Regional Rivalries Center on Kyrgyzstan
Stephen Blank

Kyrgyzstan, a relatively poor country with few natural resources, has experienced two years of ceaseless political struggles between the executive and legislature since the ill-fated Ďtulip revolution of 2005. Large-scale official corruption and criminality remain problems.† These weaknesses, added to its strategic location, have left it vulnerable to its larger neighbors and external powers.† There is a robust and growing rivalry among Russia, China, America, and now Kazakhstan for influence in Kyrgyzstan.† This rivalry illustrates the evolving dynamics of the international relations among Central Asian states and between them and the great powers.

BACKGROUND: Since 2001, the United States has operated the air base at Manas against terrorism in Afghanistan, thus extending its umbrella to all Central Asia.† Nonetheless, Moscow and Beijing have always resented this American presence and have brought great pressure to bear upon Kyrgyz governments to close the base.† This pressure, combined with the Kyrgyz governmentís desperate need for public support and revenue, have led the government of Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Bishkek to substantially raise the price it charges Washington for operating the base.† But inasmuch as this base is the most visible regional face of U.S. power and is necessary to ensure that Central Asia as a whole is no longer menaced by terrorism originating in and around Afghanistan, it probably will remain for the duration of the fighting there.

The major power rivalry for influence in Kyrgyzstan hardly ends there, nor is it confined to the issue of foreign military bases.† Over the years, Russia has acquired the nearby air base at Kant and steadily augmented its complement of forces and airplanes stationed there.† As this is the only full-time air base available to Moscow in Central Asia, it no doubt figures prominently in Russian strategy, especially as Russia strives to develop an ever greater power projection capability.† China also was reportedly interested in acquiring a Kyrgyz base in 2005, but was apparently rebuffed by both Kyrgyzstan and Russia.

Kyrgyzstanís relative poverty and distance from major oil or gas deposits renders it dependent upon its neighbors for provision of energy and foreign investment.† It also must hope for revenues that could accrue to its accounts from pipelines that might traverse its territory on the way either to China, or Westward to Russia and Europe. These conditions provide the basis for its economic vulnerabilities and potential dependence upon external sources of financing and investment.

IMPLICATIONS: In August, Moscow announced that it would further expand both its military presence and its investment profile in Kyrgyzstan, conjoined signs of its growing interest in securing its position in Central Asia against all challengers.† Russia is investing $2 billion and increasing the complement at Kant.† While the military moves are clearly aimed at the United States and at solidifying its military presence and capabilities, the economic moves aim at the rising profile of Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan and more generally in Central Asia.† Nezavisimaya Gazeta even calls Kyrgyzstan the launch pad for moving deeply into Central Asia for the purpose of controlling the region.† Not only do Russian observers see these investments as a way of displaying the rebirth of Russia as a powerful player in world politics, they also see it as a move to check or counter the rising potential of Kazakhstan, which they see as ďa rising tigerĒ.

Kyrgyz observers clearly discern the rising tide of both Chinese and Kazakh presence in the local economy.† Some Kyrgyz analysts even argue that closer relations with China and Kazakhstan should be the main priority of Kyrgyzstanís diplomacy.† Apart from Chinese direct investment in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek also has hoped for major investments in trade routes and pipelines to and from China.† These hopes have been only partially fulfilled.† On November 3, 8 regional states met and agreed to improve the network of roads, airports, and seaports in Central Asia. Such efforts are essential to realize the vision of a Silk Road that would link Central Asia to China at one end and Europe at the other. In this connection, China and Uzbekistan announced their intention to accelerate the construction of transit roads through Kyrgyzstan.† Much remains to be done here, for the Achilles heel of such declarations like the one on November 3 is the absence of any significant regional coordination and cooperation among Central Asian states.† Thus the Asian Development Bank observes that less than one percent of trade from Europe to Asia goes through Central Asia.

The absence of regional cooperation can be seen in the other issue of what might be called trade routes, i.e. pipelines.† Although there was speculation that the pipeline that will bring Turkmen gas to China will traverse Kyrgyzstan, Beijing agreed with Kazakhstan that the route for the pipeline should go through the economically much stronger and resource-rich Kazakhstan.† This in spite of the fact that a route through Kyrgyzstan was discussed in July at the Kyrgyz-Kazakh business forum, and that the Kyrgyz route would be shorter and thus reduce the pipeline cost.† However, the past history of tense Uzbek-Kyrgyz payment relations, or more accurately, non-payments, may have raised doubts in China and Kazakhstan about Kyrgyzstanís reliability. Certainly it reflects the consequences of poverty, misrule, corruption, and criminality that have held back Kyrgyzstan in so many ways.

This episode illuminates why many journalistic observers argue that Kazakhstan and the West, if not Russia, are colonizing Kyrgyzstan economically.† Kazakhstanís roaring economy is expanding into foreign investments and not only in Central Asia.† As this growth seems likely to continue, it also seems likely that Kazakhstan will also continue to invest much more heavily in Kyrgyzstan and its other Central Asian neighbors and thus in some degree contend with Russia and China. There is no doubt that a vigorous program of foreign investment and growing foreign exposure is now at the heart of its foreign policy, and will remain a driving motive of that policy as long as its present vigorous economic growth continues.

CONCLUSIONS: This analysis indicates the multiple aspects of geopolitical rivalries. Of course, these trends highlight Kyrgyzstanís weakness and the consequences of its inability to develop a strong state or economy.† But it also comprises a rivalry for military bases and foreign investment access, even control, over sectors of the economy that is a throwback to some aspects of classical imperialism.† Moreover, it reflects the advent of new threats such as terrorism directed against vulnerable states.† What is also novel about this rivalry is the role of new actors like China, and even more strikingly, smaller states like Kazakhstan that are now looking to play major roles as investors abroad.† Indeed, Kazakhstan is being invited to invest in Black Sea energy infrastructures.

Central Asian governments are hence both actors and subjects in the regional politics of the region, not only objects, as commonly understood.† It remains to be seen to what degree Kazakhstan can hold its own with Russia and China as rivals for influence in Kyrgyzstan.†† Similarly, Kyrgyzstanís future viability is not easily predictable.† But it is clear that the interaction between its ability, and that of other Central Asian states, to govern themselves effectively, and the rising interest of major powers in Central Asia, will play a critical role in determining the future evolution of this competition for influence Ė and not only in Kyrgyzstan.

AUTHORíS BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.