(Part 2 in a three-part series)
The recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan has largely been portrayed as an epic clash between U.S. and Russian interests.
That said, interest in events in Bishkek extend far beyond Kyrgyzstan throughout the regional and one should expect the following voices to add their concerns as the situation evolves. While largely overlooked by media coverage, their influence could be a significant factor in both interim and long-term solutions that emerge to Kyrgyzstan’s recent upheavals.
Kyrgyzstan shares a 533-mile border with China. Kyrgyzstan’s primary value to China is as a market for its goods and is interested in economic expansion and access to resources. A week ago a Chinese energy company held discussions with deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s younger son Maksim Bakiyev, who heads the country’s Central Agency on Development, Investment, and Innovation, about a $300-million investment in Kyrgyzstan’s northern ChuiProvince. China’s exports to Kyrgyzstan range from mass consumer products and home electronics to luxury commodities.
But Chinese investment, unlike American and Russian, suffered from a major drawback – a lack of military bases “flying the flag” to safeguard those interests. Speaking in November last year, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov stated that Kyrgyzstan despite Beijing’s preferred investment policies expected Chinese companies to endow the Kyrgyz economy without state guarantees, adding the hope that with the assistance of Chinese partners, Chinese FDI in Kyrgyzstan would increase to $1 billion. According to Chinese data, the trade turnover between the two countries reached $7.33 billion in 2008, four times more than in 2006.
While there were no casualties among the estimated 30,000 Chinese nationals living in Kyrgyzstan, some Chinese businessman suffered severe property damage during the recent rioting, with the Chinese-owned Guoying 4,800 square meter four-story commercial center being burned and looted. The commercial center was also gutted during the 2005 Tulip Revolution, suffering losses exceeding $5 million.
On 8 April Beijing said it was “deeply concerned” about the situation in Kyrgyzstan, according to Wang Kaiwen, the Chinese ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. Wang concluded that China hopes that as a “friendly neighbor” it hopes “order can be restored as soon as possible and relevant issues can be resolved through legal channels.”
Chinese academics also weighed in on Kyrgyzstan’s unrest as well, with Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Central Asia director Pan Zhiping providing a trenchant critique, noting, “The domestic unrest in Kyrgyzstan is still ongoing and could last for an unspecific period of time. Widespread corruption has taken its toll on the fall of the Bakiyev government, and the opposition has long tried to seize power.”
In the interim, the new provisional government considers China’s interests to be on a par with both Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan. On 9 April deputy head of the Kyrgyz interim government Omurbek Tekebayev told Russian reporters, “The foreign policy priority will change, and there will be some other amendments, too… Meanwhile, Russia, Kazakhstan and other neighbors, including China, will remain our strategic partners.”
The reasons for such statements are the China possesses both economic and military latent power. China and Kyrgyzstan are the only regional members of the World Trade Organization. In the regional sphere, while Beijing up to now has pursued strictly pragmatic economic policies, that could change if the new government requested peacekeepers, as Kyrgyzstan and China along with Kazakhstan Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia have observer status.
In a sign of its growing regional economic power, last June in Ekaterinburg Chinese President Hu Jintao, pledged $10 billion in aid to the SCO Central Asian member nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Accordingly, Beijing potentially has both economic and military levers to pull should the situation require it.
India, Asia’s second superpower, was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Kyrgyzstan in 1992. The same year an Indo-Kyrgyz Joint Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation was set up. Current bilateral trade between India and Kyrgyzstan remains at a modest level, around $18 million annually. Delhi’s interest in Kyrgyzstan is likely to increase however, because of India’s strong interest potential in the generation of hydroelectric power, a specialty of the Kyrgyz economy.
From its side Kyrgyzstan is particularly interested in Indian investment in telecommunications, oil and gas, tourism, railways and particularly collaboration with India’s information technology industry.
Major Indian exports to include wool, cotton, leather goods, handicrafts, machinery and instruments, cosmetics and toiletries, while major Indian imports from Kyrgyzstan include raw wool, metal manufactures, raw silk, crude minerals and metal scrap.
On 9 April India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement noting, “India is following closely and with concern recent internal developments in the KyrgyzRepublic, a friendly Central Asian country in our extended neighborhood. We hope that the current political situation will be resolved quickly and that peace and stability would return to the KyrgyzRepublic.” Like China, India’s influence over events is primarily economic, though at a far more modest level than Beijing’s. Unlike China, New Delhi has virtually no military cards on the table to play, either bilateral nor alliance, so it must at present remain on the sidelines, except perhaps for deploying its diplomacy.
Like neighboring Tajikistan Kazakhstan has closed its border with Kyrgyzstan, but less tightly, barring vehicles from entering unless they are driven by returning Kazakh citizens. The Kazakh terse public and private media tersely covered events in Kyrgyzstan in noncommittal and cautious terms. Kazakh citizens, however, can follow the events through satellite television, and on the Internet.
In an interview with Evron’ius television channel, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev observed, “The Kyrgyz Republic is our neighbor. I watch these events with great sadness. I’m just sorry that the fraternal Kyrgyz people, who are so close to us, have permanently entered such an abyss.”
Last week Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov said that Kazakhstan hoped the situation in Kyrgyzstan would resolve peacefully soon, promising humanitarian aid to help victims of the fighting.
More interesting, on 9 April Air Astana suspended its four scheduled weekly services between the capital Almaty and Bishkek with service scheduled to resume on 19 April, subject to tightened security. Air Astana President Peter Foster said, “Air Astana will do everything possible to help passengers that are stranded in Almaty/Bishkek because of political situation in Kyrgyzstan. Although this is situation beyond our control we will offer full refunds.”
What makes Air Astana’s action so noteworthy is that Kazakhstan may have worried that the airline would be used by Bakiyev administration officials to flee the country. The author was told on 8 April by a high ranking official from a Central Asian embassy in Washington speaking on condition of anonymity that Bakiyev had indeed earlier that day flown to Kazakhstan, only to be turned back.
Kazakh Senate deputy speaker Zhanybek Karibzhanov is currently in Bishkek representing Kazakhstan as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On 10 April Karibzhanov said, “The interim government is ready to hold negotiations. The first attempt to hold such talks took place last night.”
What is increasingly obvious is that Kazakhstan intends to play its role as chair of the OSCE to the maximum during the crisis. On 12 April Karibzhanov said, “We have met with a wide spectrum of society, including provisional administration leaders, members of the former parliament and civil society representatives. These talks have helped us get a comprehensive picture of the situation and the current political landscape in the country. Together we have identified spheres where the OSCE could make an effective contribution.”
It is quite a heady assignment for Karibzhanov, Deputy Speaker of Kazakhstan’s Majilis (lower house of Parliament) who was only appointed Special Envoy by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on 8 April.
The same day on the other wide of the world the Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg reported that Nazarbayev, in Washington for a nuclear conference, during discussions with President Obama offered the U.S. the possibility of opening a military base on its territory, an offer reportedly confirmed by Michael McFaul, a special assistant to President Obama for Russia, Eurasia and Caucasus affairs, who added that “The leaders discussed a possibility of the US troops to fly in Afghanistan through the North Pole and territory of Kazakhstan from the US, that is more convenient than flights through Europe.”
Tajik government limited its official comments to events, only calling the crisis Kyrgyzstan’s “internal affair.” Tajik policy closely aligned with Bakiyev’s, particularly on the contentious issue of the two states’ water flows to their neighboring former Soviet republics Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, a topic which has led to increasing tension over the past several years. Both countries want to build massive hydroelectric projects, which are opposed by their downstream neighbors, particularly Uzbekistan.
Interestingly, in Dushanbe on 9 April the leader of the Islamic Rebirth Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Muhiddin Kabiri, met U.S. embassy official Charles Martin for a closed door meeting, after which Kabiri stated that recent events in Kyrgyzstan and their impact on Tajikistan had been one of the topics discussed.
Sayfullo Safarov, deputy director of the Centre for Strategic Studies under the Tajik president, analyzed events in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, saying, “Revolutions and coups take place in countries that have weak economies and many social problems. These exact factors were activated in Kyrgyzstan: a weak economy, numerous social problems, an increase in the price of electricity, the monopolization of some economic facilities and localism became the main reason for the people’s revolt in Kyrgyzstan.”
Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have put their local security forces on higher levels of alert.
Uzbekistan has yet to make any official statement on the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, but on 9 April Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement announcing the closing of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border, because the government hoped to avoid the spreading of riots into Uzbekistan proper, commenting, “Uzbekistan’s government has to take steps to tighten the border crossing regime,” which Tashkent regarded as a prudent measure, as both IMU elements remain in Kyrgyzstan and 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population is ethnic Uzbek.
Speaking on condition of anonymity a Kyrgyz Border Service officer confirmed that the border was closed at Uzbekistan’s initiative, commenting, “The situation on the border with the neighboring countries remains calm.”
All the above-mentioned nations, while having significant interests in Kyrgyzstan, have adopted a reactive “wait and see” attitude until events there become clearer. Unlike its former Soviet Central Asian republic neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has had no tradition of a strong presidency – rather, the president accrued power over time. But like its neighbors, tribalism and regionalism divide the nation, with Kyrgyzstan split into northern and southern regions. The two factors combined to produce a fragile post-Bakiyev scenario, which could conceivably see Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors address ongoing turmoil in Kyrgyzstan destabilizing the region.
Depending on the situation develops Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors could become involved, as Kyrgyzstan is a member of the post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) along with Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a NATO counterpart in the former Soviet space. Should the situation in Kyrgyzstan deteriorate, CSTO could conceivably send members of its Collective Rapid Reaction Force, as on 6 October 2007 CSTO members established a peacekeeping force that could deploy with or without a UN mandate in its member states.
A second regional mechanism for intervention could be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which includes China, Russia and the three above-mentioned Central Asian nations, especially as in October 2007 the SCO signed an agreement with CSTO to broaden cooperation.
What is clear is that all the Eurasian powers are closely watching events in Kyrgyzstan, and are considering options to stabilize the situation if it deteriorates. About the only certainty at this point is that if events warrant a CSTO and/or SCO intervention Washington, with its obsession with retaining at any cost access ManasTransitCenter airbase, will watch the scenario unfold as passive observers with M16s locked and loaded from behind its 223 hectares of barbed wire 20 miles from Bishkek. If events of the past week have proved anything to the Kyrgyz people and their Central Asian neighbors, it is that nearly two decades of U.S. harangues about human rights have proven less important than Washington’s geostrategic concerns.
As Michael Corleone observed, “It’s just business,” but the irony that Russia has been ahead of the U.S. in the international vanguard of dealing with the Kyrgyz provisional government established in the wake of a popular uprising that saw nearly 100 killed and over 1,000 wounded is not lost on the Kyrgyz, much less their compatriots in the surrounding “Stans.”
Part one can be found here: The Truth behind the Recent Unrest in Kyrgyzstan
By Dr. John CK Daly for Oilprice.com who offer detailed analysis on Crude oil, Geopolitics, Gold and most other Commodities.
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