Resetting the Great Game, Starting in Bishkek

The crisis in Kyrgyzstan will be on the agenda when Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev meet Thursday at the White House.

Will the two sides put aside their strategic rivalries in Central Asia and agree to tactical cooperation to stop Kyrgyzstan from descending into a spiral of chaos that could highly destabilize the entire region? Or will they limit themselves to a joint statement that political leaders usually express when they prefer to keep clear of dangerous situations?

The seriousness of the crisis in Kyrgyzstan could challenge conventional thinking about U.S.-Russian interests in Central Asia. In fact, you could argue that Russia may consider the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan a stabilizing influence and that the United States may welcome Russian leadership to address the crisis. This would turn on its head the accepted logic about zero-sum game geopolitical competition between the two in the region.

The violence over the past week in the south of the country between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities has brought fear to the capital, Bishkek. The fear is that without a legitimate government and with the ruling class splintering into ever-smaller pieces, Kyrgyzstan is rudderless and could see further disturbances not just along ethnic lines. The interim government’s constitutional referendum, expected to take place Sunday, could make the situation worse if its results are challenged. The implosion of the Kyrgyz state is not in the interest of either Russia or the United States and is a scenario viewed with great concern by all countries in Central Asia, as well as China.

Although there were violent clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 1990, the two ethnic groups have a long tradition of living together peacefully. Most observers agree that while the recent disturbances were probably in some form provoked, the released tensions were rooted in economic impoverishment and hopelessness. Kyrgyzstan’s per capita income is $268, while Uzbekistan’s is nearly double that at $514, and Kazakhstan’s is nearly five times Kyrgyzstan’s at $1,322. As Kyrgyzstan gets increasingly bogged down in its internal political and social problems, investment and economic growth will decrease even further. This means that the already poor Kyrgyz will become even poorer.

Moscow would very much like Washington to tacitly acknowledge that former Soviet republics in Central Asia are part of its sphere of influence. But the violence in Kyrgyzstan has shown that there are strict limits to Russia’s power projection in its backyard. The Russian government rejected calls from interim Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbayeva for Russian peacekeepers to stabilize the current situation. Medvedev also made clear that an intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization was out of the question.

Russia’s leaders seem to be hoping that the interim government can still stabilize the crisis in Kyrgyzstan. But they should read very carefully the chilling report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, which warned the organization’s 56 members on June 14 that interethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan were deteriorating rapidly and faced “complete breakdown” and that the interim government did “not possess the power to enforce law and order in the country.”

Until recently, Kyrgyzstan has been an area of strategic competition between Russia and the United States, symbolized by the Manas airbase, a key transportation hub for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. Russia maintains its own smaller base nearby at Kant. Its main purpose appears to be to remind the United States that Russia has the final say on U.S. basing rights in the country.

Ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev played a double game with Moscow and Washington over the U.S. base. In 2009, his government agreed to a package deal with Russia worth $2 billion in soft loans and other incentives that presupposed closure of the base. Bakiyev promptly renegotiated terms with the United States, raising the cost of the Manas lease and other services to $60 million per year. Russia’s leaders were, apparently, infuriated by this decision and happy to see him removed from power.

Leaving aside speculation about the degree of Moscow’s involvement in Bakiyev’s ouster, there is a critical question to be answered. Did Russia underestimate the speed at which Kyrgyzstan would unravel after Bakiyev’s departure? The indications so far are that it did. Moscow apparently failed to see the weakness of the state system as a result of the fragmentation of the country’s ruling groups and its effects on society at large.

Although Otunbayeva moved swiftly to honor the commitment by Bakiyev to extend the Manas lease for another year, the interim government vented its anger at the United States over the failure of U.S. diplomats to maintain relations with the opposition in the final period of his rule. It accused the United States of putting its strategic interests at Manas ahead of good governance and commitment to democratic values in Kyrgyzstan. It also began an investigation into corruption around fuel supply contracts for Manas that appeared designed to discredit the U.S. government.

Rather than fighting over the long-term future of the Manas base, Russia and the United States may now need each other in this very dangerous situation. Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have already made it clear that Washington should not regard its base at Manas as permanent, but neither the United States nor Russia has an interest in seeing Kyrgyzstan break apart, risking destabilization across Central Asia.

At the same time, neither wants to assume responsibility for controlling the country. The United States is in the middle of its “surge” in Afghanistan and would probably prefer to hold on to Manas for the time being, despite speculation that it has been urgently seeking an alternative. At the same time, Russia has limited military forces at its disposal for military operations outside its borders and little appetite for a long-term commitment on this scale.

There is a strong rationale for a joint U.S.-Russian approach to managing the crisis in Kyrgyzstan that can help avert the country’s slide toward chaos. This cooperation can also create a foundation for other international organizations to make their contribution to preserving the country’s viability. The OSCE, which is currently chaired by Kazakhstan, will have an important role to play in Kyrgyzstan’s post-conflict rehabilitation.

As Medvedev and Obama meet on Thursday, Kyrgyzstan promises to test the full potential of the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

John Lough is an associate fellow of the Russia & Eurasia Programme at Chatham House in London.

See also:

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Kyrgyzstan: Social Media Flexes Muscle, Checks MP Spending

Moscow-Leaning Candidates Dominate Kyrgyz Polls