The recent crisis and instability in Kyrgyzstan, highlighted the fragility of security and the potential weakness of the political systems throughout the region and exposed new dimensions in the conduct of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy that may well prove pivotal for US energy interests in the Caspian Sea region. These complexities, often disguised or downplayed by the national governments in the region, attest to the deep political fault lines running through Eurasia as well as the potential for events in one state to ignite potential cross-border discontent and instability elsewhere.
Indeed, an analysis of the nuances in approach, media coverage, and official statements offered throughout the crisis, confirms how concerned some regimes are about their own internal stability, weaknesses in civil society, and their vulnerability to external influence. While, Kazakhstan’s leadership emerged with an enhanced reputation for contributing to defusing a possible civil war in neighboring Kyrgyzstan with the timely evacuation of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on April 15 to Taraz in southern Kazakhstan, its underlying motives relate more to personal ambition and geostrategic maneuvering around the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Moscow’s efforts to promote a new European security architecture.
Silence in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan
First, the silent regional observers must be identified. Since April 7, and the bloodshed on the streets of Bishkek that signaled the beginning of the end for the Bakiyev regime, drowning in corruption and promoting family interests at the expense of economically and politically developing the state, the governments and state media were predictably silent in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In the latter, only one official statement, through the Uzbek foreign ministry news agency “Jahon” noted that a “confrontation” had occurred resulting in “human casualties.” Understandably, since the authorities remain sensitive to the memory of the uprising in Andijan in May 2005 that witnessed a crackdown on civilians which resulted in widespread international condemnation, and in due course was one of the contributory factors in Tashkent’s decision to evict the US military later that year from the airbase in Kharshi-Khanabad.
After all, the events in Andijan erupted within two months of the “Tulip Revolution” in neighboring Kyrgyzstan that swept the incumbent Askar Akayev from power and brought promises of democracy and reform from Bakiyev.
Tashkent’s official reluctance to comment on the recent Kyrgyz crisis, characterized as “above all an internal affair,” did not prevent its government from stepping up domestic security on April 8 in the border areas, and later sending more police officers to patrol the streets of Andijan to prevent the emergence of any instability.
Jahon’s website referred to the potential for “destabilizing effects,” spreading from its neighbor, yet only made this comment in the Russian language version of the website, and airbrushed it from the Uzbek and English versions. Government and pro-government Uzbek media reproduced this particular statement, but added no further details. Only independent foreign media, based in Uzbekistan, made reference to both the coup in Kyrgyzstan, and the absence of media coverage within Uzbekistan. On April 9, Ferghana.ru stated that Uzbek citizens were almost entirely reliant upon Russian television, limited internet access and foreign media for any information on the evolving Kyrgyz crisis.
Government run media, by contrast in Turkmenistan was entirely silent on these events. Opposition websites did offer some coverage, and again stressed that the state was actively avoiding doing so. The Russian-based Turkmen opposition website Gundogar claimed that Ashgabat had ordered a total ban on any coverage of the coup or the fate of the ousted Kyrgyz leader. The state-run news agency (www.turkmenistan.gov.tm) made no reference to these events, nor did prominent pro-government websites, despite reporting by opposition sites.
Openness in Tajikistan
Tajikistan, although demonstrating a more open approach to the issue, proved slow to disseminate information. The Tajik foreign ministry, like its counterpart in Tashkent, referred to the events on April 7 in Bishkek, as a “purely internal affair,” before remarkably characterizing it as simply a “change of power.” Tajik religious figures criticized the government for remaining largely silent on the Bishkek bloodshed and formation of an interim administration.
However, within 24 hours of Bakiyev’s fall from power, the state-run Khovar news agency began to release detailed information and the privately owned Asia-Plus online offered coverage from the outset while unofficial media offered “lessons learned” for the Tajik government ranging from the weaknesses of the Kyrgyz economy, increases to electricity prices, corruption and “forgotten promises.”
There was even some speculation on Moscow’s link to the crisis, particularly its media campaign against Bakiyev that preceded the protests on April 7 and its support for the opposition. Thus, throughout the region, the governments and state-linked media were very cautious in their reporting or public comment on the events in Kyrgyzstan, reflecting awareness of the fragility of their own political systems and grip on security.
Kazakhstan’s Media Campaign: Promoting the Peacemaker
Kazakh media coverage was by far the most open in the region, yet this cannot be divorced from the extent to which the government pushed certain aspects in order to enhance its own image and achieve wider diplomatic objectives. The role of its government, currently holding the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in extricating Bakiyev highlighted more complex factors at play in the crisis. It was a valuable opportunity for the Kazakh leadership to burnish its image, and cast President Nursultan Nazarbayev as peacemaker.
By April 15, Nazarbayev was uncontrollably buoyant in his mood and his more colorful claims, for instance, to have successful averted a civil war in Central Asia. He emphatically stated the crisis had proved that Kazakhstan is a key player in promoting regional stability and security, and claimed, “our country is already facilitating constructive cooperation between the US, Russia and China in Central Asia.”
Throughout the initial crisis period, Nazarbayev admitted he had remained in telephone contact with Bakiyev and the interim Kyrgyz government, as well as liaising with Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. Yet, reportedly, Bakiyev had entered Kazakh airspace on April 7, and was denied permission to land, and within a short time Air Astana suspended flights between the Kazakh capital and Bishkek in an attempt to prevent the exile of regime members fleeing into the country.
While the veracity of these claims cannot currently be tested, the opportunity for him to flee to Kazakhstan on condition of his resignation was identified at early stage, and coupled with the indifference Moscow took to his plight. Between April 7 to April 15, when the Kazakh leader ordered the air force to enter southern Kyrgyzstan and a Spetsnaz team led an operation to rescue Bakiyev and his family something had clearly changed. If reporting in the pro-government Kazakh media is to be believed, this only reflected Nazarbayev and other officials achieving success in their aim to persuade Bakiyev to leave on conditions acceptable to the new provisional government.
Of crucial importance, in this context, was Nazarbayev’s trip to Washington to attend the nuclear security summit on April 12-13. While there is no evidence to support the emergence of a Kyrgyz crisis handling triangle involving Nazarbayev, Obama and Medvedev, there was contact between each that did prove significant. Nazarbayev had already put everything in place to boost the potential role for Kazakh diplomacy in resolving at least the immediate concern of removing Bakiyev from southern Kyrgyzstan. On April 7, Kazakh diplomatic efforts, aimed at defusing the risk of conflict, began in earnest, involving foreign ministry officials, Kazakh OSCE representatives and within 48 hours Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, held telephone conferences with his counterparts in Ankara, Berlin and Paris, securing their support for the country’s role in the crisis.
On April 16, Nazarbayev said that on the previous day he had ordered the mission to evacuate Bakiyev and his family. He said Kazakh servicemen would be decorated for the role they played in preventing a “civil clash growing into a clash between the southern and northern parts of the country,” adding, “we have performed a good mission on behalf of the OSCE and the heads of state, who were really worried.”
His claim that the country was slipping toward civil war, before his masterful intervention is certainly subjective, especially since the interim government in Bishkek appeared to be maintaining complete control over the armed forces and security structures. The only player involved in the crisis to mention the possibility of civil war was Medvedev, when on April 14, he warned of north-south split and possible descent into war, calling on Bakiyev to leave, and saying the fragile Central Asian state might in due course become a “second Afghanistan.”
Clearly basking in his international role, Nazarbayev also claimed this as a success for the country’s chairmanship of the OSCE. Pro-government media in Kazakhstan predictably portrayed Nazarbayev’s handling of the Kyrgyz instability as statesman-like and focused on certain aspects. Most notably, one analyst in the Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan, Gulnur Rakhmatullina, said that Obama had sought Nazarbayev’s advice on how to influence events in Kyrgyzstan, during their talks on the sidelines of the Washington nuclear conference. If true, the gauntlet had been thrown down. As to why the Kazakh leadership so actively pursued this intervention, not without its own domestic risks, as bloggers and opposition groups expressed outrage at the arrival of Bakiyev in Kazakhstan, can only be appreciated in a much broader strategic context.
Upping the Ante in US-Kazakh Relations
Prior to Nazarbayev’s arrival in Washington, Kazakhstanskaya Pravda indicated that his main goal was to secure the backing of the Obama administration for his much vaunted scheme to host the first OSCE summit in eleven years, even going as far as suggesting it was provisionally earmarked for November. Meeting on the sidelines of the nuclear summit, he failed to secure a clear commitment to push for such a summit.
There were other less weighty failures, such as only receiving only lukewarm acknowledgment of his proposal to create an international nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan. However, there were some pre-planned successes, in particular, since talks had been ongoing for some time on boosting the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) logistical supply route through which the US ships up to 35 percent of all cargo to support the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) effort in Afghanistan.
Obama and Nazarbayev reportedly discussed ways of enhancing the NDN, on April 12, Michael McFaul, the Special Assistant to the US President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs in the National Security Council, duly announced on April 12 that Astana had agreed to open a second important air route, allowing US aircraft to fly across the North Pole and through Kazakh airspace, which is more convenient than the trans-European flight path, saving time and money. Its agreement was doubtless prepared by the visit to Kazakhstan on April 5 by General David Petraeus, the Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), but its announcement was timed to coincide with Nazarbayev lending support to non-proliferation and Obama’s nuclear “global zero.”
Moreover, during his meeting with Obama, according to Prime Tass and www.politikom.ru, Nazarbayev offered to ensure that existing commercial contracts with US energy companies operating in Kazakhstan will be honored, with no future revision aimed at changing the taxation arrangements. Michael McFaul seemed to confirm this on April 12, but later remarked that he “hoped” no such changes would be made.
Clearly, the predatory appetite on the part of the Kazakh state to revise such contracts revealed in the dispute over Kashagan finally resolved in late 2007, which recently resurfaced with hostile moves against the KPO in Karachaganak, has become a bargaining chip in Kazakh diplomacy. Nonetheless, this offer was most likely unexpected by administration officials.
What is significant, albeit thus far underestimated by western commentators, is that the Kazakh government has effectively placed such a guarantee on the table, and the price appears linked to Washington’s willingness to support Nazarbayev on holding an OSCE summit this year.
Politically, then, the reluctance on the part of the Obama administration to provide an unequivocal “yes” to the possible summit arises from skepticism over President Medvedev’s draft European security treaty, strongly lobbied by Russia and the Central Asian states. Astana has its own reasons for pushing this initiative, and recognizes the main forum for its discussion is the OSCE, which would serve to boost its portrayal of success as the current chairman.
Equally, Kazakhstan’s OSCE agenda is to return the organization to concentrate on security in the OSCE area, promoting energy security, peacekeeping, and conflict resolution. Placing the Medvedev initiative on the table of an OSCE summit would, therefore, conveniently suit both Astana and Moscow’s interests.
Nazarbayev is so committed to his summit idea that he is effectively offering US energy companies a privileged status in Kazakhstan, which would protect these companies in ways not afforded to their western or Russian competitors. It seems that now is the time to ask whether supporting a Kazakh hosted OSCE summit is a price worth paying to secure the long-term commercial interests of US energy companies operating this part of the world; not least, since it would also send a signal to Ashgabat, making any future revisionist policies difficult to pursue.
While Nazarbayev played a pacifying role in the Kyrgyz political crisis, at least in terms of solving the most urgent problem, safely removing Bakiyev, its timing and strategic implications as well as how it fits Kazakh diplomatic maneuvering, must not be undervalued.
This article was written by Roger N. McDermott for Oilprice.com. Roger N. McDermott is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, Jamestown Foundation, Washington, DC, and an Honorary Senior Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. His policy oriented articles and monographs have been published widely in international security journals, including Parameters the official journal of the US Army and by the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.