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Would Russians In Ferghana Valley Guarantee Stability Or Spell Disaster?

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (left) and Russia's then-president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, toast the good times in 2004.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov (left) and Russia's then-president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, toast the good times in 2004.
Russia's recently announced plan to set up a second military base in Kyrgyzstan has evoked considerable reaction as proponents and detractors debate whether such a facility will boost or strain security efforts the region.

Moscow appears to be eyeing two possible sites in southern Kyrgyzstan that lie in the Central Asia's most densely populated and volatile region, the Ferghana Valley.

Ferghana straddles the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, is home to a combustible mix of high unemployment, diverse ethnicity, and religious conservatism.

Each of the sites shortlisted for the facility, Osh and Batken, is also near Kyrgyzstan's border with Uzbekistan.

Uzbek officials are reportedly concerned that such a base might provoke religious and extremist groups, and rumors of the deal prompted alarm from Tashkent even before the details were agreed during a recent Collective Security Treaty Organization Treaty (CSTO) summit on August 1.

Kyrgyz authorities have repeatedly asserted that the main security threats are from the south -- from areas bordering Uzbekistan.

But the Uzbek Foreign Ministry's Jahon news agency published a statement saying there was no need for a Russian base in the area, and that it would help destabilize all of Central Asia.

'The Pulse Of Central Asia'

The Ferghana Valley has a long history of ethnic tension and uprisings, and is home to a number of groups banned in many Central Asian states. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an alleged terrorist group whose operations now span South and Central Asia, was created there, and the banned Islamist Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been more active there than in any other part of Central Asia.

It has also witnessed periodic bloodshed, such as when ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashes in Osh killed nearly 300 people in 1990 or a popular uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijon was crushed by government forces in May 2005, killing or injuring hundreds more.

More recently, three attacks by unknown groups took place along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border within a span of 24 hours on May 26.

Such incidents appear to lend credence to Uzbekistan's fears of provoking extremists in the region.

But regional experts say Tashkent's opposition to a second Russian base in Kyrgyzstan has little to do with its stated objections. They suggest Uzbekistan, which considers itself a regional power, is wary of seeing increased Russian influence in Central Asia.

"Being present in a potentially unstable area, the Ferghana Valley, would mean that Russia has put its hands on the pulse of Central Asia," Andrei Grozin, the head Central Asia department at the Institute of the CIS Countries in Moscow, says. "Besides, Moscow wants to show who's the boss in Central Asia."

Hackles are already up among outsiders over draft legislation making the rounds in Russia that would make it easier to deploy troops internationally to counter aggression against Russian or foreign militaries. Russia's current counterterrorism law allows for deployments abroad to fight terrorism.

Grozin argues that an increased Russian presence would make it increasingly difficult for Uzbekistan to bully its neighbors.

"The presence of a Russian military base is perceived by many in Tashkent like the presence of a Russian military base in [Georgia's breakaway republics of] South Ossetia or Abkhazia, for example," Grozin tells RFE/RL.

"They all understand that when a Russian military structure emerges in the area of Uzbek interests, it will be harder for Tashkent to put pressure on Bishkek and Dushanbe."

Tashkent Intransigence?

Uzbekistan has a history of isolating itself when it comes to multilateral efforts. Taskhent has threatened to leave the Russia-dominated CSTO, and along with Belarus has refused to sign off on the organization's creation of a rapid-reaction force to fight terrorism.

Anna Matveeva, a visiting fellow with the Crisis States Research Centre at the London School of Economics, says that by setting up a second base in Kyrgyzstan, Russia would demonstrate that it does not consider Uzbekistan its favored partner in Central Asia.

"Uzbekistan has not been a stable partner to anyone," Matveeva says. "It frequently changes its foreign policy, shifting from Russia to the West, from the U.S. to China and so on. Kyrgyzstan, however, has been much more loyal to Russia."

Matveeva says Uzbekistan's warning about a new Russian military presence increasing the threat of militancy is "baseless."

"There is also quite a lot of military presence in Ferghana Valley and especially a huge Uzbek military buildup," Matveeva says. "The Russian base -- it will still take time until something of that order materializes -- will still be a very limited presence, we are not talking about deployment of a kind of big army unit there."

She notes the presence of a larger Russian military facility in Tajikistan "in a very devout area" near the border with Afghanistan and says, "It doesn't really provoke any passions of any kind."
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.