Shifting Balance in Central Asia
Shifting Balance in Central Asia
THE BALANCE of power in Central Asia is tilting toward Russia for the first time since the United States established a foothold in the region after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A shift in the geopolitical equations in former Soviet Central Asia has been prompted by the successful "tulip revolution" in Kyrgyzstan in March and a bloody, if unsuccessful, Islamist-led revolt in neighbouring Uzbekistan in May. The two events awakened the region's leaders to the dangers of their post-9/11 multi-vector policy of building strategic ties with the US while maintaining close relations with Russia.
The former Kyrgyzstan President, Askar Akayev, who was ousted in the March coup, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who survived the May uprising in Andizhan, blamed the West for orchestrating the turmoil in the region in an effort to install pro-Western regimes. Denying any role in the Central Asian trouble, the US vowed to press ahead with the "freedom crusade" that had earlier brought West-oriented leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, whose regimes came under attack this year, were the two countries that allowed the US to set up airbases in the region in 2001 for anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan. While Kyrgyzstan had tried to balance its pro-American tilt by setting up a Russian airbase two years later, Uzbekistan demonstratively distanced itself from Russia.
Back with Russia
However, Washington's aggressive support for "velvet revolutions" in the former Soviet republics has pushed Central Asian states back into Russia's embrace. During his visit to Moscow last month, President Karimov signed a defence pact under which Russia will revive military assistance to Uzbekistan and obtain the right to use Uzbekistan's defence facilities for operations in the region. At the same time Mr. Karimov imposed restrictions on the flights of American planes from the Khanabad base, forcing the US command to redeploy some aircraft to Afghanistan.
Washington suffered an even bigger setback in Kyrgyzstan. A snap presidential election on July 10 became a triumph of traditional clan-based politics over Western-type democracy the US has been trying to export to that country. Political stability destroyed by the "tulip revolution" was partially restored thanks to a Russia-brokered deal between the southern and northern clans. Under an election pact between two most popular politicians representing the rival clans, the former Prime Minister, Kurmambek Bakiyev, agreed, if he won the snap presidential election, to appoint his main competitor and the former Interior Minister, Felix Kulov, as Prime Minister. The tandem swept the poll and helped avoid a crippling standoff between the north and the south.
Russia and China voiced strong support for an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, path of development for Central Asia.
On July 2 the Presidents of Russia and China, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao, at their summit in Moscow issued a declaration on the "World Order in the 21st Century." They rejected attempts to "ignore objective processes of social development of sovereign states and impose on them alien models of social and political systems."
This approach met with grateful response in the region. Three days after the summit the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan joined Russia and China in rejecting "attempts at monopoly and domination in international affairs."
"Concrete models of social development cannot be exported," said a declaration adopted at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan on July 5. "The right of every people to its own path of development must be fully guaranteed."
In a sign of the strategic reorientation of Central Asia, the Shanghai group called on the US to set a deadline for the withdrawal of its bases from the region now that the anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan is coming to an end. The SCO members also proclaimed their joint resolve to fight "terrorism, separatism and extremism on the SCO territory by their own forces."
The SCO's new assertiveness should be seen in the context of a call by Russia and China in their World Order Declaration for "a new security architecture" that would promote "a just and rational world order based on the respect of the right of all countries to equal security."
The contours of the "new security architecture" for Asia emerged at the Astana session of the SCO with the admission of India, Iran and Pakistan as observers into the organisation. This may signal the emergence of a new centre of global power that is prepared to challenge America's omnipotence.