Cold War shadow over Kyrgyzstan

Luca AnceschiLuca Anceschi

During the signature ceremony for the START2 Treaty in Prague, Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev might have wondered (and worried) about the international impact of the recent revolutionary developments in Kyrgyzstan, a remote post-Soviet republic located in the heart of Eurasia. Kyrgyzstan does not hold substantial hydrocarbons reserves or a significant nuclear arsenal, has never been considered fertile ground for Islamic radical forces, and although it is known as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’, the origins of this name are to be found in its beautiful mountain landscapes rather than in its banking tradition. So why is Kyrgyzstan so important in the strategic agendas of the United States and Russia?

The Kyrgyz Republic is the only state in the world that currently hosts on its soil both US and Russian troops, as the Kyrgyz government had successively granted to Moscow and Washington the concession of two air bases located no more than 30 kilometres apart. It is for this reason that both the White House and the Kremlin are looking with apprehension at the violent process of regime change that is taking place in Kyrgyzstan.

The toppling of President Kurmanbek Bakiev – who rose to power in 2005 in the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution – casts many doubts over the future of Kyrgyzstan’s international alignment, and more in particular over the stability of its military alliances. In the views of Western and Russian observers, the newly installed government – which according to interim Head of Government Roza Otunbayeva will hold election within six months – might decide to pursue a new foreign policy course, and adopt a more clear-cut alliance strategy. In other words, Moscow and Washington fear that post-revolution Kyrgyzstan could be too small a place for two foreign air bases. The prospects for foreign policy shifts in one direction or the other are nevertheless limited.

Bakiev, a former revolutionary hero who in only five years turned into an autocrat, recently adopted a more visible pro-US stance. Washington promptly rewarded this by limiting its criticism of Bakiev’s authoritarian methods and, most importantly, by providing substantial economic aid to the Kyrgyz government. This happened in the aftermath of the 2009 strains in US-Kyrgyz relations, emerged when the Kyrgyz government repeatedly threatened Washington that it would withdraw its concession of the Manas base, which the United States considered indispensible for the success of the Afghan War.

The Otunbayeva government, if capable of acquiring uncontested power over a deeply divided country, is expected to revise the foreign policy of its predecessor by toning down the pro-US  stance of the late Bakiev era, but it looks unlikely that a clear choice between Moscow and Washington will be made in the near future. Roza Otunbayeva – a career diplomat and former foreign minister of both Soviet and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan – is too shrewd a politician to commit, at these early stages in the post-Bakiev era, to a mono-dimensional foreign policy. In her earliest official declaration as Kyrgyz interim leader, she announced that the US base is to remain open.   

Prospects for a re-entry of Kyrgyzstan into Moscow’s orbit are connected with the degree of Russian support that the new government is going to receive in the next few months. Moscow’s tacit support for anti-Bakiev demonstrations – which exploded in opposition to the disastrous economic policies recently implemented in Kyrgyzstan – played a key role in the establishment of the interim government. The Kremlin’s support to the anti-Bakiev movement – in spite of repeated official declarations that flatly denied Moscow’s involvement in Kyrgyz affairs – is rapidly assuming a more concrete shape. For instance, the Kremlin has so far failed to offer safe haven to the deposed leader: while ousted President Akaev in 2005 quickly fled to Moscow while the Tulip Revolution was unfolding, Bakiev is now believed to be in southern Kyrgyzstan after fleeing the capital Bishkek.

Should the Otunbayeva government become more dependent on the Kremlin, Russian pressures for the withdrawal of the concession of the US base are likely to increase exponentially. The Medvedev-Putin tandem does not see favourably the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan, and a pro-Kremlin shift in Kyrgyz foreign policy could complete the process of expulsion of US forces from Central Asia that the Uzbek government had initiated in 2005. This would re-establish Moscow’s military monopoly over Central Asia, and open a new chapter in the Great Game.

In a bizarre repetition of Cold War dynamics, the small Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan is being courted by both Moscow and Washington. Frictions over Kyrgyzstan could represent a negative development in the US-Russian rapprochement sealed by the START2 Treaty.  The 2010 Kyrgyz Revolution – which is yet to be assigned a colour by international observers, in spite of the use of blue flags by Bakiev’s opponents – is therefore shaping as a major international event.