Since the April revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the country’s security situation has spiraled out of control, leading to widespread violence, and pleas for international help from the interim Kyrgyz government. Washington is concerned over the fate of its crucial base in Central Asia, located in the north of Kyrgyzstan at Manas. Russia has yet to commit to sending in forces as requested by the Kyrgyz government, but the region is set to ignite if they do.
Invading Forces, Or Peacekeepers?
Kyrgyzstan has a long history if internal unrest between the majority ethnic Kyrgyz, and the ethnic Uzbeks, who make up 15 percent of the Kyrgyzstani population. The last comparable spate of violence to the present was seen in 1990, when a couple of hundred people lost their lives. That was when Kyrgyzstan was a part of the Soviet Union, and at that time, Soviet forces from Moscow were sent in to reinstate order. Twenty years later, and a similar situation has arisen, but the outcome is by no means clear.
Many are blaming the ousted former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev for fomenting the current spate of violence between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, with reports filtering through of mercenaries firing indiscriminately at both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz to initiate the violence-others are suggesting that perhaps Moscow is the real source of the trouble. However the violence started, it is no longer an isolated internal Kyrgyz issue, rather a burgeoning Central Asian crisis.
Russia has already sent troops into Kyrgyzstan to boost security at their base near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek following the violence, but not in any capacity except to protect the military base. The interim Kyrgyz government has specifically called upon Russia to send troops to help stabilize the country, as it did in the 1990’s, but the situation for Russia is much more tricky, and sending in troops this time around could open up a whole new chapter of violence.
Many in the region are worried that Moscow is using the time provided by the US being more than entangled in Afghanistan, Iraq and recently distracted with the Iran nuclear issue and the Israel flotilla incident to quietly reestablish itself as preeminent in the former Soviet colonies in Central Asia. None of the countries in Central Asia have any real means of averting Russian power, militarily or otherwise, excepting perhaps Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has the capability of projecting power, and has already warned that Tashkent will view any Russian intervention in Kyrgyzstan as a preliminary move against Uzbekistan-not something Russia is keen to provoke. The Russian-led Central Asian ‘Collective Security Treaty Organization'(CSTO) is expected to be the only front via which Russia can send troops to Kyrgyzstan without inflaming the Uzbek nation, but Russia at present is adamant that the CSTO should not be mobilized as the organization’s charter specifies non-interference in internal affairs.
There is a stalemate on external forces entering Kyrgyzstan to help: Uzbekistan is the closest military power, and despite supporting the interim Kyrgyz government, any move by the Uzbek’s to enter Kyrgyzstan will be viewed as hostile, no matter what the pretext. Russia is not without interests in Kyrgyzstan, but at present is reluctant to make the military move. China, while evacuating its citizens from the country, is completely hands off as far as aiding the country militarily, and neighbors Kazakhstan and Tajikistan simply don’t have the resources to help. The US has vital interests in Kyrgyzstan in the form of its one remaining Central Asian military base, but engaging in a third theatre of operation is highly unlikely, and would be very unpalatable to the US, government and public alike. India must also be worried over the fate of its big power dreams in Central Asia. The country has maintained a military base in Ayni, Tajikistan, much to the dismay of Russia, China and Pakistan. (In an upcoming piece, PoliTact will be examining Indian role in Central Asia.)
Despite Russian proclamations to the contrary, if the present situation continues to deteriorate, a peacekeeping force within the framework of the CSTO is very likely, as no one in the region wants the country to collapse altogether.
Great Power Tussles and Vital Interests
Kyrgyzstan is also the setting of a latent tussle between Russia and the US over the presence of military bases. As previously discussed by PoliTact, Moscow views the US military base at Manas as a fly in the ointment of its backyard, with a Russian senior official stating “In Kyrgyzstan there should only be one base-Russian” in 2008. The Manas base is a long-standing issue between Russia and the US, with Kyrgyzstan sandwiched in the middle. Continuous pressure on the interim government from Moscow to disallow the US presence, and in the wake of the recent violence, Moscow has renewed its push for the US base to be evicted.
The status of the base may very well become the bargaining chip Russia wants to ‘motivate’ it to intervene in the current Kyrgyz crisis, and it must be noted that if this eventuates, the fate of the Manas base is indeed in peril. This would spell disaster for the US’s war on terror, as the Manas base is the first stop for troops and supplies for the war in Afghanistan. Without the Kyrgyz base, the US would have to rely fully on supply routes through Pakistan, something which would likely cripple the US operations. Given the worsening situation in the AfPak region, the US has been trying to wean itself from the supply chain through Pakistan, and focus more on the northern routes.
If the US base is closed, and the Russians do intervene in the current crisis, Kyrgyzstan may well become a de-facto Russian state, as without a strong government, nor even a cohesive national population, the only thing holding it together would be the Russian presence-in fact a Russian presence may be the only thing to stop Kyrgyzstan from disintegrating into total chaos, and becoming a failed state.
This links in with a recent PoliTact projection of the region as a possible sink-hole for the nation state. The Kyrgyz state is not alone in the region in being subject to the pressure of greater powers, the clamoring of a population ill-content and inhomogeneous, and the weakness of its own internal structures and institutions. Pakistan is another case in point.
The AfPak theater is hanging tenaciously to the nation-state structure, but at the same time tearing itself from the inside-Afghanistan through the ongoing war with the Taliban, and Pakistan through the operations in North Waziristan and possible operations in Southern Punjab-not to mention the presence of extremism that is tearing at the national fabric of the states. Interestingly however, the reports of mercenaries starting the violence in Kyrgyzstan are echoed in Pakistan as well. A senior Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) member recently divulged that the number of terrorist attacks with no known links to a political or religious groups, but carried out by paid mercenaries was on the rise in Pakistan-the government is scrambling to find a source for these attacks, but finding only instead, that terrorism has become an industry, a ‘mafia’ if you will, which makes the whole scenario that much more complicated.
The current crisis in Kyrgyzstan is another backwards step for the region at large, and one which may prove the eventual undoing of the nation-state system in Central Asia-a failed state close by is a haven for extremists from all over Central Asia, whether they be from Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan or even China. Thus the crisis in Kyrgyzstan could be the tipping point of the descent of the region into a new, vamped up cycle of violence.
If for a moment we take a look back at history, we can see that it took over 400 fraught and bloody years for the nation-state system to settle into its current borders in Europe, and even still there are tensions within some borders, such as the Basque separatists in Spain where the homogenizing process is still not properly complete. This tells us two things: we should expect there to be more bloodshed before the region is settled, and that it may take many, many years before any semblance of stability is attained.
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