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US, China, Russia Vie for Influence in Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan is a small country surrounded by large and possibly predatory neighbors - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and above all, China. It must cope without offending, and observers say so far it has succeeded.

Rustam Koshmuratov, director of Radio Almaz in Bishkek, explains how Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has managed. "Akaev gave to China 125 hectares of Kyrgyzstan," he says. "For Russia there is a military base in Kant. For America there is a military base in Manas. Kyrgyzstan is strategically important for China, Russia and America. As long as three superpowers get along, they are content with Akaev. But if their interests should clash, they would seek another candidate in support of their interests."

Above all, prevent any clash on Kyrgyz soil, says Marat Usupov of the Kyrgyz foreign ministry. In his opinion, there is no reason the various powers cannot get along. "We would like to maintain a very good relationship with all," he says, "based on the principle not 'or-or' but we would like 'and-and.' Historically, we have been part of the former Soviet Union, and we have a big Russian minority. There is a political dialogue going on with the United States. We provided our territory for the Ganci military base and for the anti-terrorist coalition. We are also welcoming American business to come to Kyrgyzstan."

Kyrgyzstan, in fact, is the only country in the world with both U.S. and Russian military bases. There are other, smaller player as well, says Mr. Usupov. Saudi Arabia is busy building mosques. Japanese are arriving to look over prospects.

In the so-called "Great Game" of the 19th century, Britain and Russia vied for influence in Central Asia in a series of maneuvers and clashes. That is not likely to be repeated, says Jeff Lilley, director of the International Republican Institute’s office in Bishkek and co-author with his father, former U.S. Ambassador James Lilley, of the recently published China Hands.

Jeff Lilley says the current big powers are more careful and calculating than their predecessors. "They may be elbowing each other a little bit," he says, "but I think they all understand there are huge problems in the world at this time, and they do not want to create more problems here, bickering over the future of this part of the world. I’d say the Kyrgyz are being very nimble and agile. The Kyrgyz are playing a delicate balancing game."

Mr. Lilley thinks the Chinese are too engrossed in their own internal problems to make trouble in Kyrgyzstan. They also have Taiwan and North Korea to consider. "The Chinese interest is stability. Let’s get the Kyrgyz to help us corral these unruly elements in western China. We will trade with the Kyrgyz. We will not overwhelm them with our presence," he says. "But clearly the better relationship China has with Kyrgyzstan, the more influence it has with Kyrgyzstan, the more nervous the Kyrgyz get because it is a country of four to five million people on the border of China, the most populous country in the world."

Radio director Rustam Koshmuratov says Kyrgyzstan has reason to be nervous. Big powers tend to intervene in smaller ones, he insists. They cannot help themselves. "Remember that proponents of Communism are always talking about expansion of Communism," he notes. "We should not forget that China is still a communist country. Chinese schoolbooks portray parts of Central Asia and even Russia as belonging to China at least at some future time. So children are taught. Abroad Chinese do not assimilate. They are biding their time."

Meanwhile, don’t underestimate U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan, says Kurmanbek Bakiev, a former Kyrgyz prime minister who is running for president of the country:

"After the fall of the Soviet Union, 1991 to 1993, the Kyrgyzstan economy was in bad shape, and the first help was provided by the United States," he says. "That is why there is not much anti-Americanism here. And then America encouraged business investment here."

But the United States is getting a different, more ominous message from Uzbekistan. Its President, Islam Karimov, regularly complains about the international organizations which, he says, fail to understand Uzbek history and values and are intent on undermining the country.

Even though Uzbekistan hosts a U.S. military base and is participating in the war on terror, President Karimov recently signed an agreement of military cooperation with Russia. Said Russian President Vladimir Putin: "The document opens a new page in the history of our relations and lays down a solid foundation for Russian-Uzbek strategic partnership."

Does the Great Game continue?