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    Central Asia
     Dec 20, '13

Kyrgyz president fears war in the south
By Ryskeldi Satke

President Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan announced this month that a US$1 billion Kyrgyz-Russian arms deal is ready to be implemented, with delivery "soon" of "artillery pieces, tanks, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and other military equipment". [1] The Russian Federal Security Service controlled Regnum news agency [2] has coincidentally quoted a statement by Atambayev on December 16 referring to a possible "foreign army attack" on Kyrgyzstan. [3]

Domestic politics insiders in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, believe Atambayev was referring to complications with Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley. It is no secret that the present state of Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations is considered outside government as counterproductive given the numerous deadly cross border skirmishes between the states. Official Tashkent, the Uzbekistan capital, does not miss a chance to remind its neighbors in

Kyrgyzstan of the possible consequences of any unilateral decisions Bishek makes to build hydro stations in the upstream rivers in the Ferghana Valley.

The complexity of the relations between the states outlines Central Asia's vulnerability to internal crises in light of unresolved disputes. Specifically, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are the two primary republics prone to interstate animosity.

A host of issues remain at the center of their ongoing hostility, with deadly encounters on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border continuing without urgent attention from either government. Aside from routine border shooting incidents, Uzbekistan has been irritated by Kyrgyz-Russian plans to control the regional water stream that is vital to Uzbekistan's agricultural industry.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov made his views clear when visiting his autocrat counterpart in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in September 2012. "Water resources could become a problem in the future that could escalate tensions not only in our region, but on every continent, I won't name specific countries, but all of this could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars, could be the result," in apparent reference to outstanding water disputes with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. [4]

Cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan under President Atambayev sees utilizing Russian offers to invest into his country's water resources as the only way out of domestic instability. Kyrgyzstan has also extended the Kremlin's rights for military bases in the republic, home to air bases for both Russia and the United States. Moscow has taken this a step further by deciding to rearm the Kyrgyz army.

The Russian arms deal with Kyrgyzstan became official after Uzbekistan pulled out of the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organization security pact amid reports of Uzbekistan seeking closer ties with Washington in exchange for North Atlantic Treaty Organization military equipment that will be left over after next year's NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Analysts in Kyrgyzstan believe President Atambayev's comment on a "foreign army attack" reflects his mood over the scenario of possible military conflict with southern neighbor Uzbekistan.

The unsettled state of Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations dates back to 2000, when Uzbekistan cut off its gas supply to Kyrgyzstan in the middle of winter as a reminder that Bishkek should pay its gas bill. In retaliation, Bishkek opened the floodgate at the Toktogul water dam to double its own domestic electricity production.

Downstream Uzbek cotton fields in the Ferghana Valley suffered the most from this "water diplomacy" as some parts of the farmland in Uzbekistan became useless. Uzbekistan's President Karimov, angered by the unexpected response from Bishkek, ordered the Uzbek army to conduct military drills with ground troops and air support on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek perimeter. [5]

Uzbekistan's war game plan was aimed at the same Toktogul hydro station that is a key element in Kyrgyzstan's energy industry. The adrenalin-pumped Kyrgyz government reacted to this show of force by warning Karimov that an "accidental" dam explosion at the Toktogul power station might cause a flood of water that would "wipe Uzbekistan's Ferghana and Zerafshan valleys from the face off the earth". [6]

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan came close to all-out open interstate conflict in June 2010, when ethnic violence broke out between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. Ongoing political upheaval in the Kyrgyz republic over the years also weakened state institutions, creating a power vacuum throughout the country; ethnic strife in the south only intensified the breakdown of the Kyrgyz state.

Uzbekistan's position not to take advantage of the spiraling chaos in the neighboring republic coincided with the geopolitical dynamics emanating from Russia's obsession with the US military presence in Central Asia.

So as Washington is about to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan face yet another year of negative politics over unsettled issues. In the meantime, reports of sporadic firefights on both sides of the fence leave less optimism for better prospects of cooperation between the two. Ultimately, in the absence of mutual coordination, stability in the Ferghana Valley is unsustainable.

1. Russia to Begin Arms Shipments to Kyrgyzstan, RIANovosti, December 16, 2013.
2. The DDoS and Defacement Attacks of “Anonymous Ukraine” and “CCD COE”: interactions between “patriotic” hackers, media and political leadership in cyberspace", by Piret Pernik, RKK/International Centre for Defence Studies, November 12, 2013.
3. "Kyrgyz President: "I am not afraid that the army of any country can attack the republic.", Regnum News.
4. Uzbek leader sounds warning over Central Asia water disputes, Reuters, September 7, 2012.
5. Army is not the answer to border dispute (Russian).
6. Big water truce (Russian).

Ryskeldi Satke is a freelance contributor with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Caucasus, Turkey and the United States. The author can be contacted at rsatke at gmail.com

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