BACKGROUND: Kyrgyzstan has a troubled record of relations with its neighbors. This goes in particular for its relationship with Uzbekistan, which pursues assertive and implicitly aggressive policies toward several of its neighbors, usually relating to the distribution of water resources. The Central Asian rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya start in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and both Bishkek and Dushanbe seek to regulate the flow of water, threatening Uzbekistan’s water supply. Tashkent has clearly demonstrated its displeasure with these developments. In early June, it stopped the delivery of gas to Kyrgyzstan, and disrupted Kyrgyzstan’s supply of electricity. Some Uzbek intellectuals even threatened that war was a possibility, and it is inconceivable in Uzbekistan’s form of government that these statements could have been made without encouragement from above.
Bishkek reciprocated by threatening to cut the supply of water to Uzbekistan through water reservoirs and canals under Bishkek’s control; actions that Bishkek could possibly justify by referring to water shortages in many of Kyrgyzstan’s regions. In addition, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan insisted that they would proceed with building planned hydropower dams, which would drastically increase their control over the flow of water to Uzbekistan. They also implied that Moscow is on their side in these endeavors. Moscow provided an approving nod, intended to signal to Tashkent that its rapprochement with the U.S. has been noted. Indeed, Uzbekistan left the CSTO – the Russia-led security organization of post-Soviet states – in 2013 and opened a NATO office in Tashkent.
While these actions and responses follow a familiar pattern over the last decade, there are also new contextual circumstances. Russia’s moves in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea on the stated grounds of protecting ethnic kin, and the inability of the West to prevent Moscow’s actions created a new precedent. And this might push Bishkek closer to Moscow’s orbit, albeit it would certainly seek to preserve a degree of independence.
IMPLICATIONS: Most Central Asian states are multiethnic and the relationships between ethnic minorities and the dominant ethnic groups are often not harmonious. Yet only in Kyrgyzstan have these interethnic tensions led to considerable ethnic violence. Kyrgyzstan has a sizeable Uzbek population settled close its border with Uzbekistan, where deadly ethnic clashes erupted in 1990 and 2010. In the most recent events, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov was most likely tempted to intervene militarily. Yet he did not. A main reason was his reluctance to take the initiative and create a dangerous precedent. (See June 23, 2010 CACI Analyst)
Presently, Russia’s actions in Crimea could be taken to legitimate similar actions in other parts of the post-Soviet space. It should also be recalled that Uzbekistan has the strongest military in the region and Kyrgyzstan could hardly withstand it in the case of a direct confrontation, especially if Uzbekistan’s army would be supported by local Uzbeks. Bishkek’s apprehension is increased by Uzbekistan’s claim on disputed land near Osh and the continually tense situation in Osh. Some local observers believe that Uzbekistan could well absorb the enclave of Barak, formally a part of Kyrgyzstan but located inside Uzbekistan’s territory.
Another dimension concerns regional geopolitical arrangements. Despite Russia’s increasing involvement in the Ukrainian crisis – at least several thousand Russian regulars are fighting on the separatist side and Moscow has recently opened a new front in Southern Ukraine – the Western response has remained weak. The economic sanctions are still moderate and the U.S. and its NATO allies have no plans to send troops or even provide visible amounts of weapons to Ukraine as not to irritate Russia. The Western allies also demonstrated their limited ability to deal with the crisis in Iraq. This demonstrated to Bishkek – and of course to other Central Asian states and beyond – that in the case of a major military crisis with Uzbekistan or even with much weaker Dushanbe, the specter of which was actualized by the recent military clashes on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border, certainly makes Bishkek nervous.
But Bishkek’s problems are not limited to the possibility of bilateral conflicts with Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. The looming departure of the bulk of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the spread of jihadism in the Middle East potentially has serious implications for Kyrgyzstan’s domestic security situation – around 100 Kyrgyz citizens are currently fighting in Syria. Bishkek hence has several incentives to think seriously about securing military support from outside.
Russia has again emerged as a possible patron, albeit its messages to Central Asian counterparts are contradictory. On the one hand, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea implies that it does not consider borders to be sacrosanct. On the other, Russia’s actions indicate that it is prepared to use force to protect its allies. On July 21–28, 2014, Russia executed large scale military exercises that engaged troops from Volga to Siberia. One objective of the maneuvers was to demonstrate Russia’s ability to bring troops into Central Asia. In August, Russian jets from the Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan engaged in a new round of military exercises.
At the same time, Moscow continued to promise Bishkek economic benefits in return for its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Russia’s legitimization of the war and Crimea’s annexation as well as its military prowess clearly plays a role in Bishkek’s thinking as Russia might provide some modicum of protection. Yet allegiances in Central Asia are fluid and Bishkek’s alignment with Moscow might not be permanent. Even if Kyrgyzstan would finally join the Eurasian Union, this would not prevent Bishkek from pursuing geopolitical relations with other players.
CONCLUSIONS: Kyrgyzstan has a history of tensions with its neighbors, of which those with Uzbekistan presents the most serious risks, due to its regional ambitions as well as the considerable number of Uzbek minorities in Kyrgyzstan. Like other countries in the region, Bishkek has long engaged in a “multi-vector” foreign policy. But the present security situation in the post-Soviet space and beyond and the clear inability of the West to guarantee small Central Asian states’ territorial integrity and defend them from Islamism might induce some of them, Kyrgyzstan in particular, to increasingly seek Russia’s protection. The eventual configuration of events could involve several scenarios. One is that Kyrgyzstan would indeed join the EEU not so much for the economic benefits involved but for the implied promise of security. Another scenario would entail a closer relationship with Russia without any direct affiliation with the EEU. This model might allow Bishkek to also receive economic largesse from nearby China and possibly Turkey.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.
(Image Attribution: Kremlin.ru)