeared calculated to avoid conflict with necessary allies near and far, whatever the differences between those allies might be.

Russia Ready To Play?

But even if a new agreement emerges, it remains to be seen whether Russia is really willing and able to expand its presence. In February 2004, General Yevgenii Yurev, commander of Russia's 5th Airborne Division, said that the number of Russian service personnel at Kant would rise from 200 to 800 by the end of the year, Interfax reported. In August 2004, a source at the base said that reinforcements would bring Kant's strength up to 650 men and 20 aircraft by the end of 2004, Interfax-AVN reported. And in October 2004, General Yurev promised during a visit to the base that personnel numbers at Kant would reach 1,000 by the end of 2004, ITAR-TASS reported. But in February 2005, personnel at the base appealed to Russia's Defense Ministry, complaining of understaffing and a lack of financing, Interfax-AVN reported. Their letter stated: "Instead of 1,200 servicemen, who were to have facilitated operation of the air base, the unit now employs 120 people, including volunteers and conscripts."

Perhaps aware of these twists and turns, Vyacheslav Smirnov, the director of Russia's Political Sociology Institute, said on 13 July that Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan is actually declining, apn.ru reported. Smirnov compared Russia's influence in Kyrgyzstan unfavorably to that of Kazakhstan and the United States, predicted that newly elected Kyrgyz President Bakiev would not seek the withdrawal of the U.S. base from Kyrgyzstan, and concluded that Bakiev's desire for balance rendered "the appearance of a Chinese military base in Kyrgyzstan...very likely."

The issue of a foreign military presence is even more fraught in neighboring Uzbekistan, where the fallout from unrest in Andijon has sparked tension over the U.S. air base in Karshi-Khanabad. High-ranking U.S. officials have called for an independent international inquiry into events in Andijon, a request that the government of Uzbek President Karimov has repeatedly and adamantly denied.

Uzbekistan limited flights out of the U.S. base at Karshi-Khanabad in the wake of Andijon (although the official justification for doing so was not linked to the U.S. position on events there), and the Foreign Ministry issued its own follow-up statement to the SCO declaration on a timetable for withdrawal from bases in Central Asia, indicating that the issue of Karshi-Khanabad is very much on the table in Uzbekistan.

These strains come at a time of warming Russian-Uzbek relations and suggestions of tighter military ties. After President Karimov's recent visit to Moscow, Vladimir Mukhin, an observer for Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" -- a newspaper controlled by exiled oligarch Boris Berezovskii -- reported on 5 July that Uzbekistan is ready to grant Russia the use of 10 Uzbek air bases, including Karshi-Khanabad, "in the event of crisis situations in Central Asia." Citing anonymous "military sources," Mukhin said that the base deal was part of a memorandum Putin and Karimov signed, with Russia offering to pony up military hardware and riot gear in exchange for new toeholds in the region.

The unconfirmed memorandum is dubious, both in terms of Russia's current force-projection capability and, more importantly, the efficacy of using Russian troops to quell unrest in Uzbekistan, or anywhere else in Central Asia. Yet it conveys a commonplace in Great Gaming analysis -- as U.S. influence wanes, Russian waxes.

Antirevolutionary Fervor

While the tensions in U.S.-Uzbek relations are certainly real in the wake of Andijon, the Russian-Uzbek relationship is not a hierarchical one in the tradition of great powers and clients. It derives, rather, from a shared reaction to the perceived danger of regime change, which both Tashkent and Moscow increasingly see as a nefarious U.S. project.

A statement issued by the Uzbek Embassy in Kyrgyzstan on 16 July provided a typical example of the conspiratorial logic and allusive rhetoric that pervade statements on the vast U.S. conspiracy. The embassy's statement warned, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported, that "the puppeteers who want to destabilize the Ferghana Valley by means of obedient international organizations and NGOs continue to exploit the fallout from the failed plan to bring off an armed coup in Uzbekistan in order to justify their step-by-step imposition of the so-called 'project to advance democracy.'"

Andranik Migranyan is a political analyst in Russia who has written widely in this vein. In a 13 July article in "Komsomolskaya pravda," he described the U.S. presence in Central Asia as a "destabilizing factor...after the Americans' actions to stimulate 'colored' revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and after the recent events in Kyrgyzstan." Before Andijon, Migranyan writes, "the blueprint for the opposition to come to power that was tried in Serbia worked flawlessly in Georgia, Ukraine, and, to a certain degree, in Kyrgyzstan." But Migranyan has hope: "It was in Uzbekistan that, for the first time in the post-Soviet world, 'colored' revolutions received a short, sharp shock." And Migranyan sees even greater things to come after this turning point: "It seems that U.S. foreign-policy expansion has reached its limit and we are entering the era of the gradual decline of the American empire."

Where Migranyan and the Uzbek Embassy in Kyrgyzstan come together is in a peculiar understanding of the "project to advance democracy" as a vast conspiracy fomented by the United States through "obedient international organizations and NGOs." This is also the common ground on which the Uzbek and Russian ruling elites would like to make their stand against what they perceive as a clear and present danger.

Dangers Of Democracy

How clear and present? In a recent poll that surveyed 2,100 people throughout Russia, the Public Opinion Foundation found that 42 percent of respondents agreed that preconditions exist in Russia for the sort of mass unrest that took place in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, gazeta.ru reported on 15 July. Thirty-two percent said that such conditions do not exist. Respondents displayed a certain ambivalence about the causes of revolution, however. Echoing the remarks quoted above, 55 percent of respondents felt that events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan occurred as a result of meddling by outside forces. But when queried about Russia, 42 percent said that forces within the country are capable of organizing mass protests, while only 5 percent felt that outside forces could do so. Moreover, 18 percent of respondents listed as possible causes of unrest "dissatisfaction with living conditions" and the "further impoverishment of the masses."

We lack poll data for Uzbekistan, but the recent unrest in Andijon speaks volumes. And while independent observers have more often than not pointed to socioeconomic tensions as the underlying threat to stability in Uzbekistan, that does not seem to be the conclusion the ruling elite, led by President Karimov, has drawn. Their fears are of the "puppeteers."

The chief conclusion this confusing picture implies is that explanations derived from the 19th-century Great Game, or 20th-century Cold War rivalry, are of limited use in clarifying 21st-century jostling in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has wiggle room amid greater powers, as long as it wiggles well, and Uzbekistan and Russia may be drawing once again into an embrace, but it is not a colonial, or even a postcolonial, one.

How, then, to explain the zone of geopolitical turbulence Central Asia appears to be entering? Bearing in mind recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan; leaving aside conspiracy theories in favor of domestic concerns; and scrutinizing the ambiguous achievements of the past decade and a half, the root cause of the trouble is not great-power push-and-pull, but rather the ossification of post-Soviet ruling elites and the decay of the ad hoc political systems they shaped for their convenience.

See also:

Is Russia Helping Tashkent Clean Up After Andijon?

Russia Could Double Troops At Kyrgyz Base; Future Of U.S. Base In Doubt

Karimov, Putin Say Andijon Violence Was Planned Abroad
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