Assessing Russian Power across the Post-Soviet Space, Part III: Kyrgyzstan

Over the past couple of years, Russia and China have become active in Central Asia. As this impacts the entire region, one country which is poised to become a testing ground for their evolving developments is Kyrgyzstan. Due to its strategic location, the country has received big security and economic attention from both Moscow and Beijing. And while the two regional heavyweights have common security interests in cooperating with Kyrgyzstan, their overall competing geopolitical imperatives in Central Asia could lead to a more problematic relationship in the future.

Rise of China

For both China and Russia, countries of the Central Asian region (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan) are of particular interest. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has retained its position as a dominant military power in the region through keeping military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Even economically, Russia, until late, had been a top investor and trade partner, only to be surpassed in the past couple of years by Chinese economic power.

Kyrgyzstan is interesting for Beijing due to its location. The country borders on China’s restive Xinjiang region, inhabited by Muslim Uyghurs. Sporadic attacks against Chinese officials have been taking place in Xinjiang in the recent period. Beyond China itself, the Uyghurs are also represented in several central Asian countries, and among them in Kyrgyzstan. And it is quite natural that Beijing is worried lest the Uighur independent movement becomes a cross border one. Indeed, the Chinese fear was well reflected in the terror attack which took place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, in 2016, when a Uyghur national rammed the Chinese embassy with a car and ended up inside the embassy compound, leaving substantial damage to the infrastructure and causing collateral damage.

As a result of this potential threat, China has been investing in Kyrgyzstan’s security capabilities on the border with China. For example, this year on June 27, the border forces of Kyrgyzstan and China held collaborative exercises. The aim was to strengthen their ability to counter weapons smuggling in China's Xinjiang region. These exercises are only one of those which have been held for the past several years.

Yet another importance of Kyrgyzstan for China lies in its proximity to Afghanistan. China is worried that militancy could easily infiltrate into Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan is also well positioned strategically, as the country’s territory is the shortest way for China to reach the center of the region – Uzbekistan. Until 2016, relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were, at best, strained because of primarily border disputes, but it all began to change after the death of Islam Karimov and the election of Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Beijing would quite naturally support this rapprochement as it will enable the country to further strengthen its cooperation with Uzbekistan, with the transit through the Kyrgyz territory.

And last but not least, is Kyrgyzstan’s role within China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is true that the Kazakh and Russian routes are those through which most Chinese goods pass, but Kyrgyzstan, through its location, would nevertheless represent an important corridor to at least reach other landlocked Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and then Turkmenistan.

Russian Moves

For Russia, keeping Kyrgyzstan under its fold is important for economic, security and military reasons. The Russian military base in the city of Kant enables Moscow to preserve the military perimeter it had in the Soviet times. It serves as a forward post of Russian projection of power in the region. However, as the base is essentially a ground force component, Moscow also needs an additional base where it could have an air component to mount a full scale forward-defense attack against potential external challenges.

In fact, there are have been talks on Russia planning to open a second military base in Kyrgyzstan. In June, the Kyrgyz president mentioned a possible opening of the second Russian military base. Surely Moscow will see this as solidification of its interests against other big powers. However, Moscow is no less concerned that the unstable Afghanistan with its militancy could move over into Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan in particular, as the latter needs Russian military assistance in effectively dealing with rising security concerns.

Apart from that, Kyrgyzstan is also a member of both Russian-led organizations Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Union. Kyrgyzstan has been, at times, discontented with its membership, as Moscow was not very supportive of Bishkek in its border confrontation with Uzbekistan, and various economic issues which rose from the Union’s membership. Moreover, Moscow also has another important lever of power: Gazprom’s possession of Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution system throughout the country.

So far, Russia has hesitated to openly obstruct any Chinese moves in Kyrgyzstan. This actually falls within Russia’s overall tactic of not criticizing China’s activities overall in Central Asia, at the time when Russia experienced problems with the west over Ukraine.

Thus, in Kyrgyzstan, we have a mixture of Russian and Chinese interests and influences, which do not openly interfere with each other, but over time could cause some friction, as long as China keeps up with the policy of increasing its involvement in Kyrgyzstan. China will keep holding military exercises with Bishkek, while Russia is likely to further press Kyrgyzstan to allow the opening of a second Russia military base.

Emil Avdaliani

09 November 2017 17:44