Inspectors miss the flight to Kyrgyzstan....
By M K Bhadrakumar
The reset of the relationship of the United States with Russia is being put to the test for the first time. Kyrgyzstan poses a tough challenge: can the reset really work in a high-stakes game in which the vital interests of the two sides are sharply divergent?
Unlike in the case of Iran sanctions, there is no scope for dissimulation. Real-time cooperation is needed to cauterize the wound that opened in June in southern Kyrgyzstan and which now threatens to turn gangrene.
The US's audacious Central Asian policy cruised beautifully in recent months, but it has hit a sudden bump in Kyrgyzstan. Whether a speed breaker caused it - or a nylon trip-wire - doesn't really matter so much as that the US diplomacy turned turtle and has been immobilized.
The three-day consultations by US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake in Moscow since Wednesday underscore that American policy can be salvaged only with some sincere Russian help.
'Reset' is all or nothing
But Russia is brooding. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dilated on the US-Russia reset on the same day that Blake landed in Moscow. Among the points he made:
Lavrov concluded by outlining the Russian expectations of reset:
The world's largest powers will not always agree on everything. But if they are willing to hear each other and to come to a common understanding on the current stage in global development, that is, what sort of world we live in and where it is going, then this helps us have more harmony at the level of practical politics and approaches to specific international problems as well.The narrative so far has been that Kyrgyzstan is a fine example of the reset; how Washington and Moscow coordinated on the project to stabilize a volatile Central Asian country. Moscow never disputed the narrative. So, the US pressed ahead with the idea of inducting an observer-cum-advisory ''police'' mission of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into the southern Kyrgyz regions of Osh and Jalalabad to keep peace between the ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities.
Although the footfalls of the OSCE's Balkan mission are still in the memory, and given the ineptness of the OSCE it could be a mere matter of time before the NATO appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan in a peacekeeping role, Moscow kept calm. It is not hard to make out that Kyrgyz crisis and the Afghan endgame are intertwined. Besides, the US is beefing up its military bases in Afghanistan, setting up a new base in Mazar-i-Sharif and is tying up military outposts in Central Asian countries envisaging a role for the NATO in the region.
But, then came the "Steppe Eagle 2010", the largest-ever international exercise involving NATO countries and Kazakhstan, which ended in Kazakhstan last Sunday. NATO envoy Robert Simmons has since announced that "all necessary documents have been drawn up" for the participation of a Kazakh contingent alongside the NATO's in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, "Exercise Peace Mission 2010" under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is due to be held in Kazakhstan on September 9-25 with substantial Russian participation (over 1,000 troops, around 130 armored vehicles, 10 aircraft and helicopters) aimed at testing the "interoperability of the SCO armed forces in rendering assistance to a member state involved in an internal armed conflict".
On Wednesday, the influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented wryly that Russia was "entering a period of geopolitical struggle with NATO and the United States for control over the territory of the erstwhile Soviet Union and nearby countries ... Russia's geopolitical interests are in danger. Outperformed at every turn, the international structures it established in the region - CIS, CSTO and SCO - have become redundant ... There appears to be no particular reason to run the [Exercise Peace Mission 2010] exercise save for the necessity to show that the SCO is still there."
To be sure, US diplomacy capitalized on the CSTO's inability to intervene in Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent blocked the CSTO intervention but these days Tashkent is manifestly ''pro-West''. Uzbek President Islam Karimov didn't show up at the CSTO summit meeting in Yerevan last month, which had Kyrgyzstan high on its agenda. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had to publicly express Moscow's frustration. He said Russia will seek an amendment of the alliance's statutory documents - "so that the organization can have a more effective influence on the [Kyrgyz] crisis".
Moscow, which is hosting the next CSTO summit in December, watched with alacrity as the US stepped in to fill the Kyrgyz void with the OSCE project but it decided not to oppose it. In a display of tact, the Kremlin offered to join the OSCE mission to Kyrgyzstan by deputing seven Russian police officers to serve along with personnel from Turkey, Serbia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Sweden and Finland.
However, while doing so, Moscow couldn't have been unaware that a huge groundswell of popular opinion was building up in Kyrgyzstan against the OSCE mission. Interestingly, the "anti-OSCE" Kyrgyz campaigners included prominent politicians known to be close to Moscow.
On balance, however, US diplomacy is to be primarily faulted. It erred seriously by pandering to the Uzbek ethnic interests in southern Kyrgyzstan. Washington calculated that collaboration with Uzbekistan over the Kyrgyz crisis would be useful to rev up its strategic partnership with Tashkent. The US has co-opted Tashkent into the Afghan war by giving it lucrative business opportunities and has held out the prospect of building up Navoi as a trans-shipment hub connecting Asia and Europe.
But the US underestimated the vicious backlash of Kyrgyz nationalism. In the surcharged political atmosphere ahead of Kyrgyz parliamentary elections in October, crafty politicians have found use for boosting the nationalist sentiments that erupted during the ethnic riots in June.
The door may never open
The nationalists began spewing venom at the OSCE mission and the agitators identify the US as unduly "pro-Uzbek". Shades of Serbian nationalism! Actually, the US media has already begun demonizing the mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, who is spearheading the wave of nationalism by defying interim President Roza Otunbayeva's wish to sack him, as a Kyrgyz variant of Radovan Karadzic.
It is not difficult to see why there is trenchant opposition among the Kyrgyz to the idea of an international investigation (which was, incidentally, first mooted by Karimov and promptly supported by Washington). The Kyrgyz see the idea as a ploy by Washington and Tashkent to stoke the fires of Uzbek separatism in southern Kyrgyzstan, which would result in a partition of their country. The US insistence on an international investigation also alarms the Kyrgyz security establishment as an invidious attempt to discredit and paralyze them. There is widespread sympathy within the Kyrgyz security establishment for the nationalist cause.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Moscow has "told Kyrgyzstan that it expects the US Air Force to be out [of Manas] next year." Felix Kulov, a former KGB general-turned politician who heads a pro-Russia Kyrgyz party that is expected to do well in the October elections demands that Bishkek should consult CSTO regarding Manas.
But access to Manas is critical to the war in Afghanistan. Aside being a staging post for US troops entering and exiting Afghanistan - in May it handled 55,000 transiting US troops - Manas is also a giant "gas station" housing KC-135 aero-tankers that attend to a third of the refueling of US aircraft in the Afghan skies.
No doubt, the rise of Kyrgyz nationalism has politically weakened Otunbayeva, whom Washington trusted to safeguard the US interests. Under pressure from nationalists, she had to retract from her earlier commitment to Washington to allow the setting up of a US$10-million new US military center in Osh. On August 25, the Pentagon abruptly cancelled its Osh project (for which tenders had been invited).
However, the big shock came last weekend when Otunbayeva backtracked on the OSCE mission. Swiss diplomat Markus Mueller, designated to head the OSCE mission, arrived in Bishkek to sign a formal agreement on the deployment, only to realize Otunbayeva had second thoughts. There is no easy way out of the labyrinth as Bishkek exercises hardly any control over the southern regions where the OSCE personnel are to be deployed and where Kyrgyz nationalist opinion against foreign presence has peaked.
The US's standing has taken a big hit in the Central Asian steppes with Bishkek shutting the door shut on the OSCE mission. Will that door open again? The Moscow daily Kommersant reported that "it seems uncertain whether they [OSCE inspectors] will ever see Kyrgyzstan". A German parliamentarian who met Otunbayeva reportedly came away with the impression that the OSCE mission "might never go to Kyrgyzstan, after all". Blake will be probing in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan remains explosive. The International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based think-tank, fielded a report a week ago titled "The Pogroms in Kyrgyzstan", which highlighted that a new wave of violence is possible unless the Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic divide is promptly addressed.
What complicates the paradigm is that the Kyrgyz crisis taps into the great game rivalries. The US needs to correct the Kyrgyz perception that it is working hand in glove with Tashkent to encourage Uzbek separatism in southern Kyrgyzstan. But Washington finds the ties with Tashkent to be extremely valuable and will only be seeking to strengthen them. On the other hand, Russia is displeased with Tashkent's opportunism to seek advantages by subserving US regional interests. And Moscow is increasingly in a punishing mood.
Viennese coffee bars
Again, Russia can only cooperate with the US on the basis of an overall understanding regarding the Afghan endgame and on the basis of some sort of cooperation between NATO and the CSTO. On the other hand, letting Russia into the charmed “first circle” of the Afghan end game, which is also linked to the US's broader regional strategies in Central Asia (where Russia figures alongside China), or recognizing any sort of pivotal role for the CSTO in the post-Soviet space, which is tantamount to accepting the region as Russia's sphere of influence, runs counter to the US's core interests.
In sum, Moscow seeks clarity regarding the US intentions. Russian experts have been questioning US intentions with regard to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Hardly a fortnight ago, an expert of the Russian Strategic Research Institute, Vladimir Karyakin, wrote in the prestigious military journal Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozrenie:
Pentagon intends to locate in Central Asian countries its Special Operations units under the pretext of fighting terrorism ... The 3rd Special Operation Group based in Fort Bragg (North Carolina) will implement that mission. Since 2002 that Group has been participating in military operations in Afghanistan. Currently, the 3rd Group consists of four battalions that would replace each other in Central Asia simultaneously with the rotation of US forces in Afghanistan.Karyakin probably had access to military intelligence:
Another step for expanding the US military presence in Central Asia is the US plan for its military aviation practicing flights toLavrov didn't speak out of context. By chance,via the North Pole and Kazakhstan. The US expects the Almaty airport to offer an emergency landing ground for the military aircraft. From the security angle, the Northern Route of the US military aviation poses a potential threat to both Russia and China, as it would make it possible for the US military to conduct air surveillance of the two countries' territories, specifically, to monitor the ''shooting grounds'' located in Kazakhstan and western China.
Additionally, if the US decides to deliver an attack on Russia's military-industrial facilities from the US Arctic corridors, the US military aviation will be able to launch its winged rockets against targets in the Urals, Western Siberia, Kazakhstan and China.
Will Washington succeed in implanting its plans for creating a zone of military-political and economic influence in Central Asia? It depends greatly on Russia that has at its disposal such powerful instruments of regional political integration as the SCO and CSTO.
Putin added: "I do believe that the thesis of the Munich speech retains importance nowadays ... I do see that the US administration seeks to improve the relations with Russia, but there are other nuances as well ... The impression I get is that [US President Barack] Obama is sincere. I do not know what he can accomplish and what is beyond him ..."
The Kyrgyz chapter of the US-Russia reset is going to be an absorbing story on Russian pragmatism. If "pro-West" Tashkent blocked the Russian move regarding a CSTO intervention in the Kyrgyz crisis, the "pro-Russia" Kyrgyz nationalists have frustrated the US project to deploy the OSCE mission.
It may seem a checkmate. But it isn't necessarily so. Moscow will move on, having displayed that its influence still counts like hell in the far-flung regions that it once ruled. What is influence worth that cannot be encashed?
The OSCE inspectors may just have to hang out in the coffee bars of Vienna's Schwechat airport a bit longer before boarding the flight to Bishkek - which goes via Moscow, unlike the direct flights to Sarajevo and Pristina....
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.
The 'perfect storm' brewing in Central Asia
FLORENCE, Italy — Dean Acheson, U.S. President Harry Truman's secretary of state, liked to quote a friend who said that being in government made him scared, but that being out of it made him worried. To those of us not privy to the hidden complexities of NATO's military intervention in Afghanistan, the situation there — and across Central Asia — is extremely worrisome.
As Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said by his critics to be on the verge of casting his lot with Pakistan and the Taliban, the Pentagon has signaled its fear that the war may spread beyond the Pashtun heartland to the largely Tajik and Uzbek areas in the north of the country. The United States is reportedly constructing a $100 million "Special Operations Complex" near Mazar-e Sharif across the border from Uzbekistan.
It also planned to build a similar "counterterrorism training compound" nearby in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the site last June of the worst outbreak of fighting between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Central Asia's Ferghana Valley since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Several hundred people were killed, neighborhoods were destroyed and an estimated 400,000 people were made into refugees.
There is little agreement about who lit the fuse. Possible culprits include various Russians, the family of deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and criminal gangs in Kyrgyzstan and neighboring countries.
A favorite candidate for blame is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that has been allied with the Taliban in the past and has been active across Central Asia, including in Afghanistan. The IMU is also reportedly having success in recruitment drives in northern Afghanistan. But no matter where they go or what they do, the IMU's No. 1 target is Uzbeki ruler Islam Karimov.
Karimov, for his part, acted with unusual statesmanship during the recent violence in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike his neighbors, he opened the border to desperate refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly.
The refugees were Uzbeks, and Karimov had good reason to fear the possibility of a much bigger crisis within Uzbekistan, which is also home to many Tajiks, Kyrgyz and of course millions of Uzbeks who might have been inflamed by the persecution of their ethnic kin in Kyrgyzstan.
This is par for the course in the Ferghana Valley. As in much of Central Asia, including Afghanistan, national boundaries, enclaves and exclaves separate various groups that, historically, intermingled within a single region. Political boundaries have a powerful effect on the region's economy and culture. Differences, real or manufactured, are easy to magnify and exploit.
The precariousness of the situation throughout the Ferghana Valley has attracted the attention of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has much experience in defusing difficult border conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere. And it just so happens that neighboring Kazakhstan currently holds the chair of the OSCE and will host an OSCE summit in its capital later this year.
But the OSCE was almost completely powerless during the Kyrgyzstan crisis, and only recently was it finally able to secure agreement to send a small police advisory group there. Of course, the OSCE had very few resources in the region to begin with, but some members, notably Russia, have been unwilling to give the OSCE a larger role.
Uzbekistan, which ought to welcome all the help it can get and probably doesn't object to greater OSCE involvement in principle, is nonetheless dragging its feet, supposedly because of jealousy over all the attention Kazakhstan is gaining from its chairmanship. (Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev are rivals.)
The keenest proponent of a revitalized OSCE now is the U.S. State Department. Not only does it want to use the opportunity to test the "reset" policy with Russia, but it also sees the OSCE as an important component of a long-term strategy to bring stability and good governance to Eurasia, as the OSCE was in Central Europe. For this reason, U.S. diplomats are lobbying hard for the OSCE, and Kazakhstan in particular, to be given a fair chance.
This is a worthy aim, but it is not clear that the main actors in Central Asia — including China, which reportedly is quietly but firmly backing Karimov — are playing on the same team. Uzbekistan, especially, has presented an extremely cautious, even ambivalent, face in public.
Even if serious dialogue with Uzbekistan is taking place behind closed doors — and the Pentagon's new initiatives suggest that it is — its low, almost undetectable, profile sends mixed signals that fly in the face of the open, transparent and collective ethos of America's big OSCE push.
Another explosion in the Ferghana Valley could be hard to contain if the pieces of declared and actual policy are not brought together, and if the most important regional leaders aren't brought on board. Among its first victims would be the noble aspirations of the OSCE and NATO's investment in Afghanistan. That is something big to worry about, regardless of whether one is in government.