Thursday, April 8, 2010

Uncertain outcomes

The uprising in Kyrgyzstan represents the largest political development in Central Asia since Sting played a concert for the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov. All kidding aside, the spontaneous rebellion that overthrew the established government is likely to make regional players reconsider their positions, possibly jeopardize the status of the U.S. military base (but not likely – this is not a huge focal point of opposition nor a major issue on the ground) and could lead to sweeping changes for the mountainous republic – or a slow retreat toward authoritarianism. At the moment the future is as wide as the steppes that buffet the countryside, but this won't likely last for long. Bishkek has been looted (pictures), the prime minister has resigned and opposition forces have formed an interim government. President Kurmanbek Bakiev, however, has vanished – presumably to the south of the country – and refused to resign, claiming he is still in control.

There are a few ways this could play out.

Kyrgyzstan will undoubtedly be contested in part of the region's New Great Game. China, Russia and the U.S. all have stakes here, and backroom dealings around Manas Air Base are likely why the Kyrgryz parliament essentially rescinded its original vote to close it in 2009. The U.S. will ensure its retention. Eleven hundred NATO soldiers are not going anywhere any time soon. This represents an opportunity for China to fill a vacuum it has left relatively untapped. While Chinese companies explore Africa with fervor, they have neglected emerging on the Central Asian energy scene. The cultism surrounding hydroelectric power in neighboring Tajikistan gives an idea of how important energy independence is in a region where oil smuggling is still a career. China could use this as an effective in, but it would be a blatant attempt to undermine Russia's established sphere of influence. Indeed, Russia has historically used issues such as commodity prices as leverage in disputes in ex-Soviet republics, and Bakiev did not demonstrate the resistance that Belarus' Lukashenko is willing to muster. That Kyrgyzstan was excluded from a Russian trade agreement, thus increasing duties on oil, shortly before utility price hikes in the nation is evidence to some observers of Russia punishing Bakiev for his acquiescence to U.S. demands in regards to Manas. Putin has since recognized the opposition government, and a Russian official intimated that Russian opinions on Manas remain unchanged. That Russia has dispatched two companies of paratroopers to protect Russian citizens and promised opposition leader Rosa Otunbayev with humanitarian aid clearly shows where Russia has its eyes.

The interim government, spearheaded by a social democrat and former foreign minister, shows promise. If it allows open and fair elections, allows for the re-opening of previously banned newspapers and stops the over-handed oppression of the deeply religious it will stand a chance. Of course, negotiating down utility prices will be its litmus test – one that could push it more toward Russia. Revolutionaries named Rosa may not have good fortune, but Otunbayeva seems to be well positioned to steer the nation toward greater democracy and transparency. Bakiev's nepotism will be all but erased, which leaves us with a trying question – what is Bakiev's next move? Ferried away to the south – his ancestral home and base of support – he could mount an armed resistance. This is highly unlikely, but Bakiev will likely leverage the country's long-stand north-south divide to his benefit, a divide that at least one prominent Kyrgyzstan observer and anthropologist suggests has been artificially inflated by those in power to maintain their hegemony. In Kyrgyzstan's world of clan politics, this is not outside the realm of possibility in the least. The opposition, too, could try to oust Bakiev, but this would be a dangerous proposition. Claiming to hold four of seven regions is likely sufficient for now – actually mounting an invasion against Bakiev's territory would be a gamble for the revolutionary government.

More than likely Bakiev will remain an ambiguous, neutered force, but the ensuing stalemate does threaten further violence. While we're certainly unlikely to see stretches of violence as pervasive as the horrific Tajik civil war of the '90s, the Kyrgyz people must remain calm and vigilant to guarantee that violence does not become the de facto way of solving disputes. Bakiev must concede defeat, or at least attempt to re-enter politics through legitimate channels, such as a coming election (assuming the interim government honors such an idea). Any other option would only further inflame the sensibilities of an already fragile situation.

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