Influence in Kyrgyzstan: Russia's poisoned chalice

15th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

When a bloody uprising in Kyrgyzstan toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, Russia was the first foreign state to reach out to the ex-Soviet nation promising humanitarian aid.

Russia's swift reaction at a time when the West was just scrambling to formulate a coherent response, was widely seen as a bold foreign policy success strengthening Kremlin's hand in the strategic country.

But when fresh ethnic tension in Kyrgyzstan exploded into brutal riots, leaving at least 170 people dead and putting the country on the brink of civil war, Russia's reaction was far more ambivalent.

Russia was the first country Kyrgyzstan reached out to with a request to send troops, a demand that was rapidly turned down by Moscow, which instead has taken several days to formulate the terms of assistance it might provide.

Painfully aware of its disastrous venture into Afghanistan in Soviet times, Moscow appears to be acting with the utmost caution over clashes to avoid being pulled into a potentially devastating conflict.

Analysts said Russia's influence over the Central Asian state appears to be a poisoned chalice as both a military interference and non-involvement could have grave repercussions for years to come.

"Russia does not want to be accused of directly interfering in Kyrgyzstan because of the potential for a much wider conflict in the region that would almost certainly bring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan into any expanded conflict," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist with Uralsib investment bank in Moscow.

"The last thing it needs is to be accused of taking sides in the region or of being involved in another Georgia scenario," he added, referring to Russia's 2008 conflict with Tbilisi that badly hit ties with the West.

Konstantin Zatulin, a parliament deputy representing the ruling United Russia party, said the Soviet Union's decade-long war in Afghanistan meant the Kremlin would want to avoid a similar scenario at all costs.

"Russia is very cautious about sending its troops to Asia," said Zatulin, who is director of the Institute of CIS Countries.

"Rival sides in Afghanistan turned to us in late 1970s. What we got as a result was a years-long war that has ruined many lives."

Government sources, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, confirmed Russia was keenly aware of its Soviet war experience in Afghanistan and that of its Western allies in Iraq and Afghanistan and had no current plans to send troops to the country.

Analysts describe the Ferghana Valley, scene of the most recent riots, as a witch's brew of historic animosities and inter-ethnic rivalries that have the potential to destabilise the entire Central Asia.

Its problems are rooted in history when the region was arbitrarily divided among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan under Stalin.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent troops to Osh after hundreds of people were killed in similar riots in the 1990s.

Analysts say the Kremlin, who has held a grudge against Bakiyev ever since he let the US military base remain in the country, all but encouraged the April uprising in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek which left nearly 90 dead.

But soon after the Russian authorities largely grew disillusioned with the interim leadership as they got entangled in corruption scandals raising the risk that Russian multi-million-dollar assistance could be frittered away.

Signs began to emerge that after an initial warm welcome for the government of Roza Otunbayeva, Russia took steps to distance itself from the interim leadership.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last month Russia at times had no clear idea of the Kyrgyz "internal processes." Few however expected that simmering ethnic tensions in the country would spin out of control.

"There is a disappointment" in Russia, said Zurab Todua, an expert on post-Soviet countries at the Institute of Religion and Policy. "For now, Russia stepped back and is waiting for the situation to develop further."

© 2010 AFP

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