The controlled elections in Kyrgyzstan on March 13, in which parties supporting president Askar Akayev routed opposition groups, turned out to be pivotal. Fearing that Akayev would extend his third term of office (due to expire late in the year) or transfer power to his two children (a son and daughter who were members of parliament), people organised street unrest that ended in his overthrow within a fortnight. The popular protests began in the south of the country but spread to the north, and when 10,000 protesters gathered in Bishkek, the capital, on March 24, the police and security forces guarding the presidential headquarters packed up and vanished. Suddenly the people of Kyrgyzstan were rid of the corrupt and oppressive president who had ruled them since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.
The forced departure of Akayev (who is now in Russia) is certainly an auspicious development, and the impending presidential elections on June 26 are also an encouraging sign. But the opposition is not united: the country is in the grip of serious ethnic and economic problems, and both Russia and the US are manoeuvring to create a regime that is allied to them, not only in their war on Islam but also in their individual efforts to establish strong national dominance in a strategic region. Moscow and Washington, which had good relations with Akayev and did not back the protesters, are keen to prevent the establishment of a new order with an Islamic or even nationalist basis, because it is bound to want to put the interests of the country first, and seek a solution to the ethnic divisions and crushing economic problems. So the departure of Akayev is only a necessary first step that is itself now under threat from these manoeuvres and the country’s economic and ethnic instabilities.
How keen Washington is to establish its grip on the emerging order was seen when the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, visited Bishkek in mid-April. He met the interim leaders and secured their assurance that the overthrow of the former president will not prevent the US military from continuing to use Ganci airbase, near Bishkek, which it says it needs to send supplies to Afghanistan. That he must have secured their assurance was shown when the new leaders publicly agreed with president Karimov of Uzbekistan that “Islamic terrorists” were behind the unrest in his country. The Americans – who also have a huge military base in Uzbekistan, ostensibly to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan – are reinforcing their military presence in the entire Central Asian region to link it with the Middle East and South Asian region. This will enable it to control the Muslim regions in almost two whole continents, secure their oil and other resources, and perpetuate its war on Islam.
The explanation that Washington needs its base in Kyrgyzstan to supply Afghanistan is, therefore, unconvincing. Similarly, its contention that its intervention in the country’s affairs is to bring stability by fighting “international terrorism” and providing economic assistance is without substance. It is true that Kyrgyzstan is the largest recipient of US aid in Central Asia; the UShas spent $746 million there since 1992, in a country with fewer than 5 million inhabitants, and $31 million went there in 2004 alone under the terms of the Freedom Support Act. As the American ambassador there confirms, the country is crawling with “US-sponsored NGOs”.
But clearly the US aid is not being applied to address the country’s economic problems. Kyrgyzstan is the poorest country in Central Asia and one of the most corrupt states there. In fact, economic problems are mainly to blame for the instability. About half the population lives under the poverty line. There is also a huge income and resources imbalance between the south of the country and its north. Unless these problems are addressed effectively, economic-related tensions will continue to poison the country’s social and political life. If the US were serious about providing effective economic aid that was not principally aimed at financing their presence there, they could put pressure on other rich countries to help, and a small country of 5 million could relatively easily be helped to become prosperous and self-sufficient.
But the US is not alone in trying to impose its will on Kyrgyzstan’s people and politicians. The competition between Moscow and Washington for control of the country and the Central Asian region is well documented. The two are both competing to dominate the ruler and regime expected to emerge after Akayev’s departure. Moscow is certain to use the former president, who is still influential with certain groups and corrupt business partners in Kyrgyzstan. He himself has not given up hope of retaining his and his family’s wealth, and will cooperate fully with president Putin to retain some influence. But China, which worries about its own Muslim Uighur minority and access to Central Asian energy supplies, is also engaged in securing its presence in Kyrgyzstan. All three, however, have strong interests in suppressing Islamic groups and organisations and in preventing the emergence of new ones, and are cooperating to achieve this objective, despite their competition on the political and military fronts. Moscow, for instance, also has a military base in the country.
It is, of course, absurd to claim to be working for stability in the region while suppressing Islamic activity there. Most of the countries in Central Asia are ethnically and linguistically diverse, and these diversities are undermining their stability. The only way to create peace among them is to encourage the revival of the only thing that unites them: Islam in public and political life (in particular), which was ruthlessly and determinedly suppressed by the Soviet Union.