Russia may raise its strategic profile in Central Asia following the recent unrest in Uzbekistan. Speculation has mounted over the last week that Moscow could establish a base in Kyrgyzstan's southern capital at Osh, situated at the eastern end of the Ferghana Valley.
Kyrgyzstan is already home to two foreign air bases a Russian facility at Kant and an American installation at Manas, both outside the capital Bishkek. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The violence that on May 13 engulfed the Uzbek portion of the Ferghana Valley appears to have prompted the leaders of Kyrgyzstan's provisional government to consider adding a third base in Osh. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The base would be designed to enhance the security of what has proven to be the epicenter of volatility in Central Asia.
The Ferghana Valley, Central Asia's agricultural heartland, is shared by three countries Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The region suffers from general overcrowding and a lack of economic opportunities -- a combustible combination that, some experts say, has played a role in the rise of Islamic radicalism. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kyrgyzstan's own revolution on March 24 can trace its origins to protests in Osh and Jalal-abad earlier that month. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, independent observers say extreme social discontent played a key role in sparking the Andijan violence in Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Public debate over a potential military base in Osh began in late May. In a May 26 interview published by the Russian business daily Kommersant, acting Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev raised the possibility that a new Russian military facility in Osh could be created "if there is such necessity." The base, Bakiyev continued, would operate under auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Bakiyev added that the creation of a new base would not diminish the need for the existing Russian and US military facilities at Kant and Manas.
On May 27, Felix Kulov, Kyrgyzstan's provisional first deputy prime minister who may actually be the country's most influential politician at the moment, spoke of a need for greater stability in southern Kyrgyzstan. In an interview published by Kommersant, Kulov argued that "there should be a Russian presence in the Osh area" to help address the main security threats in the region narcotics trafficking and international terrorism.
"A small state should have no enemies, only friends," Kulov told Kommersant. "Russia is our traditional best friend, and you cannot change friends."
The idea of an Osh base was reportedly first raised during May 19 talks between Bakiyev and a Russian delegation headed by Andrei Kokoshin, the chairman of the Russian parliament's Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States. According to Russian and Kyrgyz media, following the talks in Bishkek, the Russian delegation traveled to Osh, where members reportedly met with the regional leadership, Muslim clerics and local "Russian citizens and co-nationals." In the words of the Russian consul in Osh, Yuri Ivanov, the local population would be "positively disposed" toward the potential presence of Russian troops in the area.
Both Russian and Kyrgyz officials have reacted with restraint to the media reports on the potential Osh base. Both governments appear to be waiting to gauge public reaction before proceeding, leaving plenty of room to backtrack on the plan if it encounters strong opposition. On June 1, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva denied that formal talks concerning the establishment of a base had occurred. Earlier, a Russian Foreign Ministry official, Alexander Yakovenko, indicated that Moscow had not received "an official request of the Kyrgyz side ... to expand the Russian military presence in southern Kyrgyzstan," the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
At the same time, Yakovenko confirmed that "the possibility of deepening bilateral interaction" was being considered. Meanwhile, both Kokoshin and Modest Kolerov, head of the Russian presidential administration's Department of Interregional and Cultural Relations, asserted that Kyrgyzstani officials were the initiators of the base discussion. The Ekho Osha newspaper quoted Kolerov as saying that a new Russian military base would include up to 1,000 military personnel.
Some regional analysts explain the desire of Kyrgyz officials to downplay the military base issue by pointing to the "very delicate character" of the issue. First, Bishkek obviously has to tread a fine line between Russian and US geopolitical interests. As Kulov put it in the Kommersant interview; "we are pursuing a multi-vector policy." Second, not everyone in Kyrgyzstan appears to welcome a new Russian military facility. A number of local experts, for example, are critical of the already existing Russian air base in Kant, suggesting that its strategic value to Kyrgyzstan is minimal at best. The only time it played any strategic role, they point out, was when Russian military pilots helped Askar Akayev and his family to flee the country amid the March 24 revolution.
Given the sensitivity of the issue, Kyrgyz leaders would likely not enter into substantive talks on an Osh base until after the country's presidential election, scheduled on July 10. The election is widely expected to provide the Bakiyev-Kulov political tandem with a popular mandate, which would be needed to proceed with such a controversial policy decision as the creation of an Osh military base.
In addition to the speculation surrounding the creation of a Russian military base in Osh, reports have circulated in recent days that China wants to establish a military presence in southern Kyrgyzstan. Otunbayeva, the Kyrgyz foreign minister, sought to immediately quash speculation about the Chinese base idea. "Who said that Kyrgyzstan will be a collection of military bases?" Itar-Tass quoted Otunbayeva as saying. "We do not see it this way."
Some Kyrgyz analysts and most Russian security specialists believe the potential deployment of Russian military personnel in Osh would enhance security in an area where Islamic radicals, especially members of the underground group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, are active. The region has also emerged as a major transit point for drugs coming out of Afghanistan that are destined for markets in Western Europe and Russia.
In the opinion of Col. Anatoly Tsyganok, head of the Moscow-based Center for Military Forecasts, a joint Russian-Kyrgyz anti-terrorist center based in Osh could additionally enhance stability in Uzbekistan's portion of the Ferghana Valley. If a new "mutiny or revolution" erupted in the area, Uzbek troops could potentially be reinforced by soldiers based at the Osh facility, Tsyganok suggested.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.