Protesters wearing pink and yellow armbands succeeded in ousting the regime of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, overtaking the presidential palace in Bishkek early March 24. Akayev and his family reportedly fled by helicopter to Russia.
The fall of Akayev's pro-Russian regime, in what has been dubbed the "Tulip Revolution," could be viewed as yet another blow for Moscow in its near abroad, where a series of pro-Western "velvet" revolutions have been steadily shrinking Russia's sphere of influence. Now, it is not clear that what has occurred in Kyrgyzstan is indeed a pro-Western revolution. The opposition is hardly a unified movement: Clan affiliations, ethnic divisions and other internal demographics are all in play. And, as some have noted, the fact that demonstrators have been unable to settle on a common color for their armbands does not bode well for consensus on larger political matters.
Recognizing that a forecast for political upheaval in Central Asia does not necessarily draw screaming headlines, it is important to remember a few geographic facts. Kyrgyzstan is nestled high in the Tien-Shan Mountains, bordering China on its south and east. And, as a former part of the Soviet Union, it remains of strategic interest to Russia. What makes all of this particularly interesting is that both Russia and China have a tendency to view any upheaval in regions where they take interest as part of a conspiracy orchestrated by the United States in order to challenge their hegemony.
This might be paranoid thinking. It might be prudent "worst-case scenario" planning. Or it might be a rational appreciation of Washington's intentions. Whichever it is, the simple fact is that both regional powers regard any instability in any country in the area as being generated by the United States and intended to harm them.
Because Kyrgyzstan is part of the Muslim world, the United States certainly cannot afford to be indifferent to anything that happens there. U.S. forces are still conducting operations in Afghanistan and probing into Pakistan's northern provinces -- and supplying its forces there from a logistics base in Kyrgyzstan. That base is one of two interests Washington has in Kyrgyzstan; the other is making certain al Qaeda or other radical Islamist groups don't increase their power in the region. So it would stand to reason that Washington has no interest in fostering instability in Kyrgyzstan.
The Russians are not so sure. They see the United States turning its attention from al Qaeda to other issues, and they don't buy the Bush administration's line that its political involvement in the region -- specifically in Ukraine, where Washington helped secure a win by pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko late last year -- is simply about the American love for free elections. They believe the United States sought to install a pro-U.S. government in Kiev in order to bring Ukraine into NATO and undermine Russian national security.
Russian leaders also see the United States as locking down its power in Central Asia. The United States, having exerted influence in the region initially for economic development, had Russia's support when it introduced troops following the Sept. 11 attacks. Leaders in Moscow and elsewhere think the Americans now are using these troops to create a strategic reality: denying Russia its sphere of influence in the region. They think Kyrgyzstan is part of this strategy.
On the other side of Asia is China. Its westernmost province, Xinjiang, is predominantly Muslim and in rebellion against Beijing. Chinese leaders have never been comfortable with the American position on Xinjiang -- which seemed to argue that the U.S. war against al Qaeda was one thing, but that China's battle against Muslim separatists in Xinjiang was quite another. Government officials occasionally have indicated a belief that the Americans actually liked the Xinjiang insurrection because it weakened China.
The Chinese are concerned that instability in Central Asia will increase the flow of supplies to Xinjiang militants. Therefore, they view events in Kyrgyzstan as part of Washington's strategy to threaten China, at a time when Washington has pressured Europe to back away from arms sales to Beijing. The Chinese don't believe the United States is obsessed with al Qaeda any longer. They believe the Americans are obsessed with China, and they see events in Kyrgyzstan as a security threat.
Washington did not engineer the Kyrgyzstan rising, but it can use the uprising to increase its influence in Central Asia. The world has changed sufficiently that al Qaeda is no longer the top story; relationships among great powers are.
In fact on Oct. 11 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first arrived in Kyrgyzstan for the start of a regional tour that includes plans for stops in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. She is calling for political change in the region, but the U.S. is more concerned with having Central Asian governments help in its war against militant Islam than in providing security assistance for these governments at home.
With respect to the former Soviet republics, Rice has said that the purpose of her visit will not be to push for military bases, as has been the case with other recent high-level U.S. visits to the region, but to promote democracy and regional economic development.
Rice's statement constitutes a change of tune for the United States in the region and is indicative of efforts by Washington to reverse its decline of influence in the region since the May uprising in Uzbekistan and the reinvigoration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July.
Washington's efforts in recent months to secure its military bases in the region and to find substitutes for its soon-to-be-lost Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan smacked of self-interest to Central Asia's governments - which have economic, political and security interests of their own that are strikingly different from Washington's. During this same period, Moscow strengthened economic ties (via a merging of the Central Asia Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union) resulting in an upgrade of infrastructure ties.In other words Russian investments create employment and serve economic needs.
Hence all three Central Asian countries are merely speaking politely and offer gestures of friendship during Rice's visit - but nothing of substance will change, and U.S. influence will continue to decline in the region to the benefit of Russia in this new phase of the Great Game.
The Sept. 19-24 Russo-Uzbek military exercises in Uzbekistan are just one of many signs that the "Great Game" in Central Asia is intensifying as Washington faces Moscow and Beijing's combined strength.
Central Asia: Why The 'Great Game' Heats Up
A key element in the "Great Game" is outside powers' security presence -- whether bases or joint exercises with host countries or arms deliveries -- in the region. Geopolitically, a security presence allows an outside power to exercise more control over a host country's policies and make sure the outside power's national interests are observed and promoted in the host country. Economically, a security presence allows an outside power to ensure that Central Asia's energy riches are exported in the direction the outside power wants; the outside power can also make sure such deliveries are safe and that other outsiders cannot easily reroute the region's energy outflow. In military-strategic terms, a security presence allows an outside power to project forces and power from a host country to other countries in the region, including the outside power's rivals.
Moscow and Beijing's positions in Uzbekistan are strong, and will grow stronger in the near future. Knowing well that Washington is working to overthrow him -- most likely through a popular uprising such as the Andijan uprising in May, in which pro-Western and Islamist elements joined forces -- President Islam Karimov quickly is developing military, political and energy ties with Moscow and Beijing, which Karimov sees as capable protectors.
The latest sign of a growing Russo-Uzbek alliance is the Sept. 19-24 joint counterterrorism exercises. The goal is to train Russian and Uzbek forces together to quickly put down an armed rebellion in Uzbekistan similar to the Andijan uprising but larger in scale, Uzbek military sources said. Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Tashkent is entitled legally to receive such help from Moscow -- and from Beijing, for that matter. Two paratrooper companies from the 76th Russian Airborne Division and several special forces groups from the Russian General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate are participating along with the same number of Uzbek paratroopers and special forces groups. To emphasize the exercises' importance, the two nations' defense ministers are attending.
The exercises are being held in the Jizzax region, about 170 miles southwest of Tashkent, in the foothills of mountains. The terrain is similar to that of the volatile Fergana Valley, where the next Uzbek uprising is most likely. The Jizzax region itself has become restive, with Islamists and pro-Western activists fomenting anti-government sentiments and with some Jizzax clan leaders suspected of participating in a power struggle against Karimov.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, concerned with the prospect of a pro-U.S. "revolution" that could remove him from power, is moving closer to both Moscow and Beijing. This is especially true in the fields of politics and security; in addition to worrying about a "revolution," Nazarbayev sees his country facing a real threat from international and domestic Islamist militants and he realizes that Moscow and Beijing -- not Washington -- can give him quick and efficient help. Though Kazakhstan has been increasing its military cooperation with the United States regarding the Caspian Sea, that cooperation only involves U.S. funding for new maritime equipment and is significantly smaller in scope and depth than Kazakhstan's cooperation with Russia and Astana's SCO commitments. Economically, Astana is bent on customer diversification and is working with Western, Russian and Chinese companies.
Astana's closer relationship with Beijing was evidenced when visiting Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan and his Kazakh counterpart Danial Akhmetov agreed Sept. 19 that their countries' and agencies' military cooperation should be strengthened. Kazakh defense sources say the two ministers discussed joint high military staff consultations, Kazakh officers' training in Chinese military academies and proposals from the Kazakh defense complex to develop modern-arms systems for China.
The latest example of growing Kazakh-Russian security collaboration is a joint counterterrorism exercise that Kazakhstan's Pavlodar regional police department and Russia's Novosibirsk regional police conducted Sept. 13. The exercises, located in the Kazakh town of Karasuk on the Kazakh-Russian border, included a scenario in which terrorists took hostages and special forces troops stormed the hideout and released the hostages. Kazakh and Russian joint counterterrorism training has intensified vastly in the last couple of years, with police forces alone conducting 13 exercises. Kazakhstan is concerned with Islamist militants training in its southern areas to stage attacks against energy infrastructure, while Russia is concerned with jihadists coming from Central Asia to implement terrorist attacks within Russia.
Kyrgyzstan offers a curious example of how geopolitics can play tricks with expectations. The Bush administration thought Kyrgyzstan's pro-Western "revolution" in April would put the country squarely in the U.S. sphere of influence. Bishkek is maintaining good ties with Washington -- for example, Kyrgyzstan still hosts the United States' Manas Air Base -- but recent developments show the government is drifting further toward Moscow and, to an extent, Beijing. The underlying reason for this is that no matter what clan is in power, members of the Kyrgyz elite feel a pressing need to protect their personal and national security against Islamist militants and civil disturbances, and it knows U.S. troops from Manas are unlikely to interfere if a new uprising occurs, though Beijing and especially Moscow will be ready and able to oblige for their own interests.
The future of Manas Air Base is coming into question. On Sept. 21, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev said Washington should pay a higher rent for the base and withdraw from Kyrgyzstan once the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes. Bakiyev said the terms and conditions of the lease agreement and current rent amount should be reviewed and were discussed when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld toured Central Asia in July.
During a visit to Kyrgyzstan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Sept. 21 that Moscow is set to invest several billion rubles in a long-term program for its air base at Kant. Ivanov's announcement came as he signed an agreement with Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov to provide Kyrgyzstan with $3 million in military aid consisting of dozens of Kamaz trucks, an Mi-8 Hip helicopter, firearms and spare parts for support vehicles and armored vehicles. By providing the aid, Moscow is fulfilling Bishkek's wish list. In a mountainous country such as Kyrgyzstan, helicopters are very useful for transportation and logistical support -- and would facilitate support operations in the hills away from Kyrgyzstan's towns and cities, where Bishkek's control over the locals is tenuous at best. One feature of the Mi-8 is that gun pods and 57 mm unguided rocket pods can be mounted on the helicopter easily; thus a transport helicopter can be turned into a gunship. Also, armed with aging Soviet-made weapons and equipment, the Kyrgyz army needs spare parts from Russia.
The Tajik government is balancing carefully between Moscow and Washington, with Russia maintaining a military base at Dushanbe and the United States hoping to get one to three air bases in the country to partly substitute for the loss of the large Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan. Because some key Tajik officials could be under the influence of drug lords -- who are extremely powerful in Tajikistan and want to push Russia out of the country because Russian security forces interfere with their drug-trafficking operations that run from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe -- Tajikistan could tilt toward Washington.
There already are signs that Dushanbe is leaning toward the United States; on Sept. 16, a senior official in Tajikistan's ruling People's Democratic Party said Dushanbe is willing to host some of the U.S. military equipment and personnel that will have to leave Uzbekistan by early 2006. The statement indicates that Washington is having some success in its response to Russia and China's concerted efforts to roll back U.S. influence in Central Asia.
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov traditionally keeps both Moscow and Washington at bay. Turkmenistan has been officially neutral since independence. Siding with either Moscow or Washington would shift the way that all of Turkmenistan's neighbors see the country and would force them all -- particularly Iran and Uzbekistan -- to reconsider their regional postures and strategic positions.
Niyazov so far has not allowed the United States to establish bases in his country, but he also has refrained from aligning firmly with Moscow by keeping Turkmenistan from joining security alliances with Russia or the SCO. Niyazov is not overly friendly toward the West, either, fearing the possibility of a pro-Western "revolution" in Turkmenistan. Despite Niyazov's attitude, Washington has been making overtures toward Ashgabat.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Turkmenistan and Tajikistan in August in an effort to secure alternative bases after the U.S. leaves Manas and Karshi-Khanabad. Though U.S. and Turkmen officials denied the visit had anything to do with bases, it is difficult to otherwise explain Abizaid's visit; when he was busy commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Abizaid was not likely to go to Ashgabat with less meaningful goals in mind. German media reported that Washington was seeking bases in Turkmenistan and that Niyazov agreed to accept them in exchange for Washington's promise not to try to overthrow him. Russian intelligence sources say that agreement has not yet been made.
One of the Turkmen bases Washington reportedly is looking at is Mary, near the Iranian border. The former Soviet base was used heavily during the 1979-1989 Afghan war to stage Soviet bombing missions, and it has a long runway capable of accommodating large transport aircraft and strategic bombers. With some upgrades, the base at Mary would make an excellent regional logistics hub to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. The base's proximity to Iran cannot have gone unnoticed; Washington knows that having a large U.S. presence on a third border will give Tehran something to worry about.
The other Turkmen base Washington is looking at is at Gusgy, on the Afghan border. During the Afghan war, Soviet troops used the border crossing there as a main transit point into Afghanistan, and there is still a small Turkmen-maintained air base there.
It remains to be seen whether Niyazov will allow U.S. forces into his country, or if the U.S. requests will be used only to further his policy of playing both sides of the fence between Washington and Moscow, though the latter is more likely. Overall, with the question of U.S. bases in Central Asia still unanswered, much of the "Great Game" still lies ahead.
KYRGYZSTANAskar Akayev became president in 1990. He was re-elected by direct popular vote shortly after independence in 1991 and again in 1995 and 2000. In the early years of his presidency, Mr Akayev was widely regarded as the most liberal leader in former Soviet Central Asia. But there was growing discontent with his leadership, amid reports of political suppression, economic stagnation and widespread corruption.
Analysts have expressed surprised at how quickly institutions collapsed in Kyrgyzstan, and the speed at which Mr Akayev lost control of government. They say the fall of the regime is an indication of its weakness, rather than the opposition's strength.
Observers says Kyrgyzstan's political future depends on how well the opposition is able to develop. At the moment, many personalities and interests are jostling for power, and it is not entirely clear what they stand for.
KAZAKHSTANKazakhstan is the wealthiest and most stable country in Central Asia thanks to its oil reserves, but the political system has become increasingly authoritarian, corruption is widespread and rural areas are still very poor.
Political power is concentrated in the hands of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who came to power in 1989 as the communist leader of Soviet Socialist Republic and has been president since 1991. His party has a comfortable parliamentary majority, ensuring he maintains tight control. Like some other Central Asian rulers, Mr Nazarbayev has been keen to promote his relatives and allies.
Previous elections have failed to meet international standards. Privately owned and opposition media are subject to harassment and censorship.
Analysts say the country is relatively stable in the short term. However, the small opposition is increasingly active, and oil wealth has created a business class that is interested in political power. Presidential elections are slated for 2006.
TAJIKISTANTajikistan is the only Central Asian country to have had a civil war since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The five-year conflict, from 1992-1997, killed up to 50,000 people, and more than one-tenth of the population fled the country.
Emomali Rahmonov was elected president in 1994. His People's Democratic Party occupies almost all of the 63 seats in the lower house of parliament. Previous elections have failed to meet international standards. Opposition Islamic and communist parties have a handful of seats between them.
The main issues that dog Central Asia - widespread poverty and repressive leadership - are of concern here, too. While Mr Rahmonov has experienced serious challenges to his rule, observers say the opposition is weak and divided, and that the government is increasingly authoritarian.
Tajiks are still "war-weary", one observer says, and unwilling to take risks. However, the country's economy is increasingly reliant on revenues from its position as a drugs route out of Afghanistan, and there continue to be simmering divisions related to the civil war.
TURKMENISTANTurkmenistan is effectively a one-party state, and the regime is considered highly authoritarian and repressive. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, head of the Communist Party Saparmyrat Niyazov was elected president in 1991, and named president-for-life in 1999. Mr Niyazov has nurtured a personality cult and likes to be known as Turkmenbashi, or Father of All Turkmens.
There is no official political opposition. There is no free press, and only a handful of opposition demonstrations have been reported since independence. A small number of fractured opposition groups exist in exile, but their influence is said to be negligible.
Analysts are concerned about the country's growing poverty - despite revenue from important reserves of natural gas - and the absence of political institutions. The lack of a clear line of succession after Mr Niyazov is a potential cause of instability in the longer term.
UZBEKISTANThe political leadership has been dominated by Islam Karimov since 1989, when he became Communist Party leader in then Soviet Uzbekistan. The regime is unpopular. There is no real internal opposition and the media is tightly controlled by the state. A UN report has documented the systematic use of torture. There is widespread frustration about the country's low standards of living.
A series of bomb blasts in 1999 was blamed on Islamic extremists, who were accused by the regime of seeking to destabilise the country. Mr Karimov has been accused of using the perceived threat of Islamic militancy to justify his repressive style of leadership, and observers say that has strengthened sympathy for militant groups.
The absence of a legitimate means of expressing dissent could create fertile ground for violent protest. Mr Karimov will be watching developments in Kyrgyzstan very carefully, and is expected to intensify efforts to stifle any potential spread of "people power".
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