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World News

Kyrgyz turmoil puts Central Asia on alert

MOSCOW/ALMATY (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s second uprising in five years is likely to prompt the leaders of other strategically important Central Asian states to tighten their grip to prevent challenges to their rule.

Other Central Asian states share many of Kyrgyzstan’s social problems. What separates them is that their governments are entrenched and their populations less politically active - a combination that makes their hold on power relatively secure.

“Central Asian leaders have received a boost in support of stability,” said Rustam Burnashev, director at the Institute of Political Solutions in Kazakhstan.

Ex-Soviet Central Asia, covering an area nearly seven times the size of France, lies at the heart of a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia, the United States and China.

The mainly Muslim region of mountains and steppe, which sits on some of the world’s largest reserves of oil, gas, uranium and gold, has assumed greater global significance since the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan.

Three of the region’s five countries, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have allowed NATO forces to use their military bases to support operations against the Taliban.

Kyrgyzstan is now under the rule of an interim government that seized control when President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital after his troops opened fire on more than 5,000 protesters on April 7. At least 82 people died in the violence.

“Kyrgyzstan has a history of changing governments relatively frequently,” said a senior mining industry executive with assets elsewhere in Central Asia, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bakiyev himself swept to power five years ago in the “Tulip Revolution,” removing Kyrgyzstan’s first post-Soviet leader, Askar Akayev. No other Central Asian state has ousted a leader.

“A lot of the complaints held by people in Kyrgyzstan are shared by people in other countries: corruption, nepotism and failing to disseminate money to the population,” Ana Jelenkovic, analyst at political risk research firm Eurasia Group, said.

“But Kyrgyzstan was a specific case as it has a very politically active culture, much more engaged than the other Central Asian states,” she said.

“In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the rulers have much stronger control over their territory than Bakiyev did. It’s difficult to envision a mass uprising.”

WEAK SPOT

The Ferghana valley, to which Bakiyev has fled, is among the most vulnerable regions. Split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it is home to different ethnicities and is seen as a hothouse of Islamic extremists pursuing a single state.

Only months after Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in 2005, troops in Uzbekistan opened fire on protesters in the Ferghana valley city of Andizhan.

The Uzbek government said 187 people died, including its own forces. Rights groups say hundreds of protesters were killed. The violence in Bishkek last week was the worst in Central Asia since Uzbek troops fired on the crowd in Andizhan.

Nick Day, chief executive of business intelligence firm Diligence LLC, said ethnic tensions evident in Kyrgyzstan ran throughout Central Asia, exacerbated by economic depression.

“There’s good reason to fear this could be the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

But most analysts said the current power structure in Central Asia could only be seriously challenged when existing leaders leave their posts.

Kazakhstan has been ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan by Islam Karimov since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Imomali Rakhmon became Tajikistan’s de-facto ruler in 1992 and was elected president two years later.

“The Kyrgyz scenario would only be possible in Kazakhstan once the president leaves his post,” said Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev. “The elite understands that Kazakhstan would lose more than it would gain from a change of power.”

Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s biggest economy, is much less susceptible to unrest than other states in the region, analysts said. The country is the world’s largest uranium producer and a major supplier of copper, gold and oil.

“In Kazakhstan, thanks to its mineral resources, the social and political situation is far more stable,” Daniyar Ashimbayev, political analyst and author of ‘Who’s Who in Kazakhstan’, said.

“We do have social problems, but they will not lead to the idiocy seen in Kyrgyzstan.”

Andrei Chebotaryov, director of the Alternative think tank, added: “People in Kazakhstan are comparatively more patient than those in Kyrgyzstan, and the opposition is less influential.” Kyrgyzstan’s problems were largely economic in nature, analysts said. The Kumtor gold mine, run by Canada’s Centerra Gold, contributes 10 percent of GDP and remittances from the 800,000 Kyrgyz working in Russia another 40 percent.

“The quality of life is far more correlated with GDP than in other Central Asian countries,” said Tom Mundy, equity strategist at Moscow-based investment bank Renaissance Capital.

“Bakiyev hadn’t been around long enough to consolidate all the power he wanted. This isn’t a problem for the other Central Asian states.”

Writing by Robin Paxton; editing by Janet McBride

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