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Georgia Conflict Offers Central Asia A Chance To Speak Out

  • Askarbek Mambetaliev

There was a time when U.S. President George Washington declared that the new country should avoid foreign entanglements and not take on any international obligations.

I thought of this on August 11 when Russia's ambassador to Kyrgyzstan stated, "Russia has the right to expect the support of its partners in integrational structures." Against the background of the Russia-Georgia conflict, this statement sounds like a demand, and that is worrisome.

One is reminded of the period of the "Urkun" (Exodus), when more than 100,000 Kyrgyz fled to China in 1916 because they did not want to be compelled to serve in the tsarist army in World War I against Germany, with whom they had no quarrel.

Today many commentators are looking to Kyrgyzstan to express its "creed" about the Russia-Georgia conflict, considering Kyrgyzstan the presiding country in Central Asia. Kazakh political observer Marina Sabitova is particularly insistent: "By all parameters Kyrgyzstan here must play the role of analyst, commentator, and mediator." It seems no one wants to cross our "older brother," so it is easier to push your neighbor forward. Unfortunately, that is the lesson we are learning today.

Therefore, President Kurmanbek Bakiev must act wisely in this situation. He is currently in Issyk Kul, meeting with Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and he has the chance to listen to Nazarbaev and analyze his positions. Nazarbaev is a very smart president, but at the same time, he does not have a global vision. His mentality is always to look to "comrade general secretary." I remember well when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was praised in Kazakhstan and when Nazarbaev was hailed for encouraging Kazakh banks to expand in Georgia.

Then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin caught him off-guard at the beginning of the Georgia crisis and cleverly tried to squeeze an opinion out of him. But Nazarbaev is an experienced politician and he sidestepped the provocation, uttered something ambiguous, and changed the subject, disappointing observers throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Now, I would advise President Bakiev to play the role of facilitator. A leader or chairman must know how to be a facilitator, to place himself between the opposition and the authorities. The basic philosophy of development is based on the dynamic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Bakiev now has a chance to play a synthesizing role.

I would advise him to gather all the Central Asia heads of state -- they are in fact preparing to meet in Dushanbe -- and listen to their opinions and try to force a vote on a joint statement. Or he could propose two drafts and try to compel them to choose one. If the version that is adopted does not satisfy Russia, that would be convincing evidence that Kyrgyzstan facilitated the discussion in accord with the principles of democracy and justice. Of course, it would be best if the statement condemned the war and urged Moscow to respect Georgia's territorial integrity. I would advise Bakiev not to attach himself to the powerful in this world. If he is guided by professionalism and justice, he will be in the right. Otherwise, he will disappoint the entire world.

Cold War Thinking

It is the fashion today to blame all political problems on the U.S.-Russia relationship, but the situation in South Ossetia shows that this is not sufficient. In addition to the Georgians' desire to integrate with democratic Europe, there are also economic issues -- a pipeline that bypasses Russia. Europe needs gas and winter is approaching. And this situation isn't good for Russia. This pipeline -- which eats into Russia's profits -- might stretch beyond the Caspian, into Central Asia and then south.

Russia wants to be the controlling "brother" in this region. Moscow sincerely believes, as President Dmitry Medvedev has said, "Russia has historically been the guarantor of security for the peoples of the Caucasus." My sincere sympathy for the new president of Russia notwithstanding, this patronizing attitude stems from the traditional Russian habit of dividing the world into "ours" and "theirs" -- without considering the historical or economic interests of the nations involved and placing them in a subservient position. It is never economically feasible to have permanent enemies and permanent friends no matter who they are.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine are in essentially the same position as Georgia. We also recently endured the provocation of introducing dual citizenship with Russia, which was advocated on the basis of positive advantages but which clearly would have been a loss of independence. In our parliament especially, but throughout government, many people do not understand the concept of liberty. Their brains are suffused with Soviet and Russian propaganda. As long as such people are in power, Kyrgyzstan will remain on its knees and underdeveloped.

I am currently working on a study of anti-Westernism in Kyrgyzstan and have found that there are newspapers and publicists in this country that are pushing us along the same path Georgia followed. My analysis of one Russian-language newspaper here found that it contains strong propaganda along the lines of Moscow's tune. The problem with this propaganda is that it fosters in the Kyrgyz not only hatred toward the West -- particularly the United States -- as well as mistrust of the historical neighbors of the Kyrgyz people. The logical conclusion of such propaganda is the development of a monopolar worldview and, ultimately, a loss of sovereignty.

Some observers are arguing that Kyrgyzstan must make a choice -- either Russia or the West. (There is also a pro-Islam movement.) Pro-Russian voices are heard particularly loudly here, voices that could someday be used by external forces against the interests of the nation. Many of our leaders understand this and are having a very difficult time choosing a position -- in fact, they are accused of not taking a position.

But neutrality is also a position -- one of the strongest positions. I think that Kyrgyzstan should adopt this position, although it is a very difficult one. Many of our citizens who favor one side or the other will not be satisfied with neutrality. But it is a question of morality more than politics.

Personally, I think that there are many thinking people in Russia who do not support the skinheads and the ideology of chauvinism. Until those people manage to transform our historical neighbor's attitude toward the world, all we can do is pray for Russia, all the while not neglecting the hand of friendship that has been extended by the democratic countries of the outside world.

Askarbek Mambetaliev is a Bishkek-based political scientist and commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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