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The Great Game is Back | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Two revolutions in 18 months. An army and bureaucracy in disarray. And to cap it all, an ethnic war that risks getting very ugly.

Welcome to Kyrgyzstan. The tiny Central Asian former Soviet republic was once described as the ‘other Switzerland’ and hoped to cultivate the image of a haven of peace and tranquillity in a region ridden with conflicts. But that was before the new version of the ‘Great Game’ got under way with big powers fighting for influence in a region of increasing strategic importance.

The first move in the new game from a resurging Russia under Vladimir Putin’s energetic, not to say aggressive, leadership anxious to revive the Soviet empire in one form or another, Putin offered the fragile Kyrgyz state military and economic aid while reviving the old networks of pro-Moscow Communist elements under different labels. Next it was the turn of the United States to discover that Kyrgyzstan, which neighbours China, could be an important post of observation against the rising Asian power. The war in Afghanistan only increased Kyrgyzstan’s strategic importance for Washington.

The logical course of action would have been for both Russia and the United States to tolerate each other’s presence in Kyrgyzstan if not actually cooperate to help the newly independent republic find its way in a complex world. But this is not the way imperial games are played. In such games one golden rule is to deny any real or imagined adversary from gaining influence in an area you regard as important for your own hegemonic designs. It was thus that the Russians organised the so-called revolution that swept Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power. One of the new government’s first moves was to announce its intention to close the large American base that supplies NATO forces in Afghanistan. Strengthened by their success in carving up Georgia, a US ally, the Russians hoped to repeat the enterprise in Central Asia. The Bush administration which had failed to protect Georgia decided to draw the line in Kyrgyzstan. A nod and a wink from Washington was enough to set the ball rolling for a counter revolution that produced the desired result over a year after George W. Bush had left the White House. Bakiyev was driven into exile in Belarus and the US base was safe. If anything this time it was the time of the equally large Russian base to be targeted for closure by the new regime. Roza Otunbayeva, the new regime’s figure head, has gone out of her way to underline her intention of strengthening Kyrgyzstan’s alliance with the US. And, as usual, the rationale offered for this is ‘the global war against Islamic terrorism.’

All this has led to a curious situation in which unlikely allies have come together to undermine the new regime. The firing shot came from pro-Moscow elements that organised a series of supposedly spontaneous riots in the capital Bishkek. When that failed to topple the government, they persuaded some units of the tiny Kyrgyz army to disobey orders from the new regime and when that, too, proved insufficient for rolling back the events and re-installing Bakiyev as president, the pro-Moscow Uzbek minority in the southwest of the republic was encouraged to revive its old grievances against Bishkek.

But what are Uzbeks doing in Kyrgyzstan? Why are they not part of the republic of Uzbekistan which is a few hundred yards away? The answer lies in the gerrymandering of the Soviet conquests in Central Asia ordered by Stalin. The Soviet dictator knew the old dictum of the Roman Empire: divide and rule.

Thus a Kyrgyz nation was invented out of pure cloth. A part of the greater Kazakh nation was carved into a separate region and designated as Kyrgyz. A new Kyrgyz language was invented out of a Kazakh dialect and used to invent a new Kyrgyz history, folklore and mythology. But even then Stalin was not satisfied. To make sure that some element of division would remain inside the newly created Soviet Kyrgyz republic, he added a slice of Uzbekistan in the fertile Ferghana Valley. Cities such as Osh and Jalal Abad that had been centres of Uzbek power and culture for centuries were added to Kyrgyzstan. By the same token Stalin had included some Kazakhs and Tajiks in Uzbekistan and some Uzbeks in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

The current conflict is taking place in the predominantly Uzbek areas of Kyrgyzstan with the historic city of Osh as the focal point. Over the past few days, the media has presented the conflict as an ethnic war between Kyrgyz and Uzbek. However, this is only one aspect, the superficial one, of a more complex situation. Osh and the Ferghana Valley which extends deep into neighbouring Uzbekistan have been the centre of an armed Islamist revolt for almost a decade with the Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb Tahrir Islami) providing the backbone. Anxious to reassure Bishkek that their target is only Uzbekistan, the Islamists have so far refrained from taking any action against Kyrgyzstan. Thus, Kyrgyz territory has been used as a safe haven for Islamist guerrillas operating against Uzbekistan since the 1990s.

The Uzbek authorities have retaliated by fomenting Kyrgyz chauvinistic sentiments against the Islamists. It is not far fetched to suggest that agents of the Uzbek government were involved in at least the first stages of the Kyrgyz attacks against ethnic Uzbeks in Osh and Jalal Abad. The ethnic conflict has already driven over 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks into Uzbekistan. In one of those ironies that add spice to history, the Uzbek government would not know how many of the new refugees are Islamist guerrillas dedicated to turn Uzbekistan itself into a Taliban-style emirate.

Also using Kyrgyz territory as a safe haven are Islamist elements fighting for an independent Turkestan in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. To these must be added hundreds of Pakistani tablighis and pro-Taliban elements who arrived in the wake of the Soviet collapse to transform Central Asia’s mainly Sufi-style Islam into a militant political instrument in pursuit of deadly ambitions.

Thus China, and to a lesser extent, Turkey, India, Iran and Israel have become bit players in the Central Asian Great Game part of which is now being played in Kyrgyzstan with hundreds of dead and almost a quarter of a million displaced so far. The bloody conflict could turn what was once the Switzerland of Central Asia into a new Somalia that could become a safe haven for all these Islamist terrorists chased out of Afghanistan.