Australian Herald correspondent Paul McGeough writing on The Age website:
To better understand the geopolitical dynamic of upheaval in the remote central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, it is instructive to look to Georgia, 2500 kilometres and five national borders to the west.
Both are former Soviet satellites. In the face of clumsy efforts by their leaders to tango with the West, the Kremlin is increasingly agitated by a new American presence on a sprawling dance floor it considered its own.
As the bullet-riddled bodies of protesters were collected from the streets of Bishkek last week and the President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the capital, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was pure pantomime: ”Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events.”
That reading does not describe recent events accurately.
In the weeks before his ouster, Bakiyev was portrayed as a repugnant dictator on Russian television channels beaming into Kyrgyzstan; $US1.7 billion ($1.8 billion) in soft loans from Moscow to Bishkek was put on hold; Moscow axed the generous subsidies on the petrol it exports to Kyrgyzstan; and little was done to dampen speculation that almost a million Kyrgyz migrant workers, whose remittances account for about a third of their country’s economy, might be expelled from Russia.
“This [crisis] would have happened sooner or later … but I think the Russian factor was decisive,” Omurbek Tekebayev, a senior figure in Kyrgyzstan’s new interim leadership, told The Washington Post.
Can Moscow get away with all that? Yes – with confidence, if world reaction in the aftermath of Russia’s incursions into Georgia in 2008 is anything to go by.
In all the diplomatic excitement in Washington and Moscow about negotiating nuclear arms control and maybe even getting Russia to back sanctions against Iran, the Georgian crisis of two summers ago seems all but forgotten.
Like missing scenes from the Peter Sellers film The Mouse that Roared, the Georgian region of Abkhazia declared itself to be independent late in August 2008 – to be recognised only by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru.
Abkhazia is a postage-stamp parcel of land on the Black Sea coast. Its population is about 200,000; its area less than 8500 square kilometres. Up to 60 per cent of its budget is funded by Moscow and an estimated 80 per cent of all consumer goods originate in Russia. More than two-thirds of the ethnic Georgian population is estimated to have fled or been driven out, and Moscow hands out Russian passports like confetti.
The reality is that Moscow, in effect, annexed a chunk of its southern neighbour – and is getting away with it.
Russia is estimated to have more than three times as many troops stationed in Abkhazia as allowed by the terms of a ceasefire agreement mediated by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. It is eyeing what was the Georgian port of Ochamchire as a new base for its Black Sea fleet in the event Ukraine cuts or refuses to renew Moscow’s lease on strategically sensitive Sevastopol to the north-west.
In one of the throwaway lines at which he excels, Putin declared during a visit last year: “[Abkhazia] doesn’t need to be recognised by any country other than Russia.”
Kyrgyzstan’s geopolitical weight lies in Russian anxiety at its suitability as a platform for NATO troops and eavesdropping on Russia’s southern flank and on China’s western border.
But Kyrgyzstan also serves as a transit route for Islamist militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan, a centre of Islamic radicalism, and, Moscow fears, on to Russia’s Muslim enclaves in the Caucasus, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.
“Like Georgia, Kyrgyzstan’s significance lies not in its natural resources such as oil or natural gas, but in its extraordinary geographical location, which enables it to modulate regional politics,” M. K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador to the region, wrote this week, before speculating Washington’s only option might be an awkward appeal to Moscow to protect its grip on the Manas air base, near Bishkek.
Despite the Kremlin’s anxiety about the American presence in the region, Bhadrakumar’s rationale was that the Afpak war and the attempt to put a lid on militant Islam in the region are a grave common interest for Russia and the US.
Needless to say, Moscow would seek to barter. It might not be so crude as to put a tourniquet on the Americans’ northern supply lines to Afghanistan, but it would probably demand assurances on one of its greatest strategic worries – NATO’s eastwards expansion through the Caucasus and on to central Asia, which Washington justifies with rising urgency on the grounds its presence is needed to tackle a likely al-Qaeda threat in the region.
If this big picture is perplexing, the little picture is fraught too.
About two months after the ”Tulip Revolution” in 2005 swapped one thuggish regime for another in Bishkek, an eruption of popular dissent across the border in the Uzbek city of Andijan, in the Ferghana Valley, was brutally and bloodily suppressed – with the dead counted in the hundreds.
This is why the Bishkek crisis is explosive. For Kyrgyzstan to find itself under Moscow’s boot is one thing, but with the country’s deposed president threatening to spill more blood there could be a chain reaction across the so-called ”stans”.
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan all might be stirred into wanting what Kyrgyzstan is having.