Many factors have been cited for Russia’s failure to intervene in the rioting in southern Kyrgyzstan. An overlooked factor appears to be the strong opposition from, and coordination between, Tashkent and Beijing. The growing approximation between the two was at open display during the June SCO summit in Tashkent, where unprecedented language of friendship was used in the communiqués of Sino-Uzbek meetings, compared to the correct but reserved tone that Russian leaders were confronted with. While both the CSTO and SCO appear unable or unwilling to respond to acute crises in the region, a growing Sino-Russian rivalry appears to developing in Central Asia.
BACKGROUND: From June 11-14 ethnic rioting against the Uzbek population in and around Osh convulsed Kyrgyzstan. Apart from the fact that this rioting showed the fragility of the new Kyrgyz state and government, as well as its lack of control over its own police and armed forces, one of the mysteries of the rioting is Russia’s failure to intervene even after Kyrgyzstan’s government asked it to do so. Many commentators have offered various reasons for Moscow’s actions.
Defense correspondent Aleksandr Golts argued that Moscow lacks troops for a peace support mission (in U.S. terminology) to Central Asia. Others argued that Russia did not want to choose sides between the Uzbek minority or the Kyrgyz, as it normally does when it conducts an ostensible peacekeeping mission, lest it end up on the wrong side of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions in Central Asia. Still other pundits contended that the mission was unclear and that Uzbekistan strongly opposed any unilateral Russian intervention. Certainly Russia was trying to persuade Uzbekistan before the rioting began that the two states should collaborate, possibly under the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) auspices, to stabilize Kyrgyzstan. But Tashkent refused to join with Moscow.
It is not known to what extent any or all of these factors contributed to inhibit Moscow from committing troops, as clearly many Russian elites wanted to do so. One report even suggested that it offered to send troops on condition that interim President Roza Otunbayeva resign in favor of the pro-Russian Omurbek Tekebayev, a condition that Otunbayeva spurned, thereby leading Moscow to withdraw the offer. But beyond the aforementioned reasons for Moscow’s hesitancy, it would also appear that the Uzbek and Chinese factors have been underestimated.
There is good reason to suggest that not only did Uzbekistan oppose Russian intervention, but that it also joined forces with China to do so both in the concurrent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and in the CSTO. Certainly Uzbek President Islam Karimov was on record as stating shortly before the rioting that Kyrgyzstan’s travails were exclusively its own internal affair, a sign of his opposition to any Russian or other unilateral intervention. But in the meetings with other SCO member presidents before the SCO summit in Tashkent on June 10-11, signs of a Sino-Uzbek axis against Russian intervention emerged.
When Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Tashkent the communiqué of his greeting by Karimov was correct and formal but reserved. On the other hand, Karimov’s meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao was entirely something else. A fulsome communiqué extolling the millennium of relations between Uzbekistan and the Celestial Kingdom (significantly not the PRC) came at the start of this meeting followed by a statement that the two presidents then conducted an extensive review of regional and geopolitical issues that could only emphasize the issue of Kyrgyzstan’s stability.
In these discussions, President Hu Jintao offered a six point formula for Sino-Uzbek relations in which point 6 called on both countries to intensify multilateral coordination to safeguard both states’ common interests and stated that both countries must work together against the threats to security in Central Asia. Karimov openly welcomed these proposals, suggesting quite strongly not just that Uzbekistan was leaning away from Moscow towards Beijing, not least because of Moscow’s unremitting efforts to obtain a second military base in Kyrgyzstan in the Kyrgyz section of the Ferghana valley around Osh, efforts that it still pursues in order to control that valley. It also appears that not only did Uzbekistan object to unilateral Russian intervention in Kyrgyzstan, it also obtained China’s support for this position both in the SCO and in the CSTO where China is not a member, but also where a clear-cut Chinese policy aligned to that of Uzbekistan, would carry weight.
Thus it is probably not a surprise that Moscow is now still angling to obtain this desired base in the Ferghana Valley and also, e.g. in President Medvedev’s recent statements, heightening the widespread fears that the current Kyrgyz government will fail and the state collapse. Apparently Moscow is looking for a pretext by which pro-Russian members can invite it to intervene in Kyrgyzstan by talking up the dangers and likelihood of state failure in Kyrgyzstan which, to be fair, are considerable.
It also is negotiating with the U.S. to obtain the rights to cut the Kyrgyz state out of the picture as oil seller to the U.S. base in Manas, ostensibly to remove the taint of corruption from that business as is now charged by the new Kyrgyz regime. In fact, even though the base already buys much of its oil form Russian refineries, the Russian energy sector is probably no less corrupt than is the Kyrgyz government, members of which are already seeking to gain lucrative contracts for themselves. Rather, Moscow may be seeking to deprive Bishkek of the revenues from this business to further weaken it and force it into greater dependence upon Russia.
IMPLICATIONS: If this argument is well-grounded, then this occasion would represent the third time in recent years that China has thwarted important Russian goals in Central Asia, the first two being the refusal to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and the second being the opening of the Turkmenistan-China pipeline in 2009. This series of events would duly reflect greater public signs of Sino-Russian rifts over Central Asia as China moved to check Russian unilateralism there and assert its interests and capabilities in ever stronger fashion.
Second, this event would show that China can now leverage its relationships with Central Asian states who are wary of Russian objectives and policies not only inside the SCO but also within the CSTO, where it is not a member. In other words, it is able to find allies who will advance their own as well as China’s interests within the CSTO to counter Russian policies there, which has hitherto not been the case.
Third, Uzbekistan has once again showed the dexterity with which it conducts its own version of a multi-vector foreign policy, always oscillating between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, and its ability to find support for its position in one or more of those capitals at any given time. By doing so, and fourth, it also can assert its centrality as a key Central Asian actor.
Fifth, not only is it clear that Kyrgyzstan either is a failing state or close to becoming one, the absence of any reliable foreign support for intervention strongly suggests that it is on its own, a disturbing possibility given the precariousness of its domestic stability.
Sixth, this crisis has underscored the inability or unwillingness of Russia to stand behind its claims of being the region’s security manager, a claim that it nevertheless is still trying to enforce by its campaign for a second base in Kyrgyzstan. Should violence reoccur here or begin elsewhere it is quite uncertain what Moscow will be ready or able to do to restore stability even if it has a mandate from the host government or the CSTO.
Seventh, and last, this episode has also undermined the credibility of both the CSTO and possibly the SCO as security providers. Rather it has exposed the divisions within the ranks among the members of these organizations and the inability to forge a consensus on meeting an actual challenge to security one it appears. This failure cannot be a good augury for future possibilities of challenges to internal or regional security in Central Asia, which are probably inevitable.
CONCLUSIONS: The events in Kyrgyzstan, and its neighbors’ reactions to them, highlight the nexus between the internal stability of each country and the larger foreign policy rivalries in and around Central Asia. Challenges to the former lead to complex maneuverings among players in the latter venue. China is clearly challenging Russian pretensions and claims to primacy in both the security and energy fields and is finding allies with which to act even in fora that are closed to it. This trend can only intensify the maneuverings among the regional and external governments that constitute the so-called new great game.
But this trend will also heighten Sino-Russian tensions as the rivalry between them in Central Asia grows more overt and palpable and drags Central Asian governments in its wake as partners or allies of one or another of these governments during future challenges to security. That game is now truly afoot.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.