Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kyrgyzstan’s Troubles: Implications for India

A relatively liberal republic of Kyrgyzstan has been in the throes of political change over the last three years. Since 2007, it has been ruled by the elitist Bakiyev family that has for all functional purposes, abandoned parliamentary democracy in the region, usurping all power in its own ruling party and sidelining others. Soaring food prices, energy crises fuelled by domestic laws and extravagant corruption have caused political paralysis in the country. In fact, the Bakiyev faction had risen to power with the Tulip Revolution ousting former President Askar Akayev on grounds of experimentation with a model of liberal democracy. The promise of political change was short-lived and soon there was talk of emulating the Russian model of limited democracy. But neither has materialised.

Violent popular uprisings in the past few weeks caused the former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee to neighbouring Kazakhstan and is now seeking refuge in Belarus. An interim government has been put in place, headed by Roza Otunbayeva, the former Foreign Minister. The rebellion was a widespread protest again inflation and rising prices, most notably in the northern city of Talas. The role of external actors was unclear and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin refuted allegations of Russian involvement in the ouster. Three main issues are playing out in Kyrgyzstan at the moment and all are indicative of the New Great Game in the region.

First, there has been friction over the American transit centre at Manas in Kyrgyzstan with Russia and China asking for the facility to be shutdown, first in 2001 and then again in 2005. In 2009, fresh protests followed and President Bakiyev was seen as being pro-Russia. All through this time, the station at Manas was being used as an airbase to station troops and supplies and then send them to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has also been using this transit centre. Russia and China were wary of American presence in Central Asia and have accused the US of influencing and meddling in the internal matters of Central Asian states. The US claims that its interest in the base only extends to the need for a foothold close to Afghanistan to help military operations. As long as this base is available to the US, its dependence on Pakistan for a transit corridor will remain in check. This is in India’s interest also because it will guarantee US/ISAF presence in an otherwise unstable region with porous borders.

Second, the internal stability of Central Asian states is crucial to the stability of the region. Especially in the case of Kyrgyzstan, a somewhat suspect electoral system, dynastic family politics, Soviet-era infrastructure and American indifference have festered the country’s problems past their threshold. In the past ten days, a populist movement has brought down an autocratic regime, forcing the world to turn its attention to the events an hour north of Kabul. It is in the long-term interest of regional stability and security that Russia and the US ensure that democratic forces are given the space to govern this country. While the interim government is governing the country and elections are held in the near future, autocratic forces must be neutralised by supporting bids to democracy. Democracy per se doesn’t hold much sway in Central Asia as a region, but autocratic rule hasn’t yielded any results either. All the five republics suffer from corruption, nepotism and autocracy. In the long-term, the collapse of the state in one republic might have a domino effect on the others causing a large area in India’s near abroad to be politically unstable. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse of 1991, former Soviet satellite states were at the receiving end of smuggled arms, weapons, ammunition and probably of nuclear technology and weapons. Instability in these regions could wreak havoc in neighbouring states, three of which are nuclear weapon powers.

Third, the growing number of Islamists in Kyrgyzstan has been a cause of concern over the past decade. With waning Russian influence in the region and the indifference of the US, the risk of a renewed Islamic insurgency is looming large. In the past, many eager proselytisers were imprisoned for their radical Islamist thoughts, but it has been widely acknowledged that as elsewhere, the only way to defeat this insurgency is to prevent it through social and economic change. It has been widely reported that political parties such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Tablighi Jamaat are exploiting the aggrieved members of society across all Central Asian states. But, the states’ response to such activity has only been to imprison activists. Although this might have temporarily stopped demonstrations asking for the formation of a caliphate in the Islamic world, it has spread their message farther. The common people identify with the activists seeing them as fellow victims at the hands of the state. Thus, the lack of a socio-political strategy to tackle this growing threat could result in a larger alliance between other radical Islamist groups and their Central Asian counterparts. If these groups were to be armed, the situation would be completely out of hand.

In terms of geographical continuity, Afghanistan and Pakistan fall between this region and India. Thus, the impact of developments in the region could cause a ripple effect that would be felt at India’s northern borders soon enough. In the past, India’s interests in Central Asia have been confined to trade and energy security-related issues. As a matter of urgency, India needs a security policy and strategy towards imminent terrorist and other threats from the region. There are two main recommendations to be made in this regard. First, India must support democratic practices in Kyrgyzstan and in the region at large. Even when the states have a democratic system, functionally they are being ruled by an autocratic elite who centralise power. Instead, India must actively engage in supporting people-oriented governments. Second, through its traditionally friendly relations with Russia and its newfound special relationship with the US, India must open up dialogue and discussion on the issues of Central Asia. Information about the states is limited and Kyrgyzstan is one of the more liberal states. As these states are not intent on addressing their own human rights issues and socio-economic problems, these must be brought under scrutiny internationally, lest they ferment over time into intractable conflict.

Article by:
Swapna Kona Nayudu
Associate Fellow, CLAWS

Credits for the Article to Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS)

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