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.
Central Asia: At-a-glance
After a series of protests toppled Kyrgyzstan's government, the BBC's news website takes a look at the political tensions across Central Asia.
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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