The great game in Central Asia has a history of occasionally turning rough. Turkey may have become its latest victim...
Prima facie, there is nothing linking Turkish President Abdullah Gul's health condition, an English stud horse by the name Islander One and the extension of the lease for the United States air base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan.
But Gul, being a gifted politician, apparently sensed there could well be, and after landing at Bishkek on the eve of the summit meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (CCTSS) taking place in the Kyrgyz capital on Thursday, he had the premonition that a political storm was about to break out in the steppes, and he quickly made himself scarce.
Without attending the summit of the CCTSS, despite it being the flag-carrier of Turkey's regional diplomacy in Central Asia, Gul expressed regret to his hosts that he was suffering from a recurring ear ache and needed to return forthwith to Ankara for medicare. And he abruptly ended his visit.
On Thursday the storm did break out. Kyrgyzstan's government disintegrated irreversibly through the day when two of the coalition partners quit the ruling alliance, alleging serious corruption charges against Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov. The most serious allegation against Babanov is that he accepted as a bribe an English thoroughbred stud horse worth US$1.3 million from a Turkish construction company that has been awarded contracts for building an air traffic control tower and runways at the Manas air base.
Babanov claims he bought the stud horse for only $20,000, while the Turkish company says it won the Pentagon contract on its own steam as an experienced military contractor; but it seems there are no takers in the Kyrgyz political class for these versions.
Indeed, the connection between the stud horse and the Turkish government, if any, remains unclear. Nor is it clear whether the Turkish contractor was keeping the Pentagon in the loop that it was spending quality time and money making friends and influencing people in the Kyrgyz power structure, which is all for the good of the Manas base. The Pentagon is wisely keeping mum.
The air base has been embroiled in salacious controversies and sleaze several times in the recent years, but this one probably beats them all in sheer originality - a British stud horse doing political canvassing for its upgrade.
The Pentagon has been hoping against hope that the lease for Manas would be extended beyond 2014 when it expires, but against the shadow of the latest controversy, it seems unlikely that any serious Kyrgyz politician would want to jeopardize his career by reversing the initial thinking of the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, which is to convert the military base into a civilian airport and get rid of the American servicemen.
With the collapse of Babanov's government on Thursday, Kyrgyzstan is probably plunging into protracted political instability. Of course, the stud horse provides a pretext; Kyrgyz politics was becoming turbulent lately. Simply put, Kyrgyz politicians have not been able to adapt themselves to the parliamentary system of government that was introduced two years ago - ironically, on the insistence of the US advisors of the then interim president, Roza Otunbayeva.
Ever since the abortive "color revolution" in 2005 (known as the Tulip Revolution), a steady process of fragmentation of the Kyrgyz political economy has been going on, and things have come to a pass that no political party can today aspire to get more than 10% to 20% of the seats in parliament, and coalition governments and chronic in-fighting amongst (and within) the political parties has become the order of the day.
Provider of security
With Babanov stepping down, the locus of power shifts to President Atambayev, who will play a key role in the selection of a new prime minister. Much executive power may accrue to Atambayev, since in all likelihood Kyrgyzstan may have to settle for a minority government that will be bogged down in the struggle to survive. Meanwhile, a major decision like the extension of the lease for Manas will become problematic to steer through a rambunctious parliament.
At any rate, Atambayev never appeared keen on a permanent US military base on Kyrgyz soil. This is so especially now, after having satisfactorily negotiated three significant agreements with Russia last week, which ensure deep long-term engagement by Moscow in the Kyrgyzstan's economy and security. Arguably, at this point, Atambayev may even be quietly pleased to see the back of Babanov and have a shot at holding the levers of power in his firm hands - with the high likelihood of Russian support, of course.
The three agreements negotiated between Moscow and Bishkek last week envisage, first, Russia's participation in the construction of the massive multi-billion dollar Kambarata-1 hydropower plant on the Verkhny Naryn cascade. This is not a matter of dam construction alone or spending a few billion dollars on it by Russia. To cut a long story short, a Russian official has been quoted by Kommersant newspaper as saying:
The engagement in this strategic economic sector of Kyrgyzstan will build up the significance of Moscow's partnership with Bishkek and strengthen the Russian influence on the geopolitics of the entire region.
The third agreement relates to the extension of the Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan for 15 years beyond 2017, with provision to extend the agreement. To all extent and purposes, Russia is consolidating its military presence in Kyrgyzstan and in turn becoming the provider of security for that country. The contentious issue of the rent for the Russian bases seems to be resolved.
Put differently, the strengthening of Atambayev's hands following the collapse of the government and the disarray in the Kyrgyz party politics could work to Russia's advantage. Moscow can be expected to remind Atambayev to redeem at the earliest his pledge that Manas base will be converted into a civilian airport. The US has its own lobby amongst the Kyrgyz political parties - and civil society groups - and was counting on the Kyrgyz parliamentary system to diffuse the decision-making authority, but that may not help unless the country has a functioning parliament and government.
A Maginot Line in the steppes
Meanwhile, Moscow is working on Kyrgyzstan's request to join the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which will make Bishkek a strategic ally. Atambayev is a votary of Kyrgyzstan's greater integration with the Moscow-led regional processes. As things stand, Moscow already views Kyrgyzstan as its closest partner in Central Asia, next only to Kazakhstan.
There is a sense of urgency in Moscow over firming up the strategic alliance with Bishkek, in response to recent moves by the US to establish a long-term military presence in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is planning to visit Dushanbe and Tashkent on October 21-22. This will be her second visit to Central Asia in successive years, underscoring the high importance attached by Washington to cull out a "sphere of influence" in the region, keeping in view the imperatives of the long-term US military presence in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been targeted as the key countries in the US regional strategy.
Russian pundits see the recent talks between visiting US officials and the Uzbek leadership in Tashkent as aimed at setting up a rapid deployment centre in Uzbekistan, which could eventually become a US military base, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization military equipment could also be stored following the drawdown in Afghanistan during 2013-14.
The Russian experts view the decision by Tashkent to suspend its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a preliminary step in this direction. The CSTO expressly forbids the setting up of military bases by outside powers on the alliance's territories without the approval of all the member countries.
Thus, Moscow has actually taken a big decision to construct the Kambarata-1 hydropower plant in Kyrgyzstan disregarding Tashkent's known opposition to the construction of dams in the upstream rivers in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which supply water for Uzbekistan's needs. In short, Kyrgyzstan becomes a sort of Maginot Line in the Russian strategy in the southern tier of Central Asia. On the one hand, Moscow is preparing to sit out Tashkent's shift in foreign policy, while on the other hand, it can now be expected to make a determined bid in the coming weeks to regain its lost influence in Tajikistan.
Indeed, Islander One has lethally wounded "neo-Ottoman" Turkey's vanities in Central Asia. Now, as the Kyrgyz intelligence agency known by its acronym GKNB (which is the successor organization of Soviet-era KGB) begins to dig for the family tree of Islander One - and if it stumbles upon its DNA sample - the carefully cultivated Turkish and the US profile in Central Asia as benign foreign powers could take a beating. Even Tashkent might develop second thoughts about the wisdom of venturing into the dark, leaving the CSTO tent.
This is happening at a most inopportune moment for the US, when the Great Game in Central Asia is rising to a crescendo, and for serious players there is very little time to be lost between now and 2014 when, as the Americans would say, a new ball game is set to begin.
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.