According to the newspaper Izvestia, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs requested that Russia provide the small Central Asian republic with direct assistance in the form of arms and technical support. Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs ministry, which controls the country’s police forces, seeks from Russia two helicopters, five armored personnel carriers (APCs), 15 buses, 18 trucks, 30 minibuses and several hundred firearms. In addition, Kyrgyzstan’s police has requested 40,000 Russian police uniforms (the Russian police is currently equipped with an updated uniform, leaving available large numbers of surplus, no longer used gear). The total cost of this requested military and police assistance amounts to several hundred million dollars (Izvestia, November 29). Kyrgyzstan’s official calls for police assistance and Russia’s agreement to fulfill these requests are indirect evidence of the intensification of Moscow and Bishkek’s military union.
The expected agreement is a logical continuation of the Kremlin’s recent decision to provide military and technical support for Kyrgyzstan’s army in the form of direct assistance (see EDM, November 14). The cost of this support is projected at $1.1 billion. The first lot of Russian weapons is to be sent to Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2013. Bishkek will receive a variety of new small firearms, new infantry fighting vehicles and combat reconnaissance patrol cars, helicopters and fixed field hospitals (Kommersant.ru, November 6)
Russia has decided to assist Kyrgyzstan in response to attempts by the United States to gain a foothold in Uzbekistan. According to Kommersant’s sources in Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Washington and Tashkent have started negotiations over potentially establishing a US military base in Uzbekistan. The very fact of these negotiations is due to Tashkent’s fear that the situation throughout the Central Asian region may worsen once US troops leave Afghanistan in 2014 (Kommersant.ru, August 23).
However, many experts warn that Moscow’s active arming of Kyrgyzstan’s military may have negative consequences. For example, Dr. Alexander Knyazev, a senior political science researcher at the Russian Academy of Science, argues that the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan remains fragile and a new conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks living there is still possible. Should fresh ethnic riots again erupt there, Moscow may be accused of providing weapons with which Kyrgyz kill Uzbeks (see EDM, November 14).
Meanwhile, from the point of view of local Uzbeks living in southern Kyrgyzstan, Russian support for the Kyrgyz Republic’s police would look even worse than the support being provided to the military. During the June 2010 Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes in Osh and Jalal-Abad, the police openly supported the ethnic Kyrgyz. After these ethnic riots were quelled, Kyrgyzstan’s police investigators and the courts showcased an explicit bias in their treatment of the country’s ethnic Uzbek citizens. While all parties to the conflict may have committed similar crimes, the courts tended to punish Uzbeks in the most severe way. The police also regularly extorted money from Uzbeks who returned from working abroad in Russia. Consequently, many of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks believe that the police is the main repressive force used by the state and the ethnic Kyrgyz majority to persecute them as an ethnic minority (Ferganews.com, December 15, 2011). Because of this recent and ongoing legacy, Russian support for Kyrgyzstan’s army, and especially its police, could severely worsen relations between Russia and Uzbekistan should Moscow’s assistance facilitate further state harassment or repression of ethnic Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan.
If Russia’s military and police assistance to Kyrgyzstan further spoils Moscow’s already strained relationship with Tashkent, this will have heavy repercussions for Russian strategic goals in Central Asia. Uzbekistan is a much more geostrategically important country than Kyrgyzstan. The population of Uzbekistan is greater than 29,500,000 (5,500,000 in Kyrgyzstan) (Uzbekistan’s official population estimate, 2012; Kyrgyzstan’s official population estimate, 2010). Also, Uzbekistan is located in the center of Central Asia, and all regional main railroads and highways cross over the republic. Uzbekistan is the only state that borders all other Central Asian republics as well as Afghanistan. Furthermore, the presence of large ethnic Uzbek communities located in neighboring states along its entire perimeter increase Uzbekistan’s overall importance in the region. Their presence represents a currently untapped tool (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02634930701423525#preview), which Tashkent may eventually use in its foreign policy toward its neighbors. Of no less importance is the fact that the most famous and oldest Central Asia cities (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva) are located in Uzbekistan. Tashkent uses this fact as an argument for a special role for Uzbekistan in the region.
“With some exaggeration, it is possible to say: Whoever controls Uzbekistan controls the whole of Central Asia,” Dr. Sergei Abashin, the head of the Central Asia department of the Ethnology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Jamestown on December 3. Permanently losing Uzbekistan over Kyrgyzstan would thus result in a real blow to Russia’s attempts to dominate the entire Central Asian region. Therefore, the growth of Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan at the expense of Uzbekistan has more minuses than pluses for the Kremlin.