Kyrgyzstan is the latest drama in the Central Asian Great Power Game

Adrian PABST (UK)

Last week’s outburst of mass violence in southern Kyrgyzstan killed thousands and displaced around 400,000 ethnic Uzbeks – with most lacking any humanitarian aid and 100,000 now in temporary camps in neighbouring Uzbekistan. Representing about 15% of the Kyrgyzstan’s 5.6 million population, ethnic Uzbeks are the victims of pogroms staged by shadowy nationalist forces working with elements in the Kyrgyz military and police. Eyewitness reports suggest that armored personnel carriers have been used to shoot civilians and clear the way for a knife-yielding, violent mob – resentful of the Uzbeks’ relative prosperity and their domination in the Kyrgyz towns of Osh and Jalal-Abad.

But this is not just a political conflict that has turned into a humanitarian crisis. It represents the latest drama in the Great Power Game unfolding in Central Asia and beyond for over two centuries.

Just as tsarist Russia and imperial Britain carved out spheres of interest in the nineteenth century, so Moscow and Beijing are vying for geo-political hegemony in the twenty-first century. Paradoxically, at a time when the USA and other western countries speak of a “multi-partner world”, we are seeing the rise of old eastern empires dressed up in new clothes. This refutes the claim that the world will gradually converge towards a universal model of liberal market democracy.

With Russian paratroopers flying in to secure Moscow’s Kyrgyz air base at Kant, multilateral diplomacy is as verbose as it is toothless. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is liaising with the foreign minister of Kazakhstan that currently chairs the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They have agreed to coordinate a crisis response together with the EU, sending special envoys from all three organisations to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

In reality, the UN, the OSCE or the EU can do little to stop ethnic violence and bring about a peaceful settlement. None has any significant presence in the region or is capable of mobilising ‘peace-keeping’ troops.

Kyrgyzstan is firmly part of what Moscow considers its backyard. A resurgent Russia won’t tolerate any foreign encroachment in its “privileged sphere of influence”, to quote President Dmitry Medvedev. The Kremlin seems to have ruled out unilateral or multilateral military action, as this might set a precedent for foreign intervention in domestic affairs – a violation of national sovereignty which Moscow guards so jealously.

The USA are conspicuous by their absence. With President Obama’s ‘surge’ strategy on the line, the White House is desperate to hold on to its air base in Manas – a vital supply line for its troops in Afghanistan. In the month of March alone, many of the 50,000 NATO troops and their equipment transited to and from Afghanistan via Manas.

Ironically, Washington relies on Moscow’s tacit approval to keep Manas open. Russia is calling the shots, as Kyrgyzstan’s current interim government depends on the Kremlin’s recognition and support.

All this comes after Moscow supported the pro-Russian opposition in its April coup against the now deposed Kyrgyz President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. His power base is in the country’s south, including the Fergana valley and the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad where some of the worst violence has currently taken place.

This region is the nexus between the rival, imperial ambitions of both Russia and China. The Chinese leadership fears that unrest from the Fergana valley could spread to the volatile northwestern province of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim and Turkish-speaking ethnic Uighur population.

Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan has about a quarter of a million Uighurs who resent what they view as oppression of their Uighur brethren across the Chinese border. Militants could use unstable countries like Kyrgyzstan as a refuge and base from which to launch their insurgency against Beijing’s iron fist.

China is also keen to protect its spreading pipeline network across central Asia. Last December, the Chinese President Hu Jintao opened the world’s longest natural gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan to Xinjiang in northwestern China (more than 1,800 kilometres long). This marked the end of Russia’s central Asian monopoly on energy transmission.

Kyrgyzstan stands astride key routes to Beijing’s trade partners in central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – all nominal Russian allies. That’s why the Kremlin views China as a far greater threat to its interest than the USA, never mind the EU.

Since the late nineteenth century, the tsarist empire – followed by Soviet Russia – ruled unopposed in central Asia. But more recently, peaceful co-existence with China has given way to strategic competition. Moscow and Beijing are vying for hegemony over their shared central Asian “near abroad”.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the response to the current Kyrgyz crisis. After the failure of US unilateral unipolarity, the new global multipolarity was supposed to revive and extend the multilateral diplomacy of the 1990s. As part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), both China and Russia oppose “terrorism, extremism and separatism”, but the SCO is so far wholly absent from the conflict in Kyrgyzstan. This raises serious questions about the effectiveness of multilateralism, especially when both Moscow and Beijing confront shared security problems such as the influx of Afghan opiates via countries like Kyrgyzstan and the arrival of Islamic fighters.

Ever since China has assumed a de facto leadership role in the SCO, the Kremlin is trying to reinforce the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – a rival, politico-military structure of former Soviet republics. Moreover, Moscow is once more warming again to the USA and Europe – portraying itself as a unique global ‘balancer’ between East and West.

As such, the real struggle in central Asia is between Russia and China – two countries that view themselves essentially as empires. Both operate a tributary system with smaller neighbours. They provide ‘security’ in exchange for market outlets and inexpensive imports.

Russia sells military equipment and buys up central Asian energy to export it to the West, while also importing cheap labour to compensate for its declining population. China needs primary commodities to sustain its buoyant economic growth and market access for its cheap consumer goods.

In the new Great Game, the geo-economics of energy security matters just as much as the geo-politics of territorial control. Instead of national states and liberal market democracy, we are seeing the rise of old empires and new elites who combine bureaucratic capitalism with authoritarian plutocracy.

Source: East-West Review

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