01 May 2010

It Takes Two For a Great Game

The most notable thing about the overthrow of the government in Kirgizia last month - at least from the point of view of non-Kirgizians - has to be the contrast between the speedy and clear reaction of Moscow and the sluggish and vague initial reaction of Washington. Whereas Kremlin quickly got behind the new government the White House fell back onto meaningless government filler talk for such occasions, about the need to show respect for the law, about its "deep concern" and standard calls for dialogue, restoration of order and an end to violence. It was clear that unlike Russia, the US had been caught unaware by the development in Kirgizia and that consequently it was unsure how to react.

This echoes its behaviour during the 2005 unrest in Uzbekistan. Following the still murky events in which government forces by its own count gunned down 187 protestors and Uzbek government for a time appeared to be standing on shaky ground, the US - after initial silence and refusal to do anything that might alienate official Tashkent - later on came out with a response that was neither here nor there. It explicitly backed neither the Karimov government nor the protestors, while calling for restraint on the part of both parties and offering a subdued criticism of the government. The press release did not win it any moral capital, since it was far too timid in its condemnation of the actions of the Karimov government and since it had come only after days of hesitation. Jet it unexpectedly lost her a willing (if disagreeable) partner that is commandeering the most populous country in Central Asia. Karimov, appalled by the actions of a power which had been vying for his loyalties reacted by promptly evicting Americans from their Uzbekistan base and restoring Uzbekistan's alignment with Moscow, which unlike the US, had unambiguously come out on his side during the crisis.

Another 2005 event, Kirgizia's "Tulip Revolution" could be contrasted with the previous mentioned episodes as an example where, on the contrary, the US was not indecisive or passive but instead cleverly and boldly pulled strings to advance its agenda. However the Tulip Revolution was quite different from the other colour revolutions. Rather than firmly placing media attention on the coming election and building up interest beforehand like it was the case in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, in Kirgizia it was only after the fact that we were told that the violent change of regime had been a western inspired, democratic colour revolution. This retroactive branding casts heavy doubt on it ever being significantly the result of western money and training.

However it made sense for both of the parties, Washington and the new powers in Bishkek to claim otherwise, that it had been inspired by and belongs into the same category as the then lauded colour government overthrows. This way the revolutionaries were much more likely to be the beneficiaries of US largess, would be given more favourable media coverage in the West and perhaps add to their legitimacy. Washington on the other hand could add to its propaganda narrative about inspiring a spread of pro-western democracies and help justify their involvement from Belgrade to Baghdad to Tbilisi. Contrary to the instances of actual colour revolution the relations with the government consequently established did not come at the expense of and did not threaten relations with Russia. Kirgizia continued its membership in CSTO and SCO, continued to host a Russian military base, and in 2009 came close to evicting Americans from theirs. Bakiyevs profited nicely from working with the Americans, but the deposed Kirgiz government was never in the Western pocket in the style of other colour regimes - it did not have to be, it did not owe their rise to power to them.

Taking all of this into consideration a pattern emerges that establishes the US at a loss to understand the region. For all the talk of the New Great Game the US has in a decade failed to produce a particularly excellent move on the Central Asian chessboard. Russia on the other hand succeeded in luring Karimov - and with him Uzbekistan - into its sphere of influence with a mere well timed and clearly phrased press release. Then felt confident enough about its ability to predict the final outcome of the mess in Kirgizia this month so as to recognise the new government in Bishkek virtually before the bodies of the dead had been cleared from the streets.

Its speedy response has led to questions being raised of its involvement in the overthrow, but there is no real evidence of this. Much more likely the overthrow has solely to do with another round of fighting between political clans patronage networks in Kirgizia - and naturally with the very real wrath of the people over corrupt governance. The difference here is that Russia actually has some capacity to understand internal dynamics of Kirgizia and the ability to predict who will come out on top - and to therefore win their favour by coming out on their side, early and unambiguously. And to recognise which of the options coming out on top is more advantageous for it. Where Central Asia is an alien, exotic region for America it is far less so for Russia. The number of Kirgizians working in Russia is put at 800,000. Of Kirgizia's populace of 5.5 million nearly 500 thousand are Russians. A great deal of public life takes place in the Russian language which has an official status alongside Kirgiz. Russian language newspapers actually outnumber and have a higher circulation than those in the Kirgiz language. This goes to demonstrate that there are exist certain ties that enable Russians to follow events in this part of the globe with relative ease.

Besides this ability to understand the region, there is also the question of pull. The US is interested in the region's oil and natural gas resources, but other than cooperation in this one field it has nothing else to offer. While Russia is the first or the second most important trade partner for every one of these countries, the trade between Central Asian countries and the United States is all but non-existing. The populace of these countries understand this perfectly. Polls reveal that barely anyone in the region thinks sacrificing relations with Russia for relations with the United States would be wise.

All this means that in the end the New Great Game is a very uneven contest. The US simply does not have the cards to play. As is only natural. The United States may be a global power, but its global power is based on its control of the oceans. Central Asia however is a land-locked region, thousands of miles away from the nearest sea, and one that borders Russia and China at that. Any attempt of Washington to establish its dominance even here has as much chance of succeeding as a power other than the United States establishing itself in Central America. In reality Russian influence in the region is probably slowly receding, but it is not ceding ground to US influence, but to the pull of rising economic strength of China.

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