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28-04-06, 13:03
Kyrgyzstan edging toward more turmoil
By M K Bhadrakumar

Kyrgyzstan's location between the sensitive Ferghana Valley and China's Xinjiang region; the presence of Islamic militants and Uighur separatists; its use as a transit route for drug traffickers from Afghanistan; its being a cauldron of ethnicity and sub-nationalism; as a country flanking Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: all this makes Kyrgyzstan a pivotal state in Central Asia.

In addition, it is a neighbor to Tajikistan, which is still recovering from the wounds of a bloody civil war. It hosts the the sole remaining US military base in Central Asia at Manas, and it is an operational area for the Collective Security Treaty Organization
(CSTO) and a "founder-member" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

A coalition of political forces opposed to the leadership of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov has been in the making ever since last July's presidential election. An anti-Bakiev coalition, called the People's Coalition of Democratic Forces, has coalesced around pro-American political parties, "civil groups" and "non-governmental organizations".

It has called for mass protest rallies all over Kyrgyzstan this Saturday. The agitators have openly invoked the spirit of "color revolutions" of Ukraine and Georgia and the country's own "Tulip Revolution" in March of last year. Even so, Kyrgyzstan is beset with problems. Not surprisingly, criminal elements gained ascendancy when state institutions crumbled in the anarchy that followed.

Despite Russian and Chinese help, the Kyrgyz economy is nowhere near recovery. Foreign debt accounts for 80% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), this despite Moscow writing off half of the debts Kyrgyzstan owed to Russia. The extremely low level of demand in the domestic market makes revival of business very hard to achieve in the short term. The remittances from more than 300,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia, exceeding US$200 million annually, correspond to the size of the Kyrgyz government budget.

Kyrgyzstan's internal sources for capital are too meager to generate meaningful investment, so it depends on neighbors. Russia drew up a plan of economic recovery for Kyrgyzstan, which was discussed during the visit of Bakiev to Moscow last September.

Russia agreed to invest more than $1 billion in Kyrgyzstan by undertaking to build two major hydroelectric projects and invest in industries, such as aluminum and cement, that could use the power generated in these projects. China hopes to purchase Kyrgyzstan's surplus electricity and has also proposed infrastructure projects that would generate economic activity.

The Russian-Kyrgyz economic commission that met in Bishkek last Thursday discussed Russian participation in several projects, including: a) construction of a $100 million airport terminal; b) a $300 million project for tourism development; c) revival of the famous Kara-Baltinsky Mining Combine, a Soviet-era uranium-processing facility with a capacity of 2,000 tons annually.

Russian-Kyrgyz trade turnover (which accounts for almost 30% of Kyrgyzstan's trade) is showing a 40% annual growth rate currently and may exceed $1 billion.

The United States, however, is not eager to endorse Bakiev's policies. Speaking in Bishkek on April 11, Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, said: "There are a lot of very positive things here; there is a free press, a strong civil society, a definite direction to Kyrgyzstan's democracy. But there is a lot of work still to be done, not only on roads and power lines, but also on laws and reforms. They can both benefit the economy and also improve the health of your society."

Six days later, on April 17, in an extraordinary outburst for a diplomat, US Ambassador Marie Jovanovich condemned the Bakiev government: "Journalists are scared. Members of parliament are openly stating that they are scared. Threats against the Central Election Commission are worrisome. Even the police are frightened. Investors and donors are raising objections about the direction in which Kyrgyzstan is moving ... The judiciary must be free from corruption. We keep saying that the state must take decisive measures against organized crime."

What happened?

To be sure, there are any number of things going wrong in Kyrgyzstan. But even by US accounts, Bakiev obtained a popular mandate. His term in office began only in August. The problems that Jovanovich harped on are hardly Bakiev's creation. They are the problems of any impoverished, exhausted country that had a high level of social formation but found itself suddenly at a crossroads, groping in the dark for a way forward. (Kyrgyzstan isn't alone in these problems; Mikhail Saakashvili's Georgia fares no better in comparison.)

Once it became evident that the Bakiev-Kulov team was not at Washington's beck and call, the US turned on Bakiev and began to try to destabilize his government.

Washington's antagonism took many forms - creating a rift between Bakiev and Kulov; instigating members of parliament (elected during the regime of former president Askar Akayev) to challenge Bakiev's authority; spreading insinuations that Bakiev was conniving with the mafia; inciting clan rivalries; and funding "pro-American non-governmental organizations that combine a democratic agenda with moral support for the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan" - to quote a US commentator recently.

All this took place while Washington got away with a token payment of $2 million annually to use the Manas air base on the specious excuse that the base was integral to the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, and that the war was for the collective good of all Central Asians.

Bakiev insists that an enhanced rent of $200 million for the Manas base would be fair, and he has now gone on record saying that unless Washington agrees to enhanced rent by June 1, he will evict US forces from Kyrgyz soil.

Washington is furious. Two hundred million dollars is a lot of money. Besides, June 1 is just a fortnight ahead of the SCO summit meeting in Beijing. (At its summit meeting in Almaty last June, the SCO called for a timeline for removing the US military presence in Central Asia.)

The SCO is, generally speaking, bad news for Washington - now more than ever. The organization may induct new members (specifically, Iran) and may accord observer status to Belarus - a decision that brings the SCO to the very frontiers of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Meanwhile, for the first time, SCO member countries' defense ministers were to meet in Beijing this Wednesday. Russia's permanent envoy to the SCO, Grigory Logvinov, said in the Chinese capital on April 18: "The SCO has no intentions of transforming into a military bloc. However, as threats of terrorism, extremism and separatism have increased, substantial involvement of armed forces is necessary for combating them effectively."

Logvinov meaningfully added, "We are really contributing to the formation of a peaceful, open, developing and harmonious Eurasian continent."

He spoke on the eve of the Russia-Belarus joint collegium at Minsk last Friday held at the level of defense ministers to finalize plans for large-scale military exercises in June by the CSTO "in the Eastern European direction" (to quote Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov).

Units of Russia's crack land forces guarding the Moscow Military District, Tu-160 strategic bombers, Su-27 fighters and AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft will apparently take part in the exercises.

Washington has evidently concluded that the time has come to draw a battle line in the post-Soviet space - and confront Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies since 2000 in garnering all available centripetal factors serving the integration of countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. During the 2000-04 period, mutual trade among the CIS countries increased more than twofold and crossed the $100 billion level.

Russia's cooperation with its CIS partners involves: a) formation of joint-stock companies out of existing industrial facilities and infrastructure; b) direct investment of enterprises; c) purchase of property in the CIS countries; d) transfer of production to the CIS countries; e) purchase of share capital of indebted enterprises in the CIS countries; and f) vertically integrated transnational companies and bank subsidiaries.

The Eurasian Economic Community (comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) has harmonized about 90% of its import-export duties and is forming a customs union. It aims at forming energy, agriculture and currency markets. A free-trade zone is virtually in existence already.

Russia's parallel efforts in streamlining the CSTO have also gathered momentum since the unprecedented meeting of the CSTO Council of Foreign Ministers and Defense Ministers in Moscow last November. Bakiev's "strategic defiance" of the US thus comes as the proverbial last straw that broke the camel's back. Washington proposes to force the issues of post-Soviet space.

If Bakiev's authority crumbles in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan will fall into the downward-spiraling vortex of political uncertainties, and all sorts of tantalizing possibilities may arise, including installation of a pro-American successor regime.

In such an eventuality, the forthcoming SCO summit would have to holster its guns. The CSTO too would look foolish. Moscow would look indecisive. On the other hand, if Bakiev were to prove decisive, the Kremlin would be seen as backing yet another "authoritarian" ruler.

The United States has just notified Russia that the agenda in the July Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg ought to include "issues pertaining to conflicts very close to Russia's borders", as US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns put it in Moscow on April 19.

But Washington must factor in yet another possible outcome of upheaval in Kyrgyzstan. In a statement at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence meeting on February 2, the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, said: "In the worst, if not implausible, case, central authority in one or more of these states could evaporate as rival clans or regions vie for power - opening the door to an expansion of terrorist and criminal activity on the model of failed states like Somalia and, when it was under Taliban rule, Afghanistan ..."

With the White House in such visible disarray, it is unclear whether Negroponte is in the loop as regards the United States' Kyrgyzstan policy.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd)