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Kyrgyzstan: Ensuring Security Means Having Many Allies

  • Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyzstan's military is in woeful shape. The government largely ignored the problem until 1999, when armed extremists caused problems in the southern part of the country. Since then, Bishkek has made some effort to improve its armed forces. In the process, it has become the only country in the world receiving military assistance from the United States, Russia, and China -- as well as NATO.

Prague, 17 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The small, mountainous Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan is unique in its military alliances. A member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program since June 1994, Kyrgyzstan currently is allowing U.S.-led coalition forces to use part of its largest airport as part of the continuing antiterror campaign in Afghanistan.

A member of the Commonwealth of Independent States and a signatory to the CIS Collective Security Treaty, Kyrgyzstan will also soon be home to the CIS rapid reaction force. According to Chinese media, Kyrgyzstan is also the only country in the world to hold joint military exercises with China.

There are good reasons for having all these alliances. They fill different roles for Kyrgyzstan, a country that originally paid little thought to having a military at all.

It is a change that would have been difficult to imagine when Kyrgyzstan became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Kyrgyzstan's borders remained defended mainly by Russian border guards until early 1999. Kyrgyzstan maintained a small army and even contributed a modest number of troops to the CIS peacekeeping force in neighboring Tajikistan during that country's 1992-1997 civil war. But building up its armed forces was never a priority.

Peace prevailed in Kyrgyzstan and as poverty grew and the national budget tightened, the military received even less attention.

The Kyrgyz military today is widely viewed as being largely ineffective. Alex Vatanka is the chief editor of "Jane's Sentinel -- Russia and the CIS," part of the London-based Jane's group. He gives this brief assessment of the Kyrgyz military: "Kyrgyzstan, as far as armed forces are concerned, remains the weakest among the five Central Asian states."

Some in Kyrgyzstan confirm Vatanka's assessment and offer grim looks into the army. Jengishbek Eshenkulov, a member of Kyrgyzstan's People's Representative Assembly (the upper house of parliament), is one. "Even the cold and heartless would cry at a [Kyrgyz] soldier's plight, I have to say that openly," Eshenkulov said. "Before, [parents] sent their boys to the army with a clear conscience. Now they try to keep them away. They bring cattle, money to the army recruitment offices to avoid sending their kids to military service, because they return in poor health. Today, the army food and conditions are bad. If you hung a rifle on a soldier's shoulder, due to malnutrition, he would fall over together with his rifle."

Prominent opposition politician Adahan Madumarov, a deputy in the Legislative Assembly (lower house of parliament), says in some cases young recruits do not even have parents to look out for their welfare.

"How many times have we said that none of the children of high-level officials serve in the army? Those who do [serve] are most usually recruited after beatings, or are orphans," Madumarov said. "They have never eaten so much as to have a full stomach."

The state of the country's roughly 12,000-man army is the reason Kyrgyzstan has welcomed military alliances. In 1999, the country found itself woefully unprepared to fight off a security threat. That summer, armed fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) crossed the mountains from camps in Tajikistan and entered Kyrgyzstan.

When the Kyrgyz army confronted the IMU guerrillas it quickly became apparent the army was in no condition to undertake a protracted campaign in the mountains. Despite having military treaties with neighboring countries and other CIS members, only Uzbekistan, which had already withdrawn from the CIS Collective Security Treaty, offered to send troops. Bishkek, which has uneasy relations with Tashkent, only allowed Uzbek warplanes to enter Kyrgyz airspace and bomb the IMU. When bombs mistakenly hit a Kyrgyz village and killed four people, Kyrgyzstan called a halt to Uzbek assistance.

The IMU fighters retreated when winter started to set in, the battle having proven inconclusive. But in Bishkek, the government was rethinking its attitude toward the military.

Kyrgyzstan was already in NATO's Partnership for Peace program and had been training with NATO forces in the annual "Centrazbat" exercises since 1996. Prior to 1999, the NATO exercises focused on civilian relief efforts in times of natural disaster. After the IMU appeared, such exercises have always included antiterrorist exercises.

The speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Adbygany Erkebayev, credited NATO for helping Kyrgyzstan improve the capability of its armed forces, but he also mentions others who he believed were helping: "The [military] training with NATO, Russia, and America will certainly have a positive influence. The professional level [of the Kyrgyz army] will increase. Also, I can only say 'thank you' to both Russia and NATO for strengthening our logistic base, improving the future and raising the professional level."

Vatanka of "Jane's Sentinel" notes that Kyrgyzstan's cooperation with NATO was the country's first experience with the militaries of Western countries.

"Let's remember that Kyrgyz [military] cooperation with the West began as early as 1994, when Kyrgyzstan joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program," he said. "That was actually one year before the country had set up a Ministry of Defense."

The cooperation with NATO invariably meant a level of cooperation with the United States. After the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington the U.S. became very interested in military cooperation with Kyrgyzstan, a short flight from northern Afghanistan.

There are about 2,000 troops and dozens of warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition stationed at part of Bishkek's Manas international airport. They are part of the hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that may still be present in Afghanistan.

At the start of that campaign U.S. forces seriously degraded the IMU's ability to pose a threat to Central Asia when U.S. warplanes bombed many of the IMU's bases in Afghanistan, possibly killing the movement's leader as well.

Despite a decrease in the fighting in Afghanistan and some public protest at home, Kyrgyzstan still allows the coalition to use its base at Manas airport. Vatanka says the publicity alone is worth hosting the force.

"The sort of almost prestige that it gave Kyrgyzstan -- suddenly this country, this tiny, landlocked Central Asian nation, was in the headlines in the West. It was something [the Kyrgyz] really couldn't turn away from. The benefits were simply there and are still there. The relationship that they have now established with the U.S. is something that they never obviously enjoyed since gaining independence. This is a new stage in their independence."

But neither NATO nor the U.S. is likely to give the sort of help Kyrgyzstan needs now. Although the IMU was seriously crippled in Afghanistan, the group has not disappeared entirely. The Kyrgyz government is also worried about other Islamic organizations, such as the banned group Hezb-ut Tahrir, whose literature is widely distributed in bazaars in Kyrgyzstan and other countries. Hezb-ut Tahrir calls for the peaceful overthrow of the current Central Asian government and the establishment of an Islamic state.

There is one country that can help and has experience with such groups on its own territory -- China.

China has been giving the Kyrgyz military equipment and advice since the IMU appeared. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) even held what Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said were the first-of-a-kind antiterrorism exercises with Kyrgyz forces along the Sino-Kyrgyz border in October.

Vatanka says China is better suited than others to help Kyrgyzstan with internal security problems. "I don't think America, NATO, or even Turkey are in the natural position to help Kyrgyzstan to perhaps pursue some of these opposition groups in Kyrgyzstan the way President [Askar] Akaev wants, while maintaining that they are essentially helping this country to democratize."

China's main contribution to strengthening security in Kyrgyzstan is working with Kyrgyzstan's internal security forces -- the Interior Ministry and National Security Committee. Some critics have expressed concern that such forces may be used to suppress legitimate dissent as well as illegal groups. China, which is struggling with Muslim separatist groups in its western regions, along the Central Asian borders, is employing tactics that have already drawn criticism from international human rights organizations.

Ultimately, Kyrgyzstan remains dependent on its oldest ally -- Russia.

Bakytbek Bekboyev, a deputy in the Legislative Assembly, says cooperation with NATO is more for appearances than for any useful military assistance: "The [military] exercises are used for publicity purposes only. Even NATO had a falling out among its members on the Iraq issue. It became like the old Warsaw Pact. There is no need for NATO anymore. We should now strengthen ties only with Russia."

Actually, it would be impossible for Kyrgyzstan to do without Russia, as Vatanka explains: "Russia obviously remains involved with Kyrgyzstan and that shouldn't surprise anyone. There are historical links there as far as the armed forces are concerned. Overwhelmingly the equipment is Russian-made, so maintenance, spare parts and all the rest of it will have to come from Russia."

Vatanka could well have said "Soviet-made," instead of "Russian-made," as the vast majority of Kyrgyzstan's military equipment dates back to its time as a Soviet republic. Kyrgyzstan simply does not have the money to buy new weapons.

This lack of resources to improve the military technology makes the impending opening of the CIS rapid reaction base even more important. Troops from this force are supposed to be expert in counterterrorism operations and will be backed by modern Russian war planes and helicopters.

It is a complicated set of military alliances but it has provided Kyrgyzstan with a sense of security that was lost after the IMU's arrival. Keeping a balance between these alliances over the long term, however, may prove more difficult than maintaining security inside the country.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and Janyl Chytyrbaeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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