Games along the shores of Issyk Kul

By Alexey Koval

Within the reaches of Central Asia a new big game deploys, which shall define the outlines of confrontation of the greatest powers in the near future. By this the field where geopolitical players shall start moving the figures can be small Kyrgyzstan – the country located in the very heart of Eurasia. The reason is close neighborhood with Afghanistan and China. Beijing has capacities and desire to join the competition which has existed for a long time between Moscow and Washington in the region. Hardly in this situation Kyrgyzstan shall be able to balance between the interests of great powers: Bishkek shall face the need to make a geopolitical choice...

2000-s turned for Kyrgyzstan into the time of geopolitical teetering and social-economic disturbances.

In the end of 2001 American base appeared in the country, which assures supplies of military cargos for international contingent In Afghanistan , and since 2003 also Russian military men has been locating here at air base in Kant. In March 2002 a protest took place incited by non-consent of the citizens of the Republic with ratification of Kyrgyz- Chinese treaty on borders, according to which a part of disputable lands was given to China. Then for the first time during political speculations blood was shed.  And in 2005 a “revolution of tulips” happened, followed by a number of elections and political crises, which were not often ended with talks.

By this after each such crisis and change of government Bishkek had a task to revise geopolitical orientation. The “revolution of tulips” swept away a pro-Russian regime of Akayev, opened the way for the country to political and economic reforms. But already in five years a “people’s revolution” took place against the regime of one of the leaders of the “revolution of tulips” – the President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. He tried to string along the United States and Russia, but lost eventually himself.

In spring 2010 once again a desire occurred to try luck in West, to be a friend of Europe, to revise treaties with China on borders, however bloody events in Summer that year in Osh region lead to another crisis and revolutionary changes in the country. Kyrgyzstan has become a Parliamentary republic and again leans in the direction of Moscow: joins the Customs Union and intends to enter the Eurasian Union.

But this was not the end of geopolitical teetering of Bishkek. In December 2011 the current President of the country Almazbek Atambayev announced his intention to eliminate American base in the capital airport Manas by 2014, when Washington plans to finalize withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Analysts consider that this decision was chosen under the pressure of Russia. However already in three months in Bishkek after the  talks with Americans they made a decision that Manas base, which has been called officially since 2009 the Transit Center ,  as civilian object can perform t its functions of a transport node also after 2014.

Then Atambayev even declared that he would shut down Russian base in Kant as Russians hadn’t paid the rent for the use of military objects within Kyrgyz lands since 2008. The debt comprised 15 million USD while Americans paid more and on time. However, when Moscow reminded that Bishkek owed Moscow 493 million USD and threatened with sanctions, Atambayev during the Summit of the OSCE member-states rushed to assure the Kremlin that Americans would not present in the country in two years.

Interesting is that during the meeting of the CSTO leaders a decision was made in the current year to focus attention exactly at the region of Central Asia, as here the problems in the sphere of security assurance are the gravest: the situation can aggravate after withdrawal by the United States of their troops from Afghanistan and in relation with the nuclear program of Iran.

Russia suggests that leaving Afghanistan Washington is interested to preserve its military presence in the region and Manas airport is observed as one of the elements of such presence.

NATO is also ready to outline its interests in this region. For example, for the first time the Leaders of former USSR Central Asian Republics were invited for the Summit of the North Atlantic Alliance in Chicago held on May 20-21st.  According to American experts, this shows changes in foreign policy doctrine of the USA, which increases its attention towards Asia. And one of the key issues of Chicago meeting was development of security strategy of Afghanistan before and after 2014.

The issues, related to Afghanistan, shall be discussed also during the Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which is planned in June in Beijing.  This union, where leading roles belong to China and Russia, probably, even grant Afghanistan the status of observer.

The experts note that SCO can suggest NATO to divide the areas of responsibility in the region: security and fighting drugs traffic and extremism within the boundaries of Afghan territory are assured by the forces of the North Atlantic Alliance, while outside borders, and respectfully the territory of Central Asian states, become the area of responsibility of the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. By this in Russia they suggest that practical issues on the control over the region shall be appointed for the recently established Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (KSOR) of the CSTO, which the Kremlin earlier planned to locate in Kyrgyz part of Fergana valley.

Finally we should specifically note the line of China, which is ready to accomplish its own strategy in the region.

Beijing in recent years has held a silent expansion into Kyrgyzstan, providing it with credits and participating in various projects, mainly on minerals exploration. But now Beijing suggests Bishkek really grandeur plans. For example, in recent months a project has been discussed on construction of a railroad through Kyrgyz territory to Uzbekistan. And although the length of the main line is a bit more than 260 km, China is ready to invest in its construction from 2.5 to 4 billion USD: the case is that the terrain of the country demands to lay the track 2500-3000 m high, and the way itself shall go through the tunnels cut in rocks.

Beijing seduces Bishkek with this project: due to it, that country shall come out from transport isolation, gaining access for the markets of neighbors. However, the experts focus on the things that Beijing shall demand in exchange. As suggested Kyrgyzstan, drowned in debts, is able to pay for the road only by giving to China in concession the mineral fields – iron, gold, copper, rare earth metals. Their total value comprises 20 billion USD. By this China has already planned the railway in such a way, for it to lie in the near of the regions of mineral deposits.

Except for that Beijing lobbies the issue on laying a track of “European” standard, implemented in China. And this would allow to avoid reloading of carriages by the frontier or wheels changing. But on the other hand, this offer directly affects also the security issues of the states of Central Asian region: Chinese military troops by railway can be carried to the border of Uzbekistan in a few hours. And again, it’s not excluded that the railway shall be constructed by Chinese military specialists, which shall be assured with “registration” in Kyrgyzstan for a couple of years under the “cover” of the project.

However, geopolitical expectations of China are not limited with connection of its railway network with Uzbekistan, which by the way shall immediately create a competition for Russian Trans-Siberian line. Beijing also intends to use this way to extend export of energy raw materials from Central Asia, as well as from Iran.

Evidently that succeeding to persuade Bishkek to start the project, China shall be able to impede the plans of Russia and the United States. And either of the two great powers is not ready to support its geopolitical intentions in the region with the kind of investments. Yet views in Bishkek have split. And Chinese project has become another element for domestic political disagreements. Obviously in such terms the authorities of Kyrgyzstan shall avoid staking on any of the partners till the very last moment. But now it’s going to be harder for Bishkek to lead the kind of policy.