Kyrgyz deal a Silk Road turning point
By M K Bhadrakumar
Central Asia arrived at a turning point last weekend far removed from the
history of Genghis Khan riding out to conquer the world, as it sought
peacekeepers from Europe. Russia, which has provided security to the region for
the past century and more is stepping aside - unable or unwilling, and possibly
incapable of performing that role anymore.
The historic decision to bring in European peacekeepers was taken on Saturday
at a conclave of statesmen from 56 countries in Almaty, a short distance from
the Chinese border. Beijing was not a participant and has yet to speak its
mind, but will be watching with raised eyebrows the appearance of "foreign
devils on the Silk Road" at a juncture when its own regional profile is
Moscow too is uncharacteristically reserved about the dramatic
turn in regional politics in its "near abroad". Does Russia welcome the
trespassers or let resent brew, given it cannot do much about their arrival for
the present? The fact that the European peacekeepers are arriving in Central
Asia against the backdrop of the approaching endgame in Afghanistan cannot go
From any of these perspectives, the support voiced by the foreign ministers of
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for sending an
international police force to Kyrgyzstan following last month's bloody ethnic
clashes is a signpost of immense political and diplomatic significance.
The OSCE is, technically speaking, responding to a request from the Kyrgyz
government. But the idea was originally mooted by the United States and the
major European countries. The Almaty conclave has nodded in principle for the
dispatch of a small 52-strong contingent to Kyrgyzstan "quickly" and to follow
up with another 50 officers soon thereafter, initially on a four-month,
extendable assignment in the violence-torn southern Kyrgyz regions of Osh and
Jalalabad. A formal decision on the deployment is expected to be taken by the
OSCE's permanent council in Vienna on Thursday.
Unsurprisingly, the Kyrgyz government, which made futile attempts to seek
Russian military intervention to restore order in Osh and Jalalabad, is
manifestly enthused by the OSCE decision. The head of the Kyrgyz government,
President Roza Otunbayeva said, "We will take this step because stability has
not yet been restored to the extent where normal functioning of the two
communities [Kyrgyz and Uzbek] can happen."
Otunbayeva said the OSCE force would be performing three functions: monitoring,
advising and training. She added that there was a serious threat of further
destabilization with the melting of the glaciers in the Pamirs, especially in
the Batkent region, which is a route for Islamist militants and the drug
traffickers from Afghanistan.
The president of Kazakhstan, Nurusultan Nazarbayev, who currently chairs the
OSCE, also warned the gathering in Almaty, "The fragile stability in Kyrgyzstan
could erupt at anytime." Nonetheless, it is unclear how far and how diligently
Kazakhstan played a lead role in this OSCE decision. In all probability it
buckled under Western pressure.
There has been virulent criticism by Western spokesmen in recent weeks that
Kazakhstan was lackadaisical in mobilizing an effective OSCE response to the
Kyrgyz crisis and was in fact arguing against any international intervention.
Western critics targeted Nazarbayev personally for failure to lead the OSCE.
They alleged that "Kazakhstan has acted more like Russia's ally in regard to
Kyrgyzstan than as the chairman of the OSCE". The pressure tactic finally
United States diplomacy also seems to have pitted Uzbekistan against Kazakhstan
- two regional rivals vying for leadership - by cozying up to Tashkent and
portraying the Uzbek leadership as very cooperative and mature in its response
to the Kyrgyz crisis in comparison with Nazarbayev and, therefore, more worthy
of its self-styled credentials as the region's key country.
Conceivably, Washington may now reciprocate by acceding to Nazarbayev's
proposal to host an OSCE summit during his chairmanship in Kazakhstan. The last
OSCE summit was held in 1999.
The OSCE move brings to the fore the fault lines that have been developing in
the Central Asian great game. Neither of the two regional security
organizations - the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)
and the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - has acquitted
itself well in responding to the Kyrgyz crisis. Plainly put, they seem
The fallout for regional integration has been quite negative. Kyrgyzstan has
edged very close to the US; a new proximity has developed between the US and
Uzbekistan that may blossom into strategic cooperation; and Kazakhstan has
drifted from a lukewarm stance toward overt support vis-a-vis the Western
intervention in Kyrgyzstan.
That leaves Russia in a bit of a grey zone. Having expressed its inability to
intervene in the Kyrgyz crisis and having failed to mobilize an intervention by
the CSTO - but all the while crying "wolf" about violent Islamists and the drug
mafia threatening regional security - Moscow cannot now frontally oppose the
OSCE move. Any such negativism may look churlish. Nor, perhaps, does it want to
adopt an obstructionist stance.
It is in the best spirit of the ongoing "reset" with the US that Russia desists
from stonewalling (even if it harbors reservations) the US's OSCE initiative
which Washington is flaunting as a fine example of the US-Russia working
relationship aimed at stabilizing Central Asia.
What is intriguing is that the US and the European countries are also on a
parallel track, robustly leading the call for an international investigation
into the ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan. Russia hasn't spoken its mind on the
need of an investigation, whereas the US is insisting on it.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after a joint "fact-finding"
mission to Osh last week with his German counterpart, "We would like to know
who these groups are that provoked these incidents. These incidents and
animosities go back a long way, but there were clearly provocations in this
case and we want to know about them. So we support this proposal for an
international investigative commission."
Indeed, there seems to be some "hidden agenda" behind the call for the
international investigation. Interestingly, Uzbekistan originally mooted the
idea - and Tashkent makes its regional moves only with great deliberation. OSCE
foreign ministers endorsed the idea in Almaty.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the OSCE's reaction to the
Kyrgyz situation showed the organization's ability "to respond quickly to
crises. We acknowledge both the prompt action shown by Kazakhstan as OSCE
chair, and the fact that the OSCE permanent council has proved its ability to
reach a consensus".
Kazakhstan, Russia's number one ally in the region, didn't lack enthusiasm.
Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev made a spirited defense of the OSCE decision
to intervene. "The current difficult situation in Kyrgyzstan could have a
highly destabilizing effect not only on Central Asia but also far beyond its
borders, he said. ''That is why we need a prompt consolidation of international
efforts to provide the widest possible cooperation with the Kyrgyz Republic
using the full potential and experience of the OSCE."
Unlike his counterparts from Germany and France, who were present at Almaty,
Lavrov didn't dwell on the substantive issue of how the prospect of an
international force other than CSTO assuming a security role in Central Asia is
viewed in Moscow.
Now, where does the CSTO fit into all this? Arguably, the OSCE will be called
on to balance its interests with the CSTO, which is already sending equipment
and funds to Kyrgyz security forces. So far, the US has balked at forming any
cooperative grid with the CSTO, as Moscow has persistently demanded. The spirit
of "reset" requires there to be a rethink on this score. The CSTO comprises
Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan
More important, what about the SCO? China is neither a member of the OSCE nor
the CSTO. Geopolitical reality is that on the one hand, Kyrgyzstan impacts on
Xinjiang's security, while and on the other, the OSCE arriving at China's
border region is a leviathan - albeit lethargic as of now - comprising 56
participating states drawn from three continents whose total population is more
than a billion people. Clearly, the OSCE needs to reach out to the CSTO and the
SCO. If that happens, regional stability will be strengthened. The SCO
comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
But we live in a real world. It is unclear which way US thinking is evolving.
As Stephen Minikes, a former US ambassador to the OSCE, wrote recently, there
is a perfect case of a US-Russia "reset" over the OSCE. Minikes argues:
the time of the OSCE's inception in 1975, the world was bipolar. Today it is
multipolar. Russia has become a balance-shifter, not an opponent. The US must
nurture this change. When Russia and the US are on the same side, all kinds of
breakthroughs are possible. In a bipolar world, it was "us" against "them". Now
it is "Western" against "other" values. The US and Russia should be in
agreement on as many of those values as possible.
US will also be inclined to use the OSCE to reposition itself in Central Asia.
The US already finds itself in a far more confident position with regard to the
continuance of its air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, which was perennially under
Russian and Chinese "threat".
Again, the strengthening of the Eurasian dimension of the OSCE goes beyond a
matter of Western "values". A new narrative is beginning in the nature of an
institutional link between the trans-Atlantic community and Central Asia.
But then, Chinese, Indian and Persian people also live in the neighborhood of
Central Asia. By a curious coincidence, the OSCE conclave took place in Almaty
on a day when the company newspaper of China National Petroleum Corporation
revealed that a total of 2,009 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Central Asian
natural gas has already been pumped to China as of July 15 via the new
2,000-kilometer pipeline from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan to
The OSCE may not take long to realize that the vast Central Asian steppes are
not as vacant as they seem to the naked eye and furthermore, for undertaking
any serious enterprise in the steppes you need surplus money - and lots of it -
which the recession-ridden European and US economies or Russia cannot easily
come up with.
That said, the OSCE move on Kyrgyzstan is indeed a smart US diplomatic
initiative. Its potential is spread over a range of fronts: to revamp the OSCE
so that it acquires comparative advantage in conflict prevention and management
in Central Asia; to co-opt Russia and to counter the ascendancy of Chinese
influence in Central Asia; to develop a comprehensive US policy toward Central
Asia which hitherto remained largely transactional; to galvanize greater
attention and international support for Afghanistan, an OSCE partner, so as to
get that country embedded in the region as a vital hub in a Greater Central
Asia, which in turn would incrementally help open the so-called "southern
corridor" leading to the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar that provide
Central Asia strategic alternatives to Russia, China and Iran.
In sum, the weekend's OSCE decision becomes a key building block of the US's
regional policy as it prepares for the post-Afghan war regional security
scenario. The attendance of two key US diplomats in the Central Asian region
last week for meticulous parallel diplomacy in Almaty and Bishkek - Deputy
Secretary of State James Steinberg and the director for Russian and Eurasian
Affairs at the US National Security Council, Michael McFaul - underscored the
importance Washington attaches to the OSCE decision to underpin Kyrgyzstan's
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.