China plays it cool on Kyrgyzstan
By M K Bhadrakumar
A terse Kremlin announcement said the Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov would
be paying a two-day visit to Moscow starting on Monday. It brings home how much
the geopolitics of Central Asia have changed since the color revolution in
Kyrgyzstan that ousted Kurmanbek Bakiyev as president began unfolding this
Karimov is a shrewd observer of regional politics. Of late, Tashkent has been
gravitating toward the West, but the turmoil in Bishkek underscores Moscow's
unique role as the preserver of regional stability.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev drew attention to the great fluidity and
political uncertainties when he said at a press briefing on Friday that the
"dramatic situation" in Kyrgyzstan was
"similar" to the "Tulip" revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Medvedev underscored
that Russia was an interested party since "Kyrgyzstan remains our strategic
partner and ... we are not indifferent to the fate of this country's people and
the situation there".
He therefore justified the Russian intervention - getting the Kazakh leadership
to persuade Bakiyev, who was holed up in his power base in southern Kyrgyzstan,
to go into exile and thereby break the political deadlock; persuading the
interim government to allow Bakiyev safe passage; and a Russian military
aircraft eventually transporting the former president to Kazakhstan.
Moscow has since announced a US$50 million financial aid package to enable the
interim government in Bishkek to remain solvent.
The Russian leader said: "We wanted to intervene in a situation that is
ultimately another country's sovereign affair, but in order to prevent
bloodshed ... Various forces had to get involved in order to reach an agreement
in this situation ... taking into account the tapestry of various interests in
Kyrgyzstan and in the region as a whole."
Significantly, Medvedev held out a stern warning:
Now, as for whether
this kid of situation could arise in other countries in the post-Soviet area,
or elsewhere in the world ... Anything is possible. If people are unhappy with
their leaders, if the authorities do not make the needed effort to support
people and address their biggest problems, this kind of situation could repeat
itself anywhere, in any country where the authorities are no longer in touch
with the people ... Listening to some of the statements that followed these
events [in Kyrgyzstan] it seems to me that these statements were dictated by
fears that this conflict and its outcome stirred among the leaders in a number
of countries. But the only way to avoid such fears is to govern one's own
country in competent fashion.
The past 10 days have rewritten the great game in Central Asia. Medvedev
revealed he "won't hide the fact" that apart from Kazakh President Nurusultan
Nazarbayev, he had talked with US President Barack Obama on how to "settle this
[Kyrgyzstan] matter" and that "we have all succeeded in preventing events from
taking a more serious turn".
But, interestingly, Medvedev left out his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, whom
he met last week, as his interlocutor on crisis management in Bishkek. Nor has
Moscow invoked any role for either the Collective Security Treaty Organization
or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
The swiftness with which senior American officials began contesting for
political space in Bishkek is also striking. Michael McFaul, the senior White
House advisor on Russia, said on April 9, "This is not some anti-American coup.
That we know for sure, and this is not a sponsored-by-the Russians coup." The
Obama administration hurriedly dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Robert
Blake to Bishkek to consult Roza Otunbayeva, the chairperson of the interim
The US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, who was caught by surprise
by the turn of events and was in the US, rushed back to Bishkek. Bakiyev's son,
who was visiting Washington and scheduled to meet Blake, was brusquely told to
get lost. Evidently, Washington was quick to realize the utter folly of its
diplomacy of investing so heavily on Bakiyev and his family. In Central Asia,
no one wagers with such abandon.
To quote Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia section in Global Affairs
magazine, "Kyrgyzstan is a tiny test case whether the US and Russia can find a
way in Eurasia. There could be a new deal ... Russia isn't categorically
against a US presence in Manas. It just wants the future to be discussed with
[Premier Vladimir] Putin and Medvedev."
Otunbayeva told the Washington Post on Friday that the current lease for Manas,
which technically runs out in July, would be extended beyond that date as a new
constitution had to be drafted and new elections held over the next six months.
The Russians have about 400 service personnel at a base in Kant, north of
The Obama administration seems to estimate that holding onto Manas should be
the top priority at the moment. Manas is a key link in the northern supply
chain for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan.
However, Russian experts expect the US to strike back. The head of the Central
Asia section of the Institute for CIS Studies in Moscow, Andrei Grozin said:
will try to keep its earlier foothold by trying to limit Russian influence ...
Whatever may be said about a new relationship between Washington and Moscow, I
think too many officials in both Russia and the US regard the situation in
Central Asia as a continuation of certain options in a big geopolitical game.
It is too early to say whether the new leadership in Kyrgyzstan will be
pro-Russian or pro-American because with even the most favorable course of
events, the elite will be regrouping in the next two to three months.
Paradoxically, the leaders of the revolution in Bishkek are the very same
people who led the abortive "Tulip" revolution in 2005 (which was usurped by
Bakiyev) and Washington has worked closely with them in the past. Therefore,
Moscow's empathy towards the new Kyrgyz leadership at this stage does not
necessarily mean that the new dispensation in Bishkek will advance Russian
interests. In any case, it is unlikely that the new leaders belonging to
various clans will pull together for long.
As Kyrgyzstan's neighbor, Karimov knows the legacy of the revolution in Bishkek
- indeed, its pedigree itself - remains unclear. Simply put, he dropped
everything and decided to travel to Moscow to fathom the dark depths and probe
the undercurrents. Karimov anticipates instability in Kyrgyzstan and will be
anxious that the fire doesn't spread to the house he built nearby.
A hot summer lies ahead for Uzbekistan (and Tajikistan) as veteran Islamist
warriors are trekking back from the battlefields in the Pakistan-Afghanistan
border areas. Karimov would share Medvedev's unspoken fear that the next
revolution could turn out to be green in color.
As a Russian commentator pointed out, "There are several players that may see
the Kyrgyz revolt as a call to action ... The battle is unlikely to be
difficult for Islamic revolutionaries ... If the attackers join forces and use
both military and 'peaceful' resources, the local regimes will stand very
The most important militant Islamic organization gearing up for battle is Hizb
ut-Tahrir (The Party of Liberation), which has an estimated cadre strength of
20,000 in the region. There are others, like Akromiya, an organization formed
in the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan in 1996, Hizb un-Nusrat (Party of
Assistance) wedded to the "Islamic resistance", Tablighi Jamaat (Society for
Spreading Faith), a transnational religious movement founded in India in the
1920s, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Movement and
the militant groups of the United Opposition of Tajikistan.
Guarded optimism in Beijing
China will be watching the complicated Russian-American waltz in Bishkek with
some amusement, but also with growing anxiety. Beijing has decided not to wade
into the crisis, instead adopting a stance of non-interference, despite the
high stakes for China's vital interests.
In a guarded reaction to the developments, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman
said China was "deeply concerned" and hoped that Kyrgyzstan "will restore peace
soon and maintain stability ... China hopes that relevant issues will be
settled in a lawful way."
Kyrgyzstan is a key component of Beijing's "go out" strategy towards Central
Asia - and Eurasia in general. Two border crossings at the Irkestan and
Torugart passes connect the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan has replaced Kazakhstan as the number one export market for Xinjiang
- $2.97 billion in 2009.
The government-owned China Daily analyzed that the regime change in Bishkek
"will not hurt ties with China". Chinese experts insisted, "No matter which
party is in power, it will value China-Kyrgyzstan relations." Bishkek needs
Beijing's goodwill. China is a potential donor and is already surging as
Kyrgyzstan's number one economic partner, with bilateral trade hitting the $10
billion mark, which is huge for the impoverished country of five million
Chinese experts visualize that the new government in Bishkek won't in any way
dilute the SCO's "anti-terror efforts". The ethnic Uyghur population in
Kyrgyzstan is estimated to be anywhere up to a quarter of a million.
Kyrgyzstan's stability is a core concern for Beijing.
An anti-terror expert at the China Institute of International Studies, Dong
Manyuan, summed up, "Its geographically strategic location means that
Kyrgyzstan needs to strike a balance between great powers. It doesn't want to
offend Russia or the US and it wants to maintain friendship with China."
Manyuan added that the new government in Bishkek would have its hands full in
tackling the grave economic crisis in the country, "which means the [Manas]
military base issue will not be dealt with in a short time".
For the present, Beijing seems to be pragmatically taking the view that the
Russian-American interventionist approach to stabilize the Kyrgyz situation
serves China's interests. But then, everything is up in the air in the Tian
Shan Mountains ("celestial mountains") separating Xinjiang from Kyrgyzstan.
Just as the Sino-Kyrgyz relationship was steadily climbing a promising upward
graph of friendship and cooperation based on a mutuality of hardcore interests,
an air pocket has appeared. Things can be exasperating in the steppes.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.