Heightened security and increased concerns among Uzbekistan’s immediate neighbors mark the uneasy atmosphere produced by Tashkent’s crackdown in Andijan on May 13. Kyrgyzstan’s security agencies are particularly anxious to avoid any spillover of political violence across the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. Tension is high on the border itself, while the impact on the region’s security as a whole is beginning to emerge. Moscow has stepped up its security measures in the region by advancing its military basing policy in Kyrgyzstan. Though the situation within Uzbekistan itself has improved since the crisis erupted, denoted by the smother operation to regain control over the border town of Karasuu, once again the attention of both regional and external powers is focused on the future stability of this strategically vital area.
Signs of a concerted international scramble to reassess bilateral military and security relations with Uzbekistan are already apparent. U.K. officials due to participate in a security conference in Tashkent cancelled their engagement, based on the reports of human rights abuses in Andijan. U.S. military officials have hinted at the possible repercussions for U.S. military assistance to Uzbekistan and raised the possibility of leaving a smaller U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan. Russia and China, however, have taken a different attitude that could undermine Western efforts to exert meaningful pressure on Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov.
Russian media sources reported that a meeting on May 20 between Kyrgyzstan’s Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and a Russian State Duma delegation, accompanied by Felix Kulov, first deputy Prime minister, discussed details surrounding the future deployment of elements of the Russian military at a base in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan. Such a base, were it actually agreed and constructed, might involve the deployment of around 1,000 Russian servicemen. Such a marked stepping up of the Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan would enhance Moscow’s security credentials in the country, already bolstered by the deployment of the Russian air force at Kant, on the outskirts of Bishkek. The critical difference in the case of Moscow’s interests in Osh relates to the fears held by Russian security officials that Islamic radicalism may ignite instability throughout the Fergana Valley.
China, though much more cautious when implementing practical steps, may choose to lend support to Uzbekistan through the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), advancing the embryonic cause of anti-terrorism through the SCO’s anti-terrorist center based in Tashkent. At a political level, Karimov can take great comfort from the stalwart support offered by Beijing. Kong Quan, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Beijing “resolutely supports the efforts to ensure security” in Uzbekistan.
Beijing’s strong support for Karimov, despite international outrage against the Uzbek handling of the crisis, reflects China’s long-standing concerns about the growing influence of the United States in the region as well as fears that Islamic militants in Central Asia might cooperate with those active on Chinese territory. This tough — yet unsurprising — stance is explained primarily by the fact that Beijing itself has come up against the activity of internal underground Islamist organizations. Equally, Beijing is interested in finding inexpensive mechanisms such as the SCO, through which it may promote security in Central Asia and minimize the growth of Western influence.
As events continue to unfold, Kyrgyzstan finds itself placed under indirect pressure not only in coping with the flow of Uzbek refugees, but also in hurriedly reacting to the security situation and taking adequate measures to protect its border with Uzbekistan. This has placed a strain on local Kyrgyz security structures. On May 21 Kyrgyz border units were sent to support units already deployed around the border area near Karasuu. Though the number of locals trying to gain access across the border was limited to only several hundred, the activities of the Uzbek military in the area and their subsequent relatively peaceful restoration of order to Karasuu, placed a significant strain on the Kyrgyz border service and highlighted the risk of violence spreading in the border region.
In Bishkek governmental observers, like their counterparts in Uzbekistan, maintained a safe distance from the actual zone of conflict, but nonetheless recognized that the situation may demand greater security assistance from Russia. Russian assistance could be utilized in a crisis, at least in theory, without the subsequent need to justify the level of force involved.
China and Russia, keen to advance their own economic and geopolitical interests in Central Asia, and to thwart American foreign policy goals in the region, appear ready to support Karimov’s regime and those like his in Central Asia. Moscow and, to a lesser extent, China fear a possible “green” or Islamic revolution within Central Asia, and their political and security countermeasures will offer little comfort to those forces seeking to stimulate the development of democracy and respect for human rights in the region. In practical terms, Russian security thinking may be restricted to increasing the size of its own military footprint in Kyrgyzstan and providing more fluid and reliable intelligence to Bishkek.
(Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 19; RIA-Novosti, May 21; Ekho Moskvy, May 22; Akipress, May 23; Interfax, May 23)