7 April 2010
James Nixey

James Nixey

Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Kyrgyzstan, often the forgotten country of Central Asia, has once again come to the world's fickle attention. Of the four revolutions in the former Soviet Union in the last decade that have resulted in the expulsion of the president, Kyrgyzstan has been host to two of them. It now inherits the mantle of the most unstable country in strategically important Central Asia.

For a country not blessed (some would say cursed) with significant money-generating hydrocarbons, Kyrgyzstan is nevertheless important to the different external and competing powers in the region - Russia, China, the US and the other Central Asian countries. And for different reasons:

For Russia, Kyrgyzstan is - like all other former Soviet states - firmly in what it considers to be its back yard, its zone of 'privileged interests'. It wishes, at a minimum, to retain influence and to keep the West out as much as possible.

For China, which has invested significantly in Kyrgyzstan's hydroelectric potential, instability is harmful to its economic ambitions. It would prefer a resumption of 'business as usual'.

The US continues to lease an expensive (increasingly expensive, in fact, as the Kyrgyz jack up the rent regularly) military base near the capital, yet although the base is a useful installation for logistical operations and transit to Afghanistan (now suspended), it is not of vital importance as is often claimed.

A more democratic Kyrgyzstan (unlikely in the short term, but a possibility to be considered and prepared for) would see an increase of US involvement in Central Asia. This would aid what remains of the US democracy promotion agenda under President Obama. A common perception - probably a misconception - inside the Kyrgz elite has been that the US will use the Manas airbase for a future attack on Tehran*.

Beyond the expressions of concern and the pleas for stability, the continuation of US operations from the Manas airbase is America's only real interest in what is happening in Kyrgyzstan now. This concern is probably unfounded as any future Kyrgyz government will need the money and shoulder the political flak. But the situation is inherently worrying in a region that has taken on a new importance since 9/11 and the 'Global War on Terror'.

For the other four Central Asian countries, this is a period of extreme nervousness. While there is no evidence that a revolution can spread beyond borders, the political culture among these non-democracies is one of paranoia. They will be taking yet more steps to ensure that security is increased at home to prevent any regional protests similar to those that rose like a tidal wave and swamped Bishkek. Borders have already been shut down by several of these countries to prevent this.

In a very real sense, the regional leader this year is Kazakhstan with its unprecedented (for a former Soviet country) chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Now is the time for it to act with reassurance, and offer assistance and sober recommendations. Though it is still early days, the OSCE has so far been more of a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Kyrgyzstan's politics are changing at a frightening pace. The short-term prognosis is gloomy: volatility, muddling through, poverty-stricken, but with no radical change to its multi-vectoring foreign policy. The West will look on with concern and impotence and eventually lose interest.

* This aspect is explored further in a chapter on Central Asia by Annette Bohr in the forthcoming Chatham House book, America and a Changed World: A Question of Leadership (Edited by Robin Niblett, May 2010).