What appears in Kyrgyzstan is a reflection of the fact that a “Great Game 3.0” is unfolding in Eurasia, in which the lead actor is China and not the West unlike earlier times. The present political situation in Kyrgyzstan has to be looked from a broader geopolitical prism. It appears that China through its geopolitical maneuvering in Eurasia is also indulging in creating a political impasse in Kyrgyzstan. This should set alarm bells for other post-Soviet countries including Russia who share a great bonhomie with China.
While the entire world is facing a pandemic crisis, a tiny country of Eurasia, Kyrgyzstan, is facing both the pandemic and a political crisis which in the long run is going to affect the geopolitical and political developments in Central Asia. This is because external powers like Russia, China and the US have always tried to meddle in Kyrgyzstan’s politics to further their geopolitical interests. However, unlike the past, it is apparent that Western nations are not a part of the recent move to oust the present government even though OSCE gave a negative report about the recently held Parliamentary elections.
News reports suggest that President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has given his resignation and a new Prime Minister Sadyr Zhaparov has taken over the country’s leadership role. Though a tenuous peace is prevailing in the country after the tumultuous political crisis, it is too early to predict the future. The problem with the present political impasse is not only about bringing back normalcy into the country but also its larger geopolitical ramifications in the context of Eurasia. The present author is shedding light on this aspect because since the ouster of former President Askar Akaev in Kyrgyzstan through a geopolitically motivated Coloured Revolution, one may apprehend that the same may happen once again.
As discussed above, it is necessary to highlight the external actors who are responsible for fostering the present political crisis or is it only domestic political dynamics? Secondly, will the crisis contribute to the “Great Game 3.0?”
Another issue that needs to be addressed here is whether the present crisis will provide a leeway to external actors to gain a firm foothold in Eurasia? All these issues need to be addressed to locate the real reason for crisis in Kyrgyzstan.
It may be recalled here that Kyrgyzstan is on boil since February 2020 when there was a massive protest against a Chinese company that wanted to produce petroleum in the Kara Balta region. Going by various news reports, the Kyrgyz government took stern measure against the Chinese oil company which was “violating the country’s environmental norms” and wanted to establish an oil infrastructure facility (February 13, 2014, Reuters). This created a sense of resentment and finally contributed to the cancellation of the project. It may be underlined here that the ousted Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov is also one of the vocal critics of Chinese “expansionist” policies. Even the current President has always pursued a Pro-Russian policy irking China. During his visit to Russia in September 2020 , just before the parliamentary elections, he met President Vladimir Putin at Sochi. Putin expressed satisfaction about the political development and stability in Kyrgyzstan. In the same meeting, the Kyrgyz President also stated that “Kyrgyzstan has always considered Russia to be a true friend, ally and strategic partner.”
However, the turn of the event following the declaration of parliamentary elections and mass protests raises suspicion about the involvement of an external power. In this regard, one can draw parallels with past events which contributed to the escalation of conflict in Kyrgyzstan. Long back in 2005, studies suggest that mass mobilization against the Askar Akaev regime took place which contributed to the subsequent Colour Revolution and the ouster of country’s first President. It is in this context that one must see the present political crisis. Unlike Akaev, who toed the Western line but later earned their wrath, the present President is considered to be a staunch ally of Russia. Secondly, Russia does not want any kind of political disturbance in this tiny country which holds strategic importance in the Eurasian security structure. It may be noted that Kyrgyzstan is part of broader security and economic alliances with Russia in the form of Collective Security Treaty Organisations and Eurasian Economic Union. Russia clearly does not want any kind of domestic political disturbances which may affect the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
Russia’s position to the crisis is succinctly outlined by Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Kosachev reportedly said (as quoted in Itar Tass newspaper) that “I don’t see any grounds for such a request from President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, I deem the events to be Kyrgyzstan’s domestic affairs and that the country should deal with the situation itself.”
Russia is high priority to Kyrgyzstan in its foreign policy strategy as is evident from the visit of President Putin to Bishkek in March 2019. During his visit, both countries signed “Joint Statement of the President of the Russian Federation and the President of the Kyrgyz Republic.” As reported on Russian website Kremlin.Ru (March 28, 2019), both countries agreed to augment their cooperation to a new level. At the same time, both countries agreed to jointly collaborate in: “ development of the oil and gas and oil processing industries as well as the railway network in Kyrgyzstan, cooperation in supplying crude oil and refined products.” This shows that both countries are eager to take their relations to a higher level. At the same time, Russia is also quite concerned about the way China is penetrating into what Russia considers as its “sphere of interest” in the framework of “Greater Eurasia.”
The setbacks which Russia got after the Crimean crisis is also forcing it to rethink its policy in the post-Soviet space. After facing increasing isolation in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis from Western nations, Russia now is thinking of mending fences with post-Soviet countries in the framework given by late Foreign Minister Y.Primakov. It may be recalled here that Primakov gave “primacy” to strengthen relations with the so-called “Southern Flank” which consists of Caucasus and Central Asian countries.
Central Asia still occupies an important position in the foreign policy calculus of Russia despite the world having being changed over a period of time. Moscow sees a larger role for itself in this part of the world as the Afghan strategic theatre is taking a new turn with the likely withdraw of US from Afghanistan. It is in this context that Russia is trying to forge a greater partnership with the Central Asian countries so that it can assume a preponderant role in Afghanistan in future. In this regard the key ally will be Kyrgyzstan because it already has a military air base, although it is operating under the aegis of Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
In Central Asia, Russia is not facing any challenges from the West but rather its strategic partner China is creating covert problems in recent years. The grand Chinese plan of bringing Central Asian countries under the OBOR scheme along with the launch of ‘Central Asia plus One’ on the lines of US and India’s strategic policy is also raising many eyebrows in Russia. It may be recalled here that Russia roped in China in Central Asia to checkmate the hegemonic tendencies of the West. However, the manner in which China is making inroads into this geopolitical space is putting the Russian policy makers in a fix. The regional grouping mechanism initiated by China in July 2020 had foreign ministers all Central Asian countries who discussed through video conferencing “regional economic integration” and “enhancing trade and stimulating mutual investment”.
One may highlight here that this is not the first time China is interested in bringing these countries under its ambit. Earlier it was through SCO and OBOR that Beijing brought these countries under its sphere of influence. In fact, there is a growing interest shown by China in Central Asian countries over the years. The Turkmenistan-China Gas Pipeline also gave China an upper hand in the geopolitics of Central Asia. There is also growing apprehension from Russian policy makers that China is overtaking them in the geopolitical clout of the region. At the same time, China’s hyper-active foreign policy will also jeopardise Russia’s ambitious “Greater Eurasian” plan.
There is also an energy dimension to the present political impasse in Kyrgyzstan. The growing penetration of Chinese energy companies in Kyrgyzstan both for construction of hydro-power plants along with oil exploration has also further dented Russia’s clout in this part of the world. For instance, there were reports of corruption in the energy industry of Kyrgyzstan and the role of Chinese companies in this regard. Asymmetric trade dependence on China is also putting the Kyrgyz economy into a crisis. Even as China offered loans to revive few Soviet era power plants, there is a possibility that they will be taken over by the Chinese themselves later. Understanding the complexity, Russia also offered supply at a much cheaper price so that it can keep Kyrgyzstan under its geopolitical tutelage. As reported, Russia purchased gas from Uzbekistan and distributed the same to Southern Kyrgyzstan.
Though the present crisis appears to be a domestic one, there is clear desire on part of China and Russia to have hegemonic control over Kyrgyzstan because of its geopolitical significance. The finger of suspicion for the present stalemate is being pointed towards China only because it is pursuing a hostile policy towards its neighbours. It may be highlighted here that there is growing apprehension from the local population of Kyrgyzstan that one day they will also lose their cultural identity.
It may be underlined here that though there is no direct confrontation between Russia and China in Central Asia but it is certainly clear that there is going to be a new form of competition between the two. This can be studied through the prism of the ‘Great Game’, a 19th Century phenomenon that occurred between the British and the Tsarist Russian empire. The second phase of the Great Game occurred between Russia and the West, led by the US in the aftermath of 2001, as both of them competed to get a foothold in Central Asia. On the other hand, in the ‘Great Game 3.0’, what one is witnessing is growing acrimony between Russia and China which may put Central Asian geopolitics in a fix.
India also has close relations with Kyrgyzstan and is also equally concerned about the political stalemate. It may be noted that Kyrgyzstan is the first country in Central Asia to adopt a parliamentary form of government similar to that of India. At the same time, India also shares a deep rooted cultural connection with Kyrgyzstan. During his visit to Kyrgyzstan to attend the SCO Summit last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended “200 million dollars worth of credit.” During PM Modi’s visit to Bishkek, both countries also signed a number of agreements on trade and commerce along with an intention to “jointly fight radicalism and extremism”. It is expected that New Delhi would play a greater role in bringing normalcy to this mountainous country. As many analysts argue, the only way Russia can contain China in the post-Soviet space is by aligning with India.
Though the present political situation in Kyrgyzstan is limping back to normalcy, the present crisis reflects both the geopolitical flux and a domestic political impasse. The only way this kind of situation can be averted is if the political elite of Kyrgyzstan stop their dependence on external powers, while simultaneously strengthening the domestic roots of Kyrgyz democracy. Nevertheless, the “Great Game 3.0” is slowly entering into the geopolitical lexicon of Eurasia and the new external actor who is trying to assume a preponderant role is China.
This partly stems from an overdependence on the part of the Eurasian countries on China. The same is true in the case of Kyrgyzstan. It is in this context that Russia and other countries of Eurasia (particularly Central Asia) should come with their own prescription on the security situation and discuss measures to contain China. Russia should beef up the CSTO mechanism along with EEU to give a befitting response to China’s aggressive tendencies. Of course, India can also certainly help Russia and Eurasian countries to checkmate Chinese menace in Eurasia.
The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]