News / Asia

US, Russian, Chinese Interests Favor Stable Kyrgyzstan

Central Asian country has close economic ties to Russia, shared border with China and new leaders who value US's open, democratic model

Peter Fedynsky

Kyrgyzstan's recent revolt against the regime of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has drawn attention to the interests of the United States, China and Russia in the strategically-located Central Asian country. 

The United States and Russia both have air bases in Kyrgyzstan.  Last year, ousted President Bakiyev secured $2 billion in assistance from Russia, saying he would close the U.S. base.  It supplies NATO troops in Afghanistan.

But Moscow resents the U.S. presence in a former Soviet republic.  And Mr. Bakiyev offended Russia when he re-negotiated the base agreement with Washington, raising the annual rent from $17.4 million to $60 million.

Some Kyrgyz accuse the United States of turning a blind eye to alleged abuses by the Bakiyev regime in exchange for use of the base.  The deputy head of the Kyrgyzstan's interim government, Almazbek Atambayev, says unlike the United States, Russia did not preach democracy.

Atambayev says Americans shouted all the time about democracy, while the U.S. ambassador [to Kyrgyzstan] artfully covered abuses by the Bakiyev family.  He claims opposition members were killed or imprisoned for the sake of that base.  Atambayev chides the United States, saying a great nation should not behave that way, and notes that American leaders will understand that.

Atambayev spoke after returning from Moscow, which was first to recognize the interim government.  He said Russia has promised at least $150 million in aid to Kyrgyzstan.

Independent political analyst Tamerlan Ibragimov says Kyrgyz civic activists prefer America's open democracy to Russia's authoritarian political model.  But he recognizes the Kyrgyz people depend more on Russia for their economic well-being.

Ibragimov says many Kyrgyz citizens make a living in Russia, and their cash remittances to families in Kyrgyzstan play a very large role.  He says they practically support their families from Russia, adding that Kyrgyz villages and cities live on that money.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyz markets are filled with goods from China, which shares an 858-kilometer border with Kyrgyzstan.  During the Kyrgyz revolt, China warned its citizens to be careful when traveling to Kyrgyzstan and expressed hope for a peaceful resolution.  

But Kyrgyz State University professor Murat Suimbayev says China's primary concern is stability in its Xinjiang province, where an ethnic Muslim minority, the Uighers, are struggling for independence.

Suimbayev says instability in Kyrgyzstan will directly or indirectly cause instability in Xinjiang, if only because it is easier for Uigher separatists to act when there is unrest in Kyrgyzstan.

Tamerlan Ibragimov traces cross-border instability further across Central Asia.

Ibragimov says the region is unstable. He notes Afghanistan is located nearby, Iran is a bit further, and the situation in Uzbekistan is also unclear. Ibragimov says if you consider that the Xinjiang autonomous region was always a headache for China, then Beijing probably looks at Kyrgyzstan through that prism.

The Kyrgyz revolt was triggered by a sudden doubling of electricity rates.   But it highlighted known threats in Afghanistan that could sweep across the borders of Central Asia - terrorism, illicit drugs and religious extremism.  Ibragimov and Suimbayev note Chinese, Russian and U.S. interests in preventing such problems appear to intersect in Kyrgyzstan.

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