John Lough
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

The seriousness of the current situation in Kyrgyzstan could challenge conventional thinking about US-Russian interests in the region.

When Presidents Obama and Medvedev meet this week, will the two sides put aside their strategic rivalries in Central Asia and agree to tactical cooperation to stop Kyrgyzstan descending into a further spiral of chaos that could have highly damaging consequences for the stability of the region? Or will they limit themselves to a joint statement calling for restraint and observance of the rule of law and the wish list of niceties that political leaders express when they prefer to keep clear of dangerous situations?

There are grounds to argue that Russia may consider the US presence in Kyrgyzstan a stabilising influence and that the US may welcome Russian leadership to address the crisis. This would turn on its head the usual logic about geopolitical competition between the two in the region.

Kyrgyzstan is on the brink of a major breakdown. The violence over the past week in the south of the country between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks communities has brought fear to the capital, Bishkek, in the north. The fear is that without a legitimate government and with the ruling class splintering into ever smaller pieces, Kyrgyzstan is rudderless and could see further disturbances not just along ethnic lines.

Although there were violent clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 1990, the two ethnic groups have a long tradition of living together peacefully. Most observers agree that while the recent disturbances were probably provoked, the tensions released were rooted in economic impoverishment and hopelessness. A quick comparison of regional per capita income shows the extent of the problem. Kyrgyzstan's is 268 (USD), Uzbekistan's is nearly double that at 514 (USD), and Kazakhstan's is nearly five times Kyrgyzstan's at 1,322 (USD).

Despite Russia's rhetoric about a zone of 'privileged interests', last week's events have shown that there are strict limits to its power projection in its immediate neighbourhood. The Russian government has been unresponsive to calls from Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan's interim leader, for the despatch of Russian peacekeepers to stabilise the current situation. President Medvedev has also made clear that an intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation is also out of the question.

Leaving aside speculation about the degree of Moscow's involvement in former President Bakiyev's ouster, there is a critical question to be answered. Did Russia underestimate the speed at which Kyrgyzstan would unravel after Bakiyev's departure? The indications so far are that it did. It apparently failed to see the weakness of the state system as a result of the fragmentation of the country's ruling groups and its effects on society at large.

Although Otunbayeva moved swiftly to honour the commitment by Bakiyev to extend the Manas airbase lease for another year, the interim government vented its anger at the US over the alleged failure of its diplomats to maintain relations with the opposition in the final period of his rule. It accused the US of putting its strategic interests at Manas ahead of good governance and commitment to democratic values in Kyrgyzstan. It also began an investigation into alleged corruption around fuel supply contracts for Manas that appeared designed to discredit the US government.

Rather than fighting over the future of Manas, Russia and the US may now need each other in this very dangerous situation. Neither country has an interest in seeing Kyrgyzstan break apart risking chaos in the wider region; yet neither wants to assume responsibility for controlling the country. The US is in the middle of a 'surge' in Afghanistan and is looking to hold on to Manas for the time being. Russia's leaders still seem to be hoping that the interim government can contain the crisis despite evidence to the contrary. In any case, Russia has limited military forces at its disposal for military operations outside its borders and limited appetite for a long-term commitment on this scale.

There is a strong rationale for a joint Russian-US approach to crisis management in Kyrgyzstan. This would lay the basis for averting the country's slide towards chaos and create a foundation for other international organisations, notably the UN and the OSCE, to make their contribution to preserving the country's viability.

At the meeting of the two Presidents on Thursday, Kyrgyzstan promises to test to the full the potential of the 'reset' in relations between Russia and the US.

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Further resources:

Kyrgyzstan: Violence Returns, James Nixey, June 2010

Revolution in Kyrgyzstan…Again: The International Dimension, James Nixey, April 2010