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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[28.04.2OO3] Superpowers Compete in Kyrgyzstan

In recent months Kyrgyzstan has seen a stream of high-level diplomatic visits from Russian officials. The latest one - the arrival of the director of the foreign intelligence service, Sergei Lebedov, in Bishkek on April 15 - was particularly intriguing. The subject of his meetings with the Kyrgyz leadership was kept secret, but it's likely that he stressed the benefits of close security cooperation with Russia rather than the United States or China.
Over the past year, the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan has radically altered the international profile of this Central Asian republic, once the undisputed domain of Moscow. Russia is now trying to regain its former influence in Kyrgyzstan.
Add to this China's increasing interest in securing its own interests there, and Bishkek finds itself in the unusual position of having three major powers trying to gain influence at the same time.
The Americans and their coalition partners have been flying fighter jets out of Manas airportsince the beginning of 2002, as well as injecting substantial sums into the economy through the running costs of the air base, Washington has been giving direct assistance to the impoverished military.
IWPR was told by Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the defense office in the president's administration, that America has handed over 3 million US dollars in high technology such as communications systems and night vision equipment.
Although this military cooperation is new, the US has a track-record of supporting development in Kyrgyzstan. Since the early 1990s, it has been a major donor to non-government organizations and independent media, and education.
The American presence has not gone unnoticed by Russia
As a way of regaining its influence, Russia is in the process of setting up its own airbase in the small town of Kant, about 20 kilometers from the capital. The first planes arrived there in December although a formal agreement has not yet been signed.
The base will officially be part of a rapid deployment force for Russia and its partners in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Some of the jets stationed there will be ground-attack planes, and the signs are that they are intended for use against possible insurgencies by Islamic guerrillas. At the same time, the Russians are providing training for Kyrgyz frontier troops.
China, too, is worried by the American presence in Kyrgyzstan, with which it shares a 1,100 km border. It is doing what it can to strengthen its own position. While there are no plans for a Chinese military presence, Beijing is likely to exert a significant role through the anti-terrorism center, which the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - a regional grouping in which it is a leading player, with Russia and four Central Asian states - intends to open in Bishkek.
China will play an even more direct role through an aid package it signed for the Kyrgyz military on April 1. The Chinese embassy and Bishkek defense ministry officials declined to comment on the nature of the aid that would be provided. During the signing ceremony, the Chinese ambassador, Hong Jiuyin, said his country had given 10 million dollars to the Kyrgyz defense and law-enforcement since 1991.
Reactions to all this vary from welcoming to suspicious. Some people here - ordinary people as well as politicians - are in favor of developing security relationships with all three superpowers. Others fear that rivalries between Russia, the US and China could end up being played out in Kyrgyzstan. Karybek Baybosunov, director of the Center for Globalization Research, sees little danger in the country becoming a focus for external interests. "One needs to view the situation in light of the fact that the world is rapidly changing and the internationalization of superpower interests is taking place everywhere. For a developing country, this kind of approach is the best"
The chairman of parliament's international affairs committees, Alisher Abdimomunov, is less optimistic. He told IWPR that the three countries are pursuing radically different goals in the region, and in future their interests may clash in Kyrgyzstan
But there are drawbacks to picking any one of the three superpowers as sole partner. Choosing the Americans would be unacceptable to Russia or China, and in any case no one knows how long US interest will last.
Beijing is too new a player to be a comfortable choice, and the presence in Kyrgyzstan of thousands of ethnic Uighurs from western China creates a potential flash point in the relationship.
Some of the Uighurs here are political exiles whom the Chinese government accuses of fomenting unrest in Xinjiang province. Their activities give China a powerful lever with which to pressure the Kyrgyz government.
Other Uighurs are itinerant traders who bring cheap goods from China to trade in Kyrgyz markets. They are seen by some here as a fifth column spearheading a broader Chinese economic advance. Rightly or wrongly, this suspicion of Beijing's intentions are not uncommon among people in Kyrgyzstan.
Others are simply concerned that the Uighur issue might be played up by any of the superpowers as part of a "great game". "The strong Uighur diaspora in Kyrgyzstan- may be used by someone to destabilize the situation in the region," Alisher Abdimomunov told IWPR.
Russia is the strongest contender to be a sole partner. It has the benefits of proximity, cultural ties and above all a shared Soviet past. The Kyrgyz military use Kalashnikovs and other Russian equipment. And ties with Russia offer a measure of protection against pressure exerted by Kyrgyzstan's two neighbors, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan.
Moscow still has considerable economic clout, and can exercise great influence through TV and radio. Most people in Kyrgyzstan watch Russian-made TV programs and listen to Russian radio. Within the last month, two Moscow newspapers - Parlamentskaya Gazeta and Rossiyskaya Gazeta - have started up locally-printed editions specially for Kyrgyzstan.
While Kyrgyzstan shows no sign of making a definitive choice between its suitors, the Russians appear intent on making sure they lose no further ground to their rivals.
By Sultan Jumagulov,
IWPR's Reporting Central Asia No. 200, April 28, 2003

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