By M K Bhadrakumar
If the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan were to be the litmus test, the United States' "reset" of ties with Russia appears only selectively genuine. Kyrgyzstan is a perfect case for the two powers to agree to tactical cooperation, as there are significant common interests - and yet that is not happening.
The Kyrgyz statehood is dissolving and Sunday's referendum on constitutional reform may only aggravate the crisis and further splinter the ruling class. The Kyrgyz implosion impacts on regional stability, given the drug mafia and the militant Islamists waiting in the wings. Ethnic strife is opening the floodgates.
The United States and Russia have a congruence of interests to see Kyrgyzstan does not break apart. Yet, neither has the will to assume responsibility to stabilize the rudderless state.
The only way out lies in collective security. But then, that is also the most contentious issue. Who should lead the stabilization process in Kyrgyzstan?
The choice obviously falls on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the regional body comprising Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But Russia has a problem. A CSTO operation would tax Russian resources as it would be essentially Moscow's operation in manpower and material terms and Moscow would be bankrolling it. The prospect has no takers in the Russian public and political elites. Second, the CSTO lacks a rapid reaction force. Third, a profound question arises insofar as the legitimacy of the Kyrgyz interim government on whose request the CSTO would be deployed is yet to be clarified.
Fourth, there are genuine risks of intervention degenerating into a quagmire. Finally, there are CSTO member countries - Uzbekistan, in particular - that feel uneasy about the precedent that any CSTO intervention in Kyrgyzstan creates.
This final point explains why Washington has mounted a diplomatic charm offensive toward Tashkent, which it once despised as a pariah regime; Washington is passionately courting Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Karimov and "exchanged opinions on potential solutions to the crisis", with Clinton assuring the Uzbek leader that the unrest in Kyrgyzstan and the plight of ethnic Uzbeks "remain high on the US agenda" - to quote the Uzbekistan National News Agency. Clinton delegated Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake to visit refugee camps in the Uzbek region of Andizhan in the Ferghana Valley.
Blake lavishly massaged Tashkent's political ego, effusively commending its entire approach to the Kyrgyz crisis: "Uzbekistan's leadership and initiative have saved many lives and mitigated the suffering of thousands of vulnerable people." He was speaking from a soil where the Uzbek government had suppressed a bloody uprising five years ago, much to the chagrin of Washington. The irony was complete when Blake voiced from Andizhan the US demand for ''an international investigation by a credible international body'' into the mayhem in Kyrgyzstan.
Ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan have left more than 200 people dead and over 2,000 injured since violence broke out in mid-June after president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, now in exile in Belarus, was driven from power.
Blake has a focused mission. The geopolitical reality is that Washington dreads the implications of the Kyrgyz crisis for the US base in Manas in Kyrgyzstan. United States policy consistently viewed the CSTO as the vehicle for Russian domination of post-Soviet space and Washington counts on Tashkent to circumscribe the Moscow-led alliance's interventionist potential in Kyrgyzstan.
The US has mooted the Organization for Security and Cooperation for Europe (OSCE) as the appropriate vehicle of intervention by the international community. The inter-governmental OSCE is a surprising choice. It was born 20 years ago with the signing of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe in November 1990, and amid high expectations that in the post-Cold War setting it would carry forward the pan-European vision of security within the Euro-Atlantic area as indivisible.
But the OSCE - which has a membership of 56 states - failed to honor that promise and ended up as an afterthought in the Euro-Atlantic region's security deliberations. Moscow increasingly objected to the West's propensity to use the OSCE for propaganda purposes under the garb of human-rights and election-monitoring functions or media freedom. So, why is the US proposing the OSCE for Kyrgyzstan?
On a propaganda plane, it highlights the failure of Moscow and the CSTO to assume responsibilities in Kyrgyzstan. Indeed, Moscow has become the butt of ridicule in the Western media as a bombastic regional power. Two, the CSTO gets debunked as an organization that puts on vainglorious airs but in reality lacks substance. Three, the US hopes to drive a wedge between Russia and its closest Central Asian ally, Kazakhstan, which currently holds the rotating post of the chairman of the OSCE. Kazakhstan is hard-pressed to choose between the CSTO and the OSCE.
Also, there is a deeper US game plan. The attempt to revive the OSCE comes at a juncture when Russia is insistently advancing its own proposal for a new European security treaty, which the US interprets as an effort to sideline the OSCE (and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
Arguably, if the OSCE is available as the forum within which a new security partnership involving Russia, Europe and North America becomes possible, what indeed could be the raison d'etre of Moscow's proposal for a new security treaty?
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the OSCE's special envoy for Central Asia, Kimmo Kiliunen, did some smart kite-flying in Bishkek. He claimed that the OSCE is leading talks with European Union (EU) foreign ministers on beefing up security in Kyrgyzstan.
"What I think would be really useful would be to have a certain international police force operation to offer technical advice, and maybe the presence of international police here [in Kyrgyzstan]. That would create an atmosphere of trust," he said.
Kiliunen claimed that EU foreign ministers were already discussing the option of using police to provide crisis-management support.
The EU has since clarified that for the present it is merely reinforcing its delegation in Kyrgyzstan "to make sure there is enough expertise on the ground", but the fact remains that the ball has been set rolling.
This comes at a time when CSTO secretary general Nikolai Bordyuzha is heading for Bishkek. The CSTO said in a statement in Moscow that a working group would evaluate the situation in Kyrgyzstan and "assist in law enforcement ... Further proposals will be developed for the CSTO member states to help the Kyrgyz security forces in localizing and suppressing unrest and preventing extremist violence."
The Russian position continues to be that the Kyrgyz authorities should stabilize the situation themselves. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week, "The essence of the problem lies in the fact that the Kyrgyz authorities must stabilize the situation on their own, and that external assistance should be limited to only those forms that suit the Kyrgyz authorities themselves."
In the entire US-Russia shadow play over a collective security initiative in Kyrgyzstan, one constant that works in favor of Moscow's approach is the stance taken by China. Beijing supports the CSTO initiative. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "China has taken note that the CSTO has convened a meeting to discuss the situation in Kyrgyzstan and acknowledges its efforts to maintain peace and stability in Central Asia."
Chinese involvement in the Kyrgyz crisis has so far been limited to providing humanitarian assistance while flying out almost 1,300 Chinese nationals from the riot-stricken region of Osh. But Beijing will be uneasy about the US's diplomatic maneuvering in a neighboring country so very vital to China's security in the medium and long term.
A report in The Global Times newspaper quoted a Chinese Central Asia expert, Sun Zhuangzhi, expressing misgivings that Moscow and Washington might reach a deal over Kyrgyzstan that could "involve some of China's interests in Kyrgyzstan in that swap".
The Global Times also featured an editorial exclusively focused on the Kyrgyz situation titled "China's role in stabilizing Central Asia". The editorial asserted, "China cannot limit its role to just evacuating Chinese citizens and offering humanitarian assistance." It should also be consulting members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - the grouping of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - "and taking measures to restore order and normality".
The editorial made a specific suggestion that ''a meeting convened by foreign ministers of neighboring countries is not only an option but could be a first step to signal that China does not intend to sit back while the situation unravels in its neighborhood. A stable Central Asia is in China's interest.''
The influential daily pointed out that Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan is "but just a little over an hour by flight from Urumqi" and that a Balkan-type crisis "would be a nightmare to China". Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where Beijing is acutely sensitive over the possibility of unrest among the Uyghur population.
Beijing can be expected to counter the US strategy to project the OSCE into the security vacuum in Kyrgyzstan. Beijing's first choice lies in a Moscow-led CSTO initiative, while it also harps on a role for the SCO "to help stabilize the situation and bring order" to Kyrgyzstan.
The Global Times editorial concluded:
Without any historical baggage of association and inability to influence the politics of nations in the region, China has been quite detached. But with economic cooperation gaining, whether China should stick to the policy of remaining detached and what would best ensure peace and stability in Central Asia are questions that need pondering.Viewed in the above perspective, the statement issued by the SCO on Monday assumes much significance.
The statement identified that the ethnic strife was engineered with the intent of arousing a Kyrgyz-Uzbek "confrontation". It was hopeful that the situation would stabilize "at an early date". More important, it banked on the "wise Kyrgyz people" to safeguard peace and stability - implying outside intervention isn't a crying need. Finally, it expressed grave concern over the situation and pointedly said that "the stability of the situation in Kyrgyzstan is of great significance for peace and stability in Central Asia".
The SCO has put its hat into the ring, reiterating its pivotal role in the collective security of Central Asia that no outside power can afford to overlook.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.