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KYRGYZSTAN: External Threats Vie With Internal Ones

BISHKEK, Jun 7 2010 (IPS) - As Kyrgyzstan’s interim leaders struggle to cope with ethnic flare-ups within its borders they must also keep an eye out for trouble from a tough Central Asian neighbourhood and from big powers interested in the country’s strategic location.

A clear sign that the neighbours look askance at people’s power asserting itself in Kyrgyzstan is that immediately after the popular uprising, that saw the ouster of president Kurmanbek Bakiyev on Apr. 7, Kazakhstan unilaterally sealed the common border between the two neighbouring countries.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev did not allow the border to be reopened until May 20, despite pleas from Bishkek that sealing the border could only exacerbate an already bad economic situation. Kyrgyzstan uses the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border route for most of its imports and exports.

“In the actions of our neighbours I see a single reason,” prominent political figure Jypar Jeksheev told IPS. ‘’Our authoritarian neighbours organised an economic blockade to show their people that a regime change in Kyrgyzstan is unacceptable and could only lead to destabilisation,” said Jeksheev, founder of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan political party.

When Nazarbayev went back on a promise to open the border by May 11, transitional President Roza Otunbaeva expressed deep disappointment. But she resolutely backed her complaints with subtle moves of her own.

On May 19 Kyrgyzstan closed the supply of irrigation water from the river Talas, to the southern regions of Kazakhstan. After close to 50,000 hectares of irrigated land were deprived of water for two days the message went home and the border was opened.

“Kyrgyzstan has the leverage to influence external players. Kazakhstan opened its borders when we showed our trump card,” said Almazbek Atambayev, first deputy to the transitional president and former prime minister, at a press conference on May 25.

“It is a fact that the great and medium powers have always been interested in Kyrgyzstan and its resources. Neighbours like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would like to have a handle on water resources in Central Asia and that is why they have been pursuing the idea of a Central Asian Water and Energy Consortium,” well-known political scientist Toktogul Kakchekeev told IPS.

Ever since the uprising the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border has remained closed or movement across it severely restricted. In this case, however, Uzbek authorities genuinely fear that the ethnic differences between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that flared up in Jalal-Abad city in southern Kyrgyzstan in mid-May could spill over.

But southern Kyrgyzstan’s economy depends greatly on trade with Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley and during normal times thousands of Uzbek traders cross over the border to visit the Kyrgyz towns of Osh and Karasu to buy and sell merchandise.

Kyrgyz leaders have deep fears that external players can take advantage of the political turmoil within their country and in the immediate neighbourhood to assert control.

‘’The Russians would certainly like to maintain some degree of control through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO),” said Kakchekeev.

On May 17, Vladimir Jirinovsky, chairman of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, speaking live on Russian radio said: “Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have no future as independent states. Let’s make it the ninth federal district [of the Russian federation]”.

A political analyst who asked not to be identified told IPS: ‘’We should not exclude the version doing the rounds that the Russians have a hand in inciting ethnic conflicts in order to justify sending in CSTO troops. This would be beneficial for Russia in geopolitical terms.”

Kyrgyzstan has a population of 5.4 million people of whom 756,000 are ethnic Uzbeks, mostly concentrated in the southern region. On May 19 when clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz broke out in Jalal-Abad, the interim government quickly sent in troops.

Further afield, Kyrgyzstan’s leaders are acutely aware of the fact that it is a country in which the world powers, the U.S., Russia and China have keen interest. It is the one country in the world which hosts both Russian and U.S. military bases.

Kakchekeev believes that the main strategic interest of the U.S. in Kyrgyzstan is in countering China although currently it serves as base for supplying troops in Afghanistan. ‘’It is natural that the U.S. wants to safeguard its influence in Central Asia through Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

“Experts often speak about the necessity of external control over Kyrgyzstan,” said Atambayev, addressing journalists. ‘’I would say we can cope very well on our own.”

According to Kakchekeev a bigger danger than Russia is the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “We owe to this organisation 2.6 billion dollars and the U.S. can use this to leverage control – or even sell our debt to a country like China,” Kakchekeev said.

“External powers, at the very least, would not like to see a flare-up in Kyrgyzstan because that can rapidly grow into a big regional problem and, because of sheer proximity, affect the situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang province,” said Kakchekeev.

‘’Much will depend on the initiative of the interim government which is fragile and has no real legitimacy,” said I. Abdurazakov, a top diplomat and member of the independent Bishkek-based Institute for Public Policy. ‘’If not, interested parties will use the situation to their advantage.”

“We are going through a difficult test. But, in any case, we cannot and should not allow external control, or be a part of Russia. We must preserve our independence,” said Jeksheev.

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