It was the diplomatic version of an ambush. On a freezing February day in Moscow, Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by his side, ordered the US out of the Manas military base, exposing the tattered remnants of Washington’s Central Asian diplomacy.
The move sent geopolitical analysts into a frenzy. Some called it a Russian checkmate -- the announcement came soon after Kyrgyzstan secured a $2.15 billion aid package from its giant neighbour. Others blamed the tight-fisted Americans for the loss of the sole US base in Central Asia which a White House spokesperson admitted was vital to America’s war in Afghanistan. Indeed, over the years, Washington had played a game of chicken with Bishkek over demands to increase the base’s annual rent of $63 million.
However, such explanations are overly simplistic. The fact is, Bishkek’s boot was a long time coming. The Kyrgyz weren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of being pawns on The Grand Chessboard that Central Asia has become. Neither did they want to become victims of Washington’s declared intent to create an Arc of Instability that runs across the potentially volatile region.
A look at the geostrategic background makes things clearer. Since the voluntary dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US has been engaged in a dangerous power play in Central Asia, eastern Europe and the Caucasus, three contiguous regions that, for geostrategic reasons, are lumped together as Eurasia.
Washington's geopolitical bible is "The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives," in which former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stresses the necessity and the means for the US to establish complete domination over Eurasia. Brzezinski, from Poland, says by creating instability in every country in Russia’s neighbourhood, especially in the Central Asian Stans and Ukraine, and disrupting the flow of oil and gas, the US can isolate Russia, so that Moscow ceases to be a great power.
Brzezinski openly espouses provoking instability through exploiting the ethnic and religious diversity of the region. US policy, he states in The Grand Chessboard, is to "Balkanise Eurasia" and ensure that no possible stable economic or political region between Russia, the European Union and China emerges in the future that might challenge US global hegemony. The term "Arc of Instability" came into use in the1970s to refer to a 'Muslim Crescent' extending from Afghanistan to the Stans in the southern part of the former Soviet Union. Many troublesome signals indicate Brzezinski’s baleful fantasy is being activated.
Shortly after 9/11 when the US obtained the massive Soviet base at Khanabad for operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan began to witness an upsurge in Islamic terrorism. Leading the jihadis was the radical outfit Akramiya led by the demagogue Akram Yuldashev. It has been labeled a terrorist outfit by both the Uzbek government and the United Nations.
According to analyst Mikhail Chernov of Russia’s RBC Daily, the US appeared interested in creating disturbances in the ethnic alphabet soup that is the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. If Eastern Uzbekistan was split from the rest of the country, it would have made the link between Moscow and its bases in Tajikistan difficult. Then it would be over to the spin-doctors and puppeteers to install a pro-Western Islamic regime and use it to stir up Islamist insurgency in the area, including western China.Initially, the destabilization efforts seemed to be going according to plan -- Uzbekistan-based terrorists established escape routes to, and bases in, Kyrgyzstan, which led to a series of flare-ups between the two countries. In 2005, Islamic insurgents, inspired by Yuldashev, rioted in the eastern Uzbek city of Andizhan and attempted to create yet another revolution in the post-Soviet space. Karimov, however, strayed from the script. Instead of falling like a domino in the manner of the other ex-Soviet leaders, he simply shot the protestors and expelled the Americans.
Bakiyev too is treading a minefield. He has to deal with Islamic insurgency spilling over from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan that threatens his country’s social fabric. The country has come a long way since Bakiyev’s predecessor Askar Akayev, a physicist, once suggested that the country's army be abolished as a gesture toward world peace. The Kyrgyz, whose nomadic heritage makes them more spiritual than religious, now feel that the presence of Islamic fundamentalists has completely changed the situation.
Indeed, Central Asia is a region where the giants play hardball. Kyrgyzstan is too small to ignore the geopolitical realities. And the reality is Bishkek can’t play hardball with the giants. Manas was a sore point with the Russians and Chinese as it afforded the US military the ability to snoop on the military movements of both Russia and China.
Geopolitical imperatives aside, Kyrgyzstan is in dire straits economically. From near European standards of living during Soviet times, the country today faces the danger of becoming a basket case, with fully a third of the population living below the poverty line.
Moscow’s offer is a deal worth double Kyrgyzstan's current annual GDP. Most of the cash will go towards building a hydro-electric plant that will power a country that has no hydrocarbon resources. In a region that floats on a sea of oil, that’s a bizarre accident of geography. If the Americans had addressed Bishkek’s pressing needs, things may not have come to such a pass. You could call it America’s crowning indiscretion. Clearly, Washington was not in the least interested in that country’s welfare.
The American presence in the isolated outposts of Central Asia has been possible solely because of Russia’s good will. Despite the temptation, the Russians at present are not interested in creating another Vietnam for the US. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, says: "In the event of NATO's defeat in Afghanistan, fundamentalists who are inspired by this victory will set their eyes on the north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan... If things turn out badly, in about 10 years our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organised Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan."
However, that good will is running low. With a little encouragement from Russia, the Kyrgyz now know which superpower is better placed to serve their interests. And it is not one that has drawn the Arc of Instability. Wisely, Bishkek has decided to drop out of the Great Game.