The October 10 elections in the Central Asian nation Kyrgyzstan are fraught with strategic overtones. In contrast, hardly anyone ever noticed the July 2009 elections in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan polls mean a lot for various stakeholders in the region: for India (whose only foreign military base is in Central Asia -- Tajikistan); for Russia (which has been pursuing an aggressive keep-off approach for Central Asian region which Moscow considers its backyard); for the United States as Kyrgyzstan is the latest nation state around Russia where Washington has recently lost a great deal of diplomatic and strategic clout to Moscow; and for China (which has dramatically increased its sweepstakes in the region over the years, much to the consternation of Moscow).
India has not been maintaining one embassy and four consulates in Afghanistan for nothing -- the United States is the only other country where India is currently maintaining five diplomatic missions in one country. India looks at Afghanistan’s importance not only from its traditional Pakistan prism but also from the futuristic strategic leverage that Central Asia promises. Afghanistan is the door to Central Asia, precisely why China too has been upping its ante for gaining its access to the region just when the US is preparing to exit.
Russia hasn’t forgotten how it was shortchanged by the US which nibbled into the Central Asian cake in the name of the international war against terror in the wake of 9/11. The US military bases are still not out of the region and the chances are that they never will. Against this backdrop, Russia signed a military pact with Kyrgyzstan on September 24 that would mean a sure shot expansion of Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan for arms and cash. Significantly, Russia’s lease on its military bases in Kyrgyzstan is to last 49 years.
The deal was signed after intense negotiations between the two sides. A Russian military delegation led by Col. Gen. Valery Gerasimov, deputy commander of the armed forces general staff, has been camping in Kyrgyzstan since September 19, holding talks with its Kyrgyz defence counterparts. The deal would allow Russia to create a unified base structure in Kyrgyzstan and consolidating Russia’s four military facilities in the country -- an air base in Kant, a naval training and research centre at Lake Issyk-Kul, and seismic facilities in the Issyk-Kul and Jalal-Abad regions -- under a single, joint command. Russia also announced a $50 million aid package for Kyrgyzstan to keep it solvent.
The US has been concerned about the Russian resurgence. Kyrgyzstan was the latest nation state around Russia to fall from the US perspective. After much turmoil over several months, former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted by a Russian-backed uprising in April 2010. Russia obviously must be mighty pleased to see the back of Bakiyev, who had been trying to walk a diplomatic tightrope in his eventually failed attempts to counterbalance Russia and the US. Bakiyev had been using the US transit centre at Manas, a key logistical hub in Kyrgyzstan for US operations in Afghanistan. His clever diplomacy was aimed at pitting Moscow and Washington against each other to get more money out of both. Russia successfully installed a friendlier interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva. Washington could not do anything more than helplessly watching the events unfold as Bishkek had requested Moscow to increase its military presence in Kyrgyzstan after widespread racial violence broke out again in June in the southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad.
India has a deep strategic interest in Central Asia. This has gathered all the more urgency as China has made forays into this region. China has substantially upgraded its involvement with Central Asia in the past few years through Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan figures prominently in the Chinese chessboard for Central Asia. China plans to build a transnational highway from Pakistan through Afghanistan to Central Asia.
China has been keeping a watchful eye on the US-Russian rivalry in the Central Asian strategic space. However, Beijing has assiduously refrained from pursuing as aggressive diplomacy in the region so far as Washington and Moscow are doing. The Chinese policy makers have taken the regime change in Bishkek in their stride, as reflected by a comment of the government-owned "China Daily" that the regime change in Bishkek "will not hurt ties with China." Beijing’s official line is as follows: "No matter which party is in power, it will value China-Kyrgyzstan relations." China is all set to become Kyrgyzstan's number one economic partner, with bilateral trade with this country of just five million people hitting the $10 billion mark recently. In contrast, the India-Kyrgyzstan trade volume is almost one-hundredth of the China-Kyrgyzstan trade.