Kyrgyzstan: Stalin’s Central Asian Harvest

Story in photos and short comments:

NY Times photo

By June 17th nearly 200 people, both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, had been confirmed dead. Other estimates are far higher.

NY Times photo

Some 45,000 Uzbeks have registered as refugees in neighbouring Uzbek-majority Uzbekistan. According to the United Nations’ children’s agency, a total of 100,000 people, mostly women and children, have crossed the frontier. On June 15th Uzbekistan closed its borders, saying it could take no more. Perhaps a further 200,000 people have been displaced within Kyrgyzstan itself. (The Economist)NY Times Photo

Until the Soviet Union started to define its Central Asian territories in 1924, the region never had precise borders. Before Russian colonisation in the late 19th century, the boundaries of the different khanates shifted back and forth. The nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs largely ignored the concepts of states and boundaries anyway.

After the October revolution of 1917, new autonomous republics were created. In 1924 Stalin divided the region into different Soviet republics. The borders were drawn up rather arbitrarily without following strict ethnic lines or even the guidelines of geography. The main aim was to counter the growing popularity of pan-Turkism in the region, and to avoid potential friction. Hence, the fertile Fergana Valley (formerly ruled by the Khanate of Kokand) was divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Some of these borders were redrawn several times until 1936. After 1991, this led to lively demarcation disputes among the newly independent countries. In addition, some small pockets of territory are nominally part of one country but geographically isolated from it. Kyrgyzstan, for example, has seven enclaves, two belonging to Tajikistan and five to Uzbekistan.

This has been only one cause of prickly relations between the “stans”, which are linked by Soviet-era roads, gas pipelines, electricity grids and other infrastructure. (Read The Economist)

copyright: The Economist map

In its report in April, the International Crisis Group warned that the collapse of the Bakiyev regime was a case study of the risks facing authoritarianism in central Asia, where Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been governed by strongmen in the old Soviet mould. “What happened in Kyrgyzstan in terms of corruption and repression is already taking place in several other countries,” said the ICG. “What happened in Bishkek in April 2010 could happen in most of its neighbours. It could indeed be much worse.”

But outside powers, particularly Russia and China, who covet the region’s extensive natural resources of natural gas and hydro power, and the US, with its base in Kyrgyzstan, show little interest in fostering more responsible rule, says The Guardian.

Friends like these (from The Economist article)

All three big external powers in Central Asia—America, China and Russia—have a big interest in the region’s stability. China sees it as an important source of gas and other energy supplies. It is also, more alarmingly as seen from Beijing, a possible inspiration for Islamist nationalists in what was once “East Turkestan” and is now China’s region of Xinjiang.

Both America and Russia, for their parts, maintain military bases in Kyrgyzstan, both near Bishkek. The American Manas air base, or “transit centre”, as it is now called, is used for supporting American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. It is an important part of a northern supply route developed because of the vulnerability of convoys coming through the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. Russia’s base in Kant is part of an agreement by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which groups together seven members of the former Soviet Union, to set up a counter-terrorism base in the region. But the former imperial power still sees Central Asia as very much its own stamping-ground.

The Manas base has been a source of friction. Last year Mr Bakiyev promised Russia it would be closed and was promised aid. He reneged on the deal when America increased the rent it was paying. That is one reason why Russia was suspected of having a role in his downfall. And though domestic pressures were probably enough to unseat him, Russia was certainly quick to recognise and help Ms Otunbayeva’s government.

Russia did not, however, rush troops to its aid when Ms Otunbayeva asked for them, as the violence in the south span out of control. It limited itself at first to sending paratroopers to secure the base at Kant, and then sending relief supplies. In April Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, described Kyrgyzstan as “on the verge of civil war”. Russia presumably has no desire to be sucked in, as it was in Afghanistan in 1979—and certainly not without international backing.

Ms Otunbayeva insists there are no plans to throw the Americans out of Manas. But many of her colleagues accuse America of having pandered to Mr Bakiyev’s corrupt and dictatorial whims in exchange for access to Manas. They allege that Maksim Bakiyev profited from the fuel-supply contracts for the base. This claim is being investigated by America’s Congress. The privately-held company which has the Pentagon contract denies any knowledge of Maksim Bakiyev’s involvement in the firms they deal with. NATO has suspended flights by air-to-air refuelling tankers from Manas.

Even if the world’s big powers share an abiding interest in the stability of Central Asia as a whole, and hence of Kyrgyzstan in particular, they seem to have little idea how to achieve it. So far they have tended to compete for influence. But with an eye on the ethnic and religious tensions in the region, and the vulnerability of brittle authoritarian systems, it may be time to start co-operating.

***

Since my title reads Stalin’s name, I will finish this post with the following joke about him, just for the mood:

Stalin’s ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, “Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.” “Why blue?” Putin asks. “Ha!” says Stalin. “I knew you wouldn’t ask me about the first part.”

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