A couple of weeks ago, Kyrgyzstan's president, Roza Otunbayeva, announced that the country was planning to construct two counterterror training centers in the southern part of the country, and that one would be built by Russia and the other by the U.S. Her announcement raised a lot of questions, which I posed to Alisher Khamidov, a EurasiaNet contributor and expert on southern Kyrgyzstan. He said that fears of Islamist militants from Tajikistan as well as the military of Uzbekistan are motivating Kyrgyzstan to develop the centers, and that Otunbayeva puts a higher priority on the U.S. center than on the Russian one.
From our email Q&A:
Q: There hasn't been much evidence of a threat of terrorist infiltration from Tajikistan -- in fact, the "terror" threat in Tajikistan seems to be largely driven by local strongmen with local grievances. Do you think Otunbayeva genuinely believes there is a terror threat, or is this a pretext for some other motive?
A: Based on my conversations with her, Otunbayeva and some top ranking Kyrgyz government officials genuinely believe there is a terror threat emanating from Tajikistan. Perhaps it's because the Kyrgyz National Security Service has its own sources in Tajikistan.
Q: Is there a geopolitical component to inviting both Russian and U.S training centers? Do you think she considers them equally important, both in terms of practical training and in geopolitical/symbolic terms? Or is one more important practically, and the other for symbolic/geopolitical ends?
A: I don't think Otunbayeva considers potential Russian and U.S. training centers equally important. The U.S. training center is more important for practical reasons whereas the Russian one is for symbolic/gepolitical ends (to soothe Russian officials' suspicions about the Kyrgyz government). Officials in Bishkek often point out informally that Moscow often does not put its money where its mouth is.
Q: Do you think that the fact that both centers are also on the Uzbekistan border is a factor? Does she think they could act as some sort of protection from an Uzbekistan incursion?
A: Behind the idea of setting up a joint training center in Batken is Otunbayeva government's growing fears of Uzbekistan. Unresolved border disputes make the risk of inter-state conflict real. Otunbayeva is hoping that the center will deter a potential military action by Uzbek security services or border troops against Kyrgyz forces deployed in Batken.
Q: Is there any significance to the fact that the Russian center would be in Osh and the U.S. one in Batken?
A: Kyrgyz officials want the center to be based in Batken and not in Osh precisely because Batken is closer to both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Q: Are there internal political debates (e.g., some important figures in favor or opposed) about the centers that could affect their development?
A: I haven't seen current Kyrgyz officials publically debate the issue. Informally, some officials, such as Shamil Atakhanov, Deputy Premier and coordinator of the law-enforcement agencies, definitely support the establishment of the [U.S.] center. [Prime Minister] Almazbek Atambayev reportedly is more cautious because he does not want to rile Moscow. Kyrgyz officials remember that the start of the Russian government's negative media campaign against former President Kurmanbek Bakiev coincided with Kyrgyz government's announcement about the plans for the U.S.-Kyrgyz training center.