Tasked by Voice of America with looking into newly independent Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I wanted to get an idea of the civil war roiling the small but spectacularly beautiful nation of Kyrgyzstan, called by its admirers the “Switzerland of Central Asia.”
My driver for the occasion said he had a master’s degree in political science, but that did not improve his driving skills. Unaware, he sped from the government side across the battlefield into the Islamist opposition camp whose defenders, rifles at the ready, didn’t seem happy to see us. “This is interesting,” said my unflappable ex-KGB guide with no escape in mind. Then, providentially, a tank appeared – Russia to the rescue. The Islamists switched their attention to the appraching enemy, and we were spared from whatever they had in store for us.
This is the irony: a decade earlier, we – the U.S. – had been championing the Islamists in neighboring Afghanistan against the Russian occupiers. Now it was the reverse. We counted on Russia to help contain the Islamist threat. Such a turnabout, to be sure, is familiar to Central Asia, where contending forces, internal and external, are always disturbing the peace and seeking control. But who can master an area that accepts no master?
The five off-beat nations are sometimes hard to keep straight: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan along with Kyrgyzstan, a series of “stans” with makeshift borders designed by Stalin to sow confusion. They are are often considered a global backwater but nonetheless prized for their prime location, major resources and vigorous people.
After gaining independence from Communist Russia, they were expected to take a democratic turn. They didn’t and continued autocratic rule, though Kygyzstan has some democratic trimmings – elections, a robust parliament, a press that is less fettered than that of the other stans. Still politics is rough and tumble – three revolutions and assorted uprisings. A year and a half ago, a president was forced into hiding by rock-throwing protestors over a questionable election. A convicted kidnapper was let out of jail to take his place. This was not unusual since each successive government is in the habit of jailing members of the previous one.
Russian President Putin would like the stans to be calm as he goes about trying to reconstitute a Soviet Union whose collapse he considers a “catastrophe.” He doesn’t employ lethal Stalinist measures but more subtle pressures as in the case of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. First, he constructed a competing Russian base, then made his desires clear to the Krygyz who depend in many ways on Moscow’s generosity and forbearance. The U.S base is gone.
Not quite as entrenched in Central Asia, China is investing heavily in the region, including high tech apparatus to monitor the activities of the suppressed Uighur population on the border with the stans. More dramatically and long term, it is engaged with Russia on an ambitious modernized land route that will cross the stans and unite east and west in a Greater Eurasia with geopolitical as well as economic implications. It is current U.S. policy to denounce and sanction both of the powers in contrast to the successful Cold War policy of dividing them. Time to think again.