The President of Kyrgyzstan is refusing to resign despite the take-over of the country by the opposition. This might sound like a local skirmish a million miles form anywhere interesting, but this could turn out to be deeply significant. I write with a close knowledge of Kazakhstan and note that the British Ambassador in the region does the job for both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asia had all the potential for catastrophe. Among other factors, its infrastructure had been dominated by and run for the benefit of Moscow and the ethnic mix had been engineered by Moscow over 70 years to integrate European Russians in the Central Asian territories. The end of the USSR brought huge challenges to the region.
When Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991 it was cut adrift by Russia. Its economy, no longer subsidised by Moscow, fell apart and it had to invent new symbols of identity, currency, political and economic structures. Continuity was provided by the General Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party (Nursultan Nazarbayev) becoming the first President of the Republic and driving (ruthlessly) the changes needed to establish a new economy. Crucial to this was the ownership and exploitation of oil and gas.
However, Kazakhstan faced several other challenges: (a) it borders on China and there was/is a powerful fear of Chinese expansionism – hence the move of the capital city from Almaty in the south to Astana in the centre; (b) as a landlocked country, the need for access to the sea – necessitating the recovery of good relations with Turkey; (c) its location between the unstable and less developed other southern republics (including Kyrgyzstan and the bizarre Turkmenistan) and a growling Russian bear to the north and west (with Chechnya not far off).
Look at the map and you can see why Kazakhstan has worked hard to establish itself as a buffer between Europe and Asia, between China and Russia, and in distinction from its southern neighbours beyond whom are Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to the south. This is not insignificant territory for global security – as both the Chinese and the Russians know.
So, ructions in Kyrgyzstan send vibrations through the other republics and into the surrounding powerful nations with their potential for expansionism. It isn’t yet clear how the situation in Kyrgyzstan will develop – let alone resolve – but its importance might be greater than the ‘oddball country somewhere over there’ treatment by the western media might initially suggest.