Kyrgyz unrest plays into regional rivalry

MOSCOW Thu Apr 8, 2010 11:04am EDT

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The overthrow of Kyrgyzstan's government adds a fresh dose of chaos in a region where Russia, the United States and China have a common interest in stability and competing hunger for influence.

The opposition said on Thursday it had taken power in the poor, mostly Muslim nation north of Afghanistan after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital following clashes between police and protesters that left dozens dead.

Here are some of the implications for Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia and beyond.

GREAT GAME

Central Asia's bloodiest unrest in five years is largely a product of Kyrgyzstan's economic trouble and turbulent politics.

It could open a new chapter in the modern Great Game, the struggle among foreign powers for influence in a region that has enormous potential as an energy producer and is of strategic importance lying between Russia, Afghanistan and China.

Kyrgyzstan itself has few resources. But has carved out a role far greater than its modest size by hosting both a Russian air base and a U.S. air base that is provides crucial support for military operations in nearby Afghanistan.

The United States is extremely eager to maintain use of the Manas base, which it nearly lost last year when Bakiyev's government ordered U.S. forces out. He later reversed course and allowed them to stay after bargaining for more money.

Moscow wants to shore up its influence in Central Asia, a large chunk of its lost Tsarist and Soviet-era empire, and to curtail the regional clout of the United States and China.

"China is almost certainly the key foreign player in the country today," said Chris Weafer, Chief Strategist at Russian bank Uralsib.

PUTIN'S HAND?

As violence erupted in Bishkek on Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied Moscow had played any part.

But Russia has expressed unusually strong support for Roza Otunbayeva, the interim leader who announced overnight that she has taken control of the country from Bakiyev.

Putin spoke to Otunbayeva by telephone on Thursday, effectively recognizing her government in the first public gesture of support by a world leader.

The Kremlin also swiftly distanced itself from Bakiyev, suggesting late on Wednesday that he was not welcome in Moscow -- a sharp contrast from Moscow's conduct five years ago, when Bakiyev's predecessor Askar Akayev fled in the face of protests and soon turned up in Russia, where he remains.

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, believes the unrest was orchestrated externally and said the fate of the U.S. air base would show who was behind it.

"If it is Moscow then the base will disappear, if it is Washington the base will remain in place," Mukhin said.

Otunbayeva suggested on Thursday that the base would remain open added that "we still have some questions on it," leaving room for a shift or a demand for new negotiations.

Other analysts take the view that like Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution and Akayev's ouster in 2005, the protests that chased Bakiyev out may have been influenced by outside forces but not engineered by them.

KYRGYZ TURMOIL, ROOM FOR ISLAMIST EXTREMISM?

"There's no Russian catalyst here and no Western catalyst here. The causes are entirely home grown," said James Nixey, Central Asia analyst at Chatham House, a London think tank.

"We are looking at a politics of grievance here," he said. "Nothing had been achieved by the new government and new president in the time he has been in power."

Though not a major factor in Kyrgyz domestic politics, another reason for geopolitical concern in the Muslim country is the rise of radical Islam.

Kyrgyzstan, along with neighboring Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have all had armed clashes with Islamists over the past year. Analysts are divided on how large the threat of extremism is for the mainly Muslim, Central Asia region.

The Uzbek-Kyrgyz Ferghana valley is of particular concern -- rebels have been killed there over the last year -- and ethnic tensions between the equally inhabited Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are high.

"The porous borders and lack of government control in the Ferghana Valley does indeed mean radical Islamist activity could spill over but it is small in scale," said Eurasia analyst Matthew Clements at IHS Jane's Information Group.

"But radical Islamist groups have been able to gain some foothold in the region with their support fueled by discontent and poverty," Clements added.

China, the United States and Russia are all worried.

Weafer from Uralsib said that given China's "most troublesome province is just next door," Beijing would be "keen to keep a buffer between its territory and the increasing number of Islam militants in the Ferghana Valley."

EFFECT ON ECONOMY?

Kyrgyzstan relies heavily on remittances from Russia, and the recent turmoil is unlikely to make a large economic impact.

According to Russia's Uralsib investment bank, around 800,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers are in Russia, making up 40 percent of the Central Asian state's GDP.

Kyrgyzstan has no significant oil or gas reserves, and it does not feed into any major pipelines.

But shares in Canadian mining company Centerra Gold, which has operations in Kyrgyzstan, fell 8.8 percent on Thursday extending Wednesday's 11.4 percent fall.

Chaarat Gold Holdings Ltd, which has an exploration license in the country, said its operations were unaffected but shares were down 12.4 percent on Thursday.

Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom is involved in gas exploration in Kyrgyzstan but its activities there are fairly minimal for the world's largest gas firm.

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