Russia’s military presence in Central Asia has come into focus again through its participation in the Rubezh 2005 military exercises involving participants from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Although in itself there is nothing unusual about this exercise, the involvement of Russian air force units deployed at Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan has drawn denials from senior Russian military personnel about the existence of any plan or potential role to curb the recent Kyrgyz revolution.
The exercise, held April 2-6 in neighboring Tajikistan, witnessed the use of most Russian personnel at Kant as well as Su-24 bombers, Su-25 attack planes, and Su-27 fighters. Nonetheless, the continued presence of Russian military personnel in Kyrgyzstan gives Moscow a clear stake in the future of the country while keenly avoiding any appearance of meddling in Kyrgyz internal affairs.
Vladimir Mikhailov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, pointed to the importance of the Kant airbase in holding the long-planned military exercises. In addition to the anti-terrorist elements of the exercise, the participants also carried out a command staff exercise of the CIS Unified Air Defense System. According to Mikhailov, such preparedness remains an essential part of the Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan. Yet doubts remain over the role of the Russian base during the recent revolution and in its mixed signals since.
Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), issued a strenuous denial of any possible Russian military involvement at any stage in the crisis. He categorically ruled out considering the use of force in order to protect the Akayev regime. “I personally approached [President Askar] Akayev and asked him to grant permission for my arrival there in order to assess the situation and work out some proposals for the CSTO as regards to putting political pressure on the situation in Kyrgyzstan.” Akayev apparently refused, in what has been regarded by his Russian counterparts as a failure to appreciate the serious nature of the crisis.
Moreover, Bordyuzha denied that any Russian military aviation transited through the airbase during the crisis, either to increase numerical strength at the base or evacuate key Kyrgyz officials. Reports that indicated a theoretical risk to the base as marchers moved towards Kant on March 25-26 were a misunderstanding, owing to the intention of the people to reach industrial facilities in Kant rather than target the Russian base.
Bordyuzha evidently wants to dispel any suggestion that the Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan may ignite Russian military involvement in the internal politics of that country. His view, reflecting that of many within Russian political and security circles, presents an impression of a benevolent Russia advocating peace in the midst of political turmoil.
These and other statements emerging from Moscow suggest a cautious handling of the change of power in Bishkek, a restraint singularly lacking in previous examples of such turmoil in the former Soviet Union. One key distinction is the lack of any credible evidence of an “anti-Russian” element in the political opposition in Kyrgyzstan. Moscow’s policy is also influenced by the fear that the anarchy that followed the political collapse of Akayev’s regime may denote an even more unstable situation; the potential risk of clan divisions and trouble in Osh region spreading to neighboring Uzbekistan, combined with the activities of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other Islamic elements. remain concerns for the Kremlin. Russia therefore appears intent on taking the position of peace advocate, eschewing any appearance of favoring any party or being presented as an external power vying for its own interests. Bordyuzha, in this sense at least, wanted to reassure his Kyrgyz associates that regardless of the descent into the abyss, Russia cannot afford to become militarily involved in separating conflicting parties in an internal Kyrgyz dispute.
The continuation of instability and uncertainty over Bakiyev’s ability to stabilize the country may justify Moscow’s stance. Three commissions are being formed in order to investigate the causes of the March 24 events in Kyrgyzstan. One parliamentary commission comprised of Omurbek Tekebayev, Dzhantoro Satybaldiyev, Tashkul Kereksizov, Temir Sariyev, Sadyr Dzhaparov, Kadyrdzhan Batyrov, and Duyshon Chotonov has been set up to examine the events.
As the Kyrgyz authorities themselves show difficulties in coming to terms with the regime change, Bakiyev merely offers parliamentary commissions and various investigations into the mechanics of revolution, while addressing some concerns of the protesters such as the nature of corruption in local appointments under the old regime. The coordination council of Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies has decided to reinforce the Ministry of Internal Affairs investigative group by providing additional investigators from the Drug Control Agency, Customs Service, and Financial Police. These investigations are grappling with same issue, namely how mass riots spread so quickly and how the various security agencies handled the crisis.
Moscow fears that the disorder following the collapse of the Akayev regime may spread throughout Central Asia. Already overstretched by its military commitment in Chechnya, the Kremlin cannot face the prospect of an unstable Central Asia, with limited resources available to reduce the risk of further trouble. The specter of Kyrgyzstan as an island of instability rather than democracy is driving Moscow’s cautious approach.
(Moskovsky komsomolets, March 26; Interfax, April 1; Kyrgyz Television First Channel, April 2; RTR Russia TV, April 3; Kabar News Agency, April 3)