Central Asian Pawn

Kyrgyzstan - a vulnerable pawn in the Central Asian chess game

Central Asian Pawn

Kyrgyzstan - a vulnerable pawn in the Central Asian chess game

In his address to parliament on November 14, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev said his priority during this his third term in office would be to turn around the republic's struggling economy and overcome its social problems.


But another pressing issue demands attention too - Kyrgyzstan's vulnerable security situation and its relations with other Central Asian states, Russia, and the West.


Afghanistan is commonly cited as the main threat to stability in the region. Besides suspicion of Taleban Islamic fundamentalism, Afghanistan is accused of harbouring rebels from neighbouring Central Asian states, especially the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.


Fear of Islamic fundamentalism and "international terrorism" has led to numerous mutual security discussions, and some agreements, among Central Asian states and Russia. But Kyrgyz officials see the more immediate danger coming from a different direction.


In closed parliamentary sessions and security-council meetings, the finger of suspicion has been pointing, not at Afghanistan, but neighbouring Uzbekistan - a country publicly applauded as an "eternal friend".


Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan are home to large Uzbek minorities. These peoples combined with the Uzbek population itself number 24 million, Central Asia's largest ethnic group. Uzbekistan has the largest and best-equipped army in the region, numbering 35,000 troops, and has benefited from co-operation with NATO.


The West has not been slow to realise the strategic potential of Uzbekistan as a counter to Russian dominance in the region and the perceived threat of Iranian fundamentalism. The industrialised countries have been impressed by Uzbekistan's progress at shedding its Soviet past, and although critical of Tashkent's human rights record, the United States sees the growth of Uzbek influence in the region as a stabilising factor.


There are 130 separate land disputes outstanding between the Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. A hangover from the Soviet era, Uzbekistan still uses, free of charge, several industrial sites located inside Kyrgyzstan. Likewise, the Uzbek-owned North Sokhskoe underground gas storage plant, gas pipe and power lines cover 6,439 hectares of Kyrgyz territory.


Nevertheless, Bishkek remains dependent on her larger neighbour for natural gas, supplies of which are periodically interrupted because of unpaid bills.


Meanwhile, the airports in Osh and Jalal-Abad have been built in such a way all aircraft have to take off and land through Uzbek airspace, leaving Tashkent the option of paralysing Kyrgyzstan air communications.


Several regions in southern Kyrgyzstan do not have direct transport links with Bishkek. Overland traffic needs to pass through Uzbekistan. When Tashkent imposed a ban on transit through its Khanabadsky region, Bishkek was forced to begin building costly alternative routes across Kyrgyz territory.


Kyrgyzstan's only potential trump card is water. During Soviet times a series of reservoirs were built on the Kyrgyz side of the border to supply water for Uzbekistan's cotton plantations.


The reservoirs severed transport communications across southern Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent enjoys exclusive use of the reservoirs, but has reneged on agreements to compensate Kyrgyzstan for the loss of territory and infrastructure damage caused by flooding.


So important is the water supply, Uzbekistan has even despatched troops into Kyrgyz territory to protect it.


Many Kyrgyz people query the fairness of Uzbekistan using 3.5 billion cubic meters of water for free each year, when fuel supplies to Kyrgyzstan are periodically cut off. But Bishkek's hands are tied - challenging Tashkent over the matter could easily result in gas supplies being terminated and the reservoirs being taken by force.


Kyrgyzstan is small, land-locked, isolated by mountain ranges and bereft of natural resources, with the possible exception of water - a vulnerable country in a racked by conflicts.


The republic's 4 million strong multi-ethnic population is divided into regional subcultures. Kyrgyzstan has a weak and tiny army - enough soldiers to form only one division. Bishkek has distanced itself from NATO, preferring to maintain a strategic partnership with Russia, a symptom of the country's insecurity and inability to stand alone in the face of Uzbek ambitions.


For two summers in a row now, Kyrgyz troops have fought off Uzbek rebel incursions into the southern Batken region of Kyrgyzstan. This has earned Bishkek a moral lever to pull in talks with Tashkent. But as yet there has been no progress towards resolving territorial disputes or diminishing mutual suspicion.


Then there is the question of China with which Bishkek also has a number of territorial disputes, including a number of inaccessible glaciers (a valuable source of fresh water), lands along the Chon-Uzengukuush river and settlements in Erkeshtam and Nuru, which China lays claim to.


Kyrgyzstan's position was made all the more vulnerable with the withdrawal of Russian border guards from along the Kyrgyz-Chinese border in 1998 - an agreement which brought Moscow a number of territorial gains in exchange.


But Bishkek has had some success in its recent dealings with Beijing. Bordering Central Asia, the Chinese are contending with a militant Uygur independence movement in the northwest of the country, which is threatening to escalate into open conflict across Xinjiang, Mongolia and Tibet. By suppressing pro-independence activity among the Uygur minority living Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek has succeeded in wringing concessions, and even financial assistance, from China.


Logic perhaps suggests Kyrgyzstan's best option would be to forge an alliance with Tajikistan, another neighbour dwarfed by Uzbekistan.


But such a policy is fraught with problems. The Uzbek rebels, who raided Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, entered from Tajikistan. The rebels appeared out of the Gorny Badakhshan region, an area controlled by the Tajik opposition, despite Dushanbe's claims to the contrary.


Complaints over Tajikistan's failure to contain rebel activity along its borders, on-going territorial disputes, arguments over water supplies, as well as linguistic and cultural differences, have precluded any serious alliance between the two neighbours.


Alone amidst such powerful company, Kyrgyzstan's only option seems to be continued dependence on Russia. Akaev may be basking in the domestic glory of a third presidential term, but his room for manoeuvre in the foreign arena is sorely limited.


Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor.


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