A Russian-Uzbek challenge to the US
By M K Bhadrakumar
Reports have appeared in the Russian media doubting the pedigree of the
revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Moscow seems to be edging away from the interim
administration head, Roza Otunbayeva, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to London and
The reports hint at covert United States backing for the uprising in Bishkek.
They claim a drug mafia incited the latest regime change in Bishkek with covert
US support - "the geostrategic interests of the US and the international
narco-mafia happily merged ... It was only logical to use the services of
narco-barons to overthrow [former president Kurmanbek] Bakiyev, who demanded
from the US more and more payments for his loyalty".
A Russian commentator told Ekho Moscow radio, "The revolution
in Kyrgyzstan was organized by the drug business." Kyrgyzstan is a hub of drug
trafficking. The acreage of poppy cultivation in Kyrgyzstan has exponentially
increased and is comparable today to Afghanistan.
There have been reports in the Russian (and Chinese) press linking the US base
in Manas with drug barons. Iranian intelligence captured the Jundallah
terrorist leader, Abdulmalik Rigi, when he was traveling in a Kyrgyz aircraft
en route to an alleged rendezvous in Manas.
The Russian media leaks enjoy some degree of official blessing. They highlight
circumstantial evidence questioning the nature of the revolt in Bishkek.
Meanwhile, the influential think-tank Stratfor has rushed the interpretation
alleging a Russian hand. Between these claims and counter-claims, Moscow seems
to be veering to the assessment that Washington has benefited from Otunbayeva's
political consolidation in Bishkek.
As a Russian commentator put it, "There are further indications that Moscow is
cautious about the new Kyrgyz administration ... The truth is that there are no
100% pro-Russian politicians in Kyrgyzstan's interim government ... and quite a
few of them are definitely associated with the West."
Indeed, Otunbayeva told the Washington Post and Newsweek that the US lease on
the Manas air base would be extended "automatically" and that "we will continue
with such long-term relations" with the US.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Robert Blake said in Bishkek
after two days of consultations with Otunbayeva that her leadership offered "a
unique and historic opportunity to create a democracy that could be a model for
Central Asia and the wide region".
Blake hailed the regime change in Bishkek as a "democratic transition" and
promised US aid to "find quick ways to improve the economic and social
The sporadic attacks on ethnic Russians in Kyrgyzstan (estimated to number
700,000) have also set alarm bells ringing in Moscow. Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev ordered the military to take necessary measures. A Kremlin spokesman
said these would include increased security for "Russian interests" in
Moscow seems unsure whether the attacks on the Russians are isolated incidents.
An overall slide toward anarchy is palpable with armed gangs taking the law
into their hands and the clans in southern Kyrgyzstan rooting for Bakiyev's
reinstatement. At any rate, Medvedev manifestly changed tack on Tuesday after
talks with visiting Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. He clearly distanced
Russia from identifying with Otunbayeva's interim government. Medvedev said:
we need to revive the state, the state does not exist at this time, it has been
deposed. We are hoping that the interim administration will make all the
necessary measures to achieve that, as anarchy will have a negative effect on
the interests of the Kyrgyz people and also their neighbors. Legitimization of
the authorities is extremely important, which means there need to be elections,
not a de facto fulfillment of powers. Only in this case can [Russia's] economic
cooperation be developed.
Russia has extended humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyzstan, but full-fledged
economic cooperation will be possible only after the proper institutions of
power have been created. Uzbekistan's president shares this view.
The joint Russian-Uzbek stance challenged the interim government not to regard
itself as a legally constituted administration, no matter Washington's robust
backing for it.
Clearly, Moscow and Tashkent are pushing Otunbayeva to not make any major
policy decisions (such as over the US Manas base). She should instead focus on
ordering fresh elections that form a newly elected government.
Otunbayeva had indicated her preference for far-reaching constitutional reforms
to be worked out first that would transform Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary
democracy from the current presidential system of government. Moscow sees this
as a ploy by the interim government to postpone elections and cling onto power
with US backing.
Meanwhile, Bakiyev, who fled to Kazakhstan last weekend, has since shifted to
Belarus. It is unclear whether Minsk acted on its own to give asylum to
Bakiyev. Soon after reaching Minsk, Bakiyev announced that he hadn't yet
resigned from office. "There is no power which will make me resign from the
presidential post. Kyrgyzstan will not be anyone's colony," he said. Bakiyev
called on world leaders not to recognize Otunbayeva's government.
Bakiyev's stance puts Washington in a bind. The US got along splendidly with
Bakiyev and it is getting into stride equally splendidly with Otunbayeva. But
it has no means of persuading Bakiyev to agree to a lawful, orderly transition
of power to Otunbayeva.
Nor can Washington politically underwrite Otunbayeva's government if its
legitimacy is doubted in the region (and within Kyrgyzstan itself). Besides,
Otunbayeva is not acquitting herself well in stemming the country's slide
toward clan struggle, fragmentation and anarchy.
During his two-day visit to Moscow, Karimov made it clear that Tashkent took a
dim view of the regime change in Bishkek.
Using strong language, Karimov said, "There is a serious danger that what's
happening in Kyrgyzstan will take on a permanent character. The illusion is
created that it's easy to overthrow any lawfully elected government." He warned
that instability in Kyrgyzstan may "infect" other Central Asian states.
Russia and Uzbekistan have found it expedient to join hands. Medvedev stressed
that his talks with Karimov in Moscow were "trusting and engaging with regard
to all aspects of our bilateral relations, international and regional affairs".
Karimov reciprocated, "Uzbekistan sees Russia as a reliable, trusted partner,
which shows that Russia plays a critical role in ensuring peace and stability
throughout the world, but in Central Asia in particular."
"Our viewpoints coincided completely," Karimov asserted. He added, "What is
going on today in Kyrgyzstan is in nobody's interests - and above all, it is
not in the interests of countries bordering Kyrgyzstan."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also underscored the regional alignment.
"Uzbekistan is the key country in Central Asia. We have special relations with
Uzbekistan," he said.
Conceivably, Russia and Uzbekistan will now expect the Kyrgyz developments to
be brought onto the agenda of the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO), which is scheduled to take place in Tashkent in June.
A semi-official Russian commentary said, "The summit may help to work out
mechanisms to ensure security in the country and in the whole region." The SCO
secretary general (who is based in Beijing) visited Bishkek last week and met
Washington faces a potential diplomatic headache here. It needs to ensure the
forthcoming SCO summit doesn't becomes a replay of the 2005 summit, which
questioned the raison d'etre of the American military presence in Central Asia.
If Washington forces the pace of the great game, a backlash may ensue, which
could snowball into calls for the eviction of the US from the Manas base, as
some influential sections of Kyrgyz opinion are already demanding.
If that were to happen, the big question would be whether Otunbayeva would be
able to get the American chestnuts out of the fire. Hailing from the southern
city of Osh but having lived her adult life in the capital, which is dominated
by northern clans, she lacks a social or political base and is at a
The geopolitical reality is that Kyrgyzstan has to harmonize with the interests
of the regional powers - Russia and Uzbekistan in particular - as should the
US, in the larger interests of regional stability. The fact remains that
Russian and Uzbek (and Kazakh) influence within Kyrgyz society and politics
remains preponderant. And China too has legitimate interests.
The Kremlin will not fall into the same bear trap twice. In Georgia under
somewhat similar circumstances the US took generous help from Russia in the
stormy winter of 2003 to clear the debris of the "Rose" revolution and
"stabilize" the ground situation before promptly installing Mikheil
Saakashvili, who has been a thorn in the flesh for Moscow ever since.
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.