A recent uptick in diplomatic activity in southern Kyrgyzstan indicates Russia’s rising presence and influence in the country, which gives Russia substantial leverage over regional powers like Uzbekistan and global players like the United States. Russian plans to build a military training center in the volatile Kyrgyz south, ostensibly to fight terrorism, will also work to advance Moscow’s numerous strategic interests in the region.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev traveled to Moscow from March 17 to March 18 to meet with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. The Kyrgyz premier’s visit comes amid a high level of diplomatic activity in southern Kyrgyzstan. This includes the March 13-14 visit of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha; the March 16 visit of Viktor Ivanov, director of the Russian Federal Service for Drug Control; and the March 15 announcement by Kyrgyz President RozaOtunbayeva that two military training centers — one Russian and the other U.S.-funded — will be built in southern Kyrgyzstan.
This recent uptick in activity is indicative of Russia’s rising presence and influence in the country, which gives Russia substantial leverage over regional powers like Uzbekistan and global players like the United States. However, Russia knows it must maneuver carefully in southern Kyrgyzstan, which is a strategic yet volatile area and is a key factor in the stability of the Central Asian region as a whole.
Kyrgyzstan has been in a fragile state since the April 2010 revolution and the ensuing ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad in June. There is no shortage of problems in the country, including porous borders with neighboringTajikistan and Uzbekistan and the flow of drugs, with Kyrgyzstan serving as part of a key narcotic transit route from Afghanistan to markets in Russia and Western Europe.
These are issues in which Russia is directly involved, and Russian and Kyrgyz officials discussed both this past week. Bordyuzha toured the borders, inspected border troops atBatken and Osh oblasts and met with Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Shamil Atakhanovin Osh to discuss regional security. Then, two days later, Russian Federal Service for Drug Control director Ivanov visited Kyrgyzstan and pledged millions of dollars to combat drug trafficking, stating, “drug barons have participated directly in destabilizing the situation inKyrgyzstan.”
However, the most important problem in the country following the 2010 uprising iscontinuing levels of violence within Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the south. This could explainOtunbayeva’s March 15 announcement that two new military training facilities will be built in southern Kyrgyzstan. Otunbayeva said Russia would build a facility in the city of Osh, while the United States could fund construction of a facility in Batken oblast, in either the town ofKyzyl-Kiya or the town of Batken.
While there are still many details to be ironed out — such as when construction would begin or how directly the Russian military will be involved in manning and operating the baseRussia builds (the U.S. facility will be garrisoned by Kyrgyz troops only) — Otunbayeva made the purpose of these facilities clear. She said the growing threat from Islamist militants wasthe real problem in terms of regional security and the reason such bases were needed, adding, “We must be trained on how to fight terrorism.”
But the purpose of these new training facilities may be more than just preventing terrorism-related violence, of which there has been dubious evidence. The bases are also meant to prevent the migration of militants across borders and to contain the regional power next door, Uzbekistan. As events in Kyrgyzstan have unfolded since the 2010 revolution, this situation has had a direct impact on Uzbekistan. Southern Kyrgyzstan, which is located in the dynamic and ethnically diverse Fergana Valley, has a substantial population of ethnic Uzbeks. Tashkent has voiced its concern over the discrimination of ethnic Uzbeks inKyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan went as far as seriously considering military intervention in southern Kyrgyzstan during the June outbreak of ethnic violence, which reportedly left hundreds of Uzbeks dead and displaced many more.
Uzbekistan is also looking with a cautious eye at Tajikistan, which has faced its own security problems since a high-profile jailbreak in August and has traditionally had grievances with Dushanbe, where it labels opposition elements “transnational Islamic terrorists.” Such elements have posed problems in the Rasht Valley that Uzbekistan fears could spread elsewhere in the region. Uzbekistan is worried about militants transiting not only from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan but also through Kyrgyzstan, so Tashkent is having to sharpen its focus on both neighbors as well as on internal security along the borders. All of these reasons could force Uzbekistan to be more assertive — and possibly take direct action — in a region in which Russia maintains hegemony and does not want any challengers.
With these factors and the vulnerability of the region in mind, Russia has been increasing its involvement in and strengthening ties to Kyrgyzstan, the weakest state in the region. And with its growing presence, Russia is hoping to prevent the security situation in the country from spiraling out of control and allowing the spread of Uzbekistan’s influence. Also, the announcement of building both facilities is another sign of cooperation between Russia and the United States. This region is key to the war in Afghanistan in terms of bases, fuel supply and logistics, and it is currently in Russia’s interest to be a cooperative partner with the West over this issue in order to gain leverage.
Therefore, these new facilities are not just about combating terrorism but also about advancing Russia’s numerous strategic interests in the region. However, Kyrgyzstan — and especially its volatile south — remains a potential problem for the stability of the region.Russia will therefore have to maneuver carefully to boost its presence and influence while preventing the region from coming to a boil.