From Totalitarianism to Turbines: The Unending Struggle for Power in Central Asia

The deadly June crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan highlights the extreme fragility in Central Asia's inherently flawed post-independence nation-state structures. However, the five republics are being simultaneously courted by the U.S. military.
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Dushanbe, Tajikistan- The deadly June crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan highlights the extreme fragility in Central Asia's inherently flawed post-independence nation-state structures. The five republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, often collectively referred to as the "Stans," are being simultaneously courted by the U.S. military, Western energy firms, China, and the region's resurgent former colonial power, Russia. It is not to Russia's pleasing that these republics each seem to following their own unilateral, currently discordant, energy and security policies, often in the name of regime preservation.

Central Asia's leaders, seeing and citing the devastating 1990s war in Tajikistan that pitted a rebellious coalition of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and aspiring democrats against an amalgam of communists and neo-communists, were desperate to avoid confrontations with both political Islamism and those wishing to institute a genuine parliamentary democracy. Seeking to cement post-Soviet identities that cast aside the massive Lenin statues in their midst (with a few exceptions that continue to salute to a non-existent Bolshevik future today), the then nouveau strongmen, former Sovietized apparatchiks and bureaucrats -- who had mostly inherited their posts of power -- either resurrected respective fathers of the nations as Manas in Kyrgyzstan, Ismoli Somoni in Tajikistan, and Tamerlane, or Amir Timur, in Uzbekistan. The others created personality cults, from the comparatively mild one of Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan to the megalomaniacal rule of the late Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan. Unfortunately for many Turkmen, Turkmenistan's stunted modern narrative has changed little under his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov who has erected a cult of his own since assuming office at the end of 2006.

The opposition civil war alliance in 1990s Tajikistan and its failure to turn that republic in either a representative democracy or a sharia-ruled Islamic state was the perfect avenue to conflate and thus deny post-Soviet Central Asia's two most vibrant, yet entirely ideologically divergent, human groundswells. In the flurry of American-led militaristic diplomacy that followed al-Qaeda's successful 9/11 plot, the hastily architected basing agreements in Central Asia were the first trial of the so-called "Rumsfeld doctrine," which thrust the region's once obscure authoritarian presidents into the fore of U.S. foreign policy. At the time, Vladimir Putin's Russian Federation was still deeply mired in the second Chechen war that helped boost him into office. In the fall of 2001, Russia was not yet the phoenix rising from the ashes portrayed until just before the start of the global financial meltdown. President Putin had tens of thousands of troops from both the Ministries of Interior and Defense stationed within Chechnya and based in neighboring republics of North Ossetia and Ingushetia. After the Rumsfeld doctrine's deceivingly swift victory against Mullah Mohammad Omar's tin pot Deobandi-inspired emirate in Afghanistan, Russia hoped the Americans were not in Central Asia to stay.

The United States essentially established a modus vivendi with leadership of the Russian Federation with respect to its perceived historical sphere of "privileged interest" in it paternalistically colloquial "near abroad." The American air force wasted no time in setting up shop in southeastern Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad air base (K2 in the Pentagon's abbreviated lexicon) and Manas international airport 30 kilometers north from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Other European coalition members then began to move in. France began to fly its gun-metal grey C-160 Transall transport aircraft into the cramped Dushanbe airport situated on the near edge of the sleepy, fragile Tajik capital with the proviso that it help renovate the dilapidated facility. Germany installed itself in at a decaying Soviet air base at Termez, Uzbekistan along the Amu Darya, just over an hour north of Mazar-e-Sharif. France supplies its contingents in Kabul and Kapisa Provinces while Germany keeps its men fed in Konduz, Balkh and Badakhshan Provinces. In what was likely a failed bid to counter Pakistan's "strategic depth" in Afghanistan, India attempted an entry into the constantly morphing great power politics here by renovating Ayni air base just outside Dushanbe for a squadron of MiG fighter jets that, so far, has yet to materialize.

America's initial fete with the regime of Islam Karimov ended very publicly in late November of 2005 after the State Department dared question the actions of the Uzbek security forces in the wake of the gunning down of an untold number of civilians that May in the southern city of Andijan. Russia's state-owned RIA-Novosti reported the unceremonious American departure without a hint of the actual geopolitical context. In the aftermath of this April's revolution in Bishkek, which culminated with the deposing of the effete presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiev on April 15th and his subsequent exile in Belarus, the State Department under Barack Obama was far from vocal, only seemingly concerned about American basing rights at Manas airfield. This greatly disappointed Kyrgyz civil society actors who hoped America would back them in their aggressive anti-corruption drive. In Uzbekistan, a similar realpolitik appears to be on the march after repeated attacks on NATO supply convoys from Karachi to the Khyber pass in Pakistan have accelerated American military diplomacy in Central Asia on behalf of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) supply line scheme which is bringing about a rapprochement between Tashkent and Washington. A massive coordinated attack on a NATO supply depot on the outskirts of Peshawar on December 8, 2008 and the destruction of over 100 vehicles destined for troops in Afghanistan forced Western military logisticians to rethink their relationships with the various strong men of Central Asia.

The Manas air base and K2 were initially referred to as "postwar" temporary military centers meant to function, in Russia's eyes, until a finite, although unspecified, date when such postwar operations would be complete and the U.S. military would withdraw from the region. Almost nine years on from the outset of American operations in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the "postwar" is an all-out battle for many of the Pashtun-majority provinces in the south and east of the country with the war more recently expanding back into the multi-ethnic northern provinces bordering Central Asia where it began. Now Manas is a "transit centre" rather than an airbase and Western militaries supplies are routed through the Navoi air field rather than K2 in Uzbekistan but it is unclear when, if at all, the Americans plan on vacating their Central Asian hubs that are now viewed as essential due to a rise in Taliban orchestrated violence along the feebly guarded Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan and the insurgency is creeping up toward Central Asia's borders. In a classic example of Pentagon mission creep, what was once a war with a stated goal of defeating the Taliban militarily and installing a friendly government in Kabul with Central Asia acting as a secure rear base, the American taxpayer is apparently going to be footing the bill for an array of projects under the guise of counter narcotics, counter terrorism, and intra regional border security throughout the region including a military training center in Karatog, Tajikistan and border facility upgrades outside of Batken, Kyrgyzstan among a host of other projects in all five republics listed on the Federal Business Opportunities website ( The United States, after years of being distracted in Iraq, seems to be rapidly expanding its influence and treasury funds in Central Asia amid a supposed drawn down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that is meant to commence exactly twelve months from now. [1]

Five years on from Andijan, which has seemingly publicy disappeared into memory for America's diplomatic corps in Uzbekistan, the U.S. is fast at work restoring ties with the Karimov regime that Western critics and local activists oft describe as an entirely odious one in terms of human rights. A press release last year issued by the U.S. embassy in Tashkent describes the warming of U.S.-Uzbek relations with Ambassador Richard Norland visiting an airport in Navoi in Uzbekistan's south to be built of to supply Western forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. and Uzbekistan have partnered with Korean Air to refurbish the Navoi airport and transport material on to Afghanistan to bolster supply lines threatened by the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. Ambassador Norland revisited Navoi this with the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, remarking on how impressed he was with the Karimov regime's transformation of the place of the U.S. and Uzbekistan's "common interest."

Tajikistan, the most remote and traditionally poorest of the 15 Soviet Socialist Republics, is bound by resurgent warfare fostered by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami and northern Taliban units in Afghanistan's Konduz Province to its south, a bloody spring of revolution and ethnic cleansing with possibility of more instability in Kyrgyzstan to the north, periodic closings of Uzbek-Tajik border to the west due to the feud over water rights and the Rogun dam project as well as border security incidents, and lastly a Chinese border too remote to matter much to the east in the immediate term. Though being bolstered by Chinese investment and growing Tajik-Chinese trade, the steady deterioration of relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe along Tajikistan's longest and most crucial border presents an immense challenge to the government of longstanding Tajik ruler Emomali Rahmon. The Rogun dam has gone from an unfinished Cold War-era Kremlin fantasy project originally intended to boost agricultural production output in the Ferghana valley in an undivided Soviet empire to President Rahmon's personal embodiment of Tajik nationalism with billboards around the country showing him a determined, hard hat-ed leader standing above the Vaksh river as a dramatically illustrative backdrop with a slogan praising his pet project as one that will benevolently benefit all of his citizens. Tajiks are being sold on the Rogun project as a way of emancipating the power-starved nation and providing Tajikistan with a degree of energy independence even more necessary since neighboring Uzbekistan dropped out of the relict Soviet electric grid that had kept Central Asia integrated in terms of energy and provided Tajikistan with a modicum of crucial power necessary to withstand the area's brutal winters. But without financial assistance from Mother Russia and with stories circulating in the Tajik news media of students being forced to buy shares in the dam in order to pass their exams and frail pensioners being asked to contribute to the energy independence of the state, whether Rogun will eventually tower at a staggering 335 meters above the Vaksh river remains to be seen.

In contrast to the sentiment that the completion of Rogun would further inflame tensions with Uzbekistan, it could alternately provide power (with the side benefit as a possible stabilizing factor) to adjoining provinces in Afghanistan and even perhaps parts of northern Pakistan which lack a consistent power supply year round and many villages rely on portable fuel-powered generators for light and woodstoves for heat in winter. Energy supplies from hydro rich but hydrocarbon poor Tajikistan could help to integrate Central Asia's southern tier with the western fringes of the Indian subcontinent, a scenario the Russian and British empires sought to avoid with the demarcation of the Wakhan corridor buffer zone in an imperial-era boundary agreement. The treaty, signed in 1895 by a joint Anglo-Russian commission, outlined that it was most prudent the two competing empires do their best to steer clear of direct territorial confrontation at the height of the Great Game (keeping their interactions a mix of diplomacy and deadly espionage). Save for the good work of the Aga Khan Development Network in the greater Badakhshan-Pamir region, it is otherwise an area of sore neglect and heavy corruption overwhelmed by Afghan narcotics trafficking networks. Another selling point of Rogun is that its upstream completion and theorized electric exports south could shine a new light on an otherwise forsaken backwater where drugs mafias hold far more sway than any of the regional governments. With Emomali Rahmon failing to get either Russia's blessing or investment in the project, his upstream dream has fast become an uphill battle considering Tajikistan's deep poverty and lack of fiscal transparency.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has indicated that Moscow would be interested in energy infrastructure projects only if there is some consensus among Central Asia's leaders and provided that downstream countries (read: Uzbekistan) were not negatively impacted economically or environmentally. With the renewal of U.S.-Uzbek relations and the entry of South Korea, a vibrant, democratic East Asian economic powerhouse into the country, Russia may not want to push Karimov further away by overtly endorsing hydroelectric projects that make him feel insecure vis-à-vis his water rich neighbors to the east. Medvedev needs to keep open all available potential energy alternatives in Central Asia. So Bishkek and Dushanbe may be honing their sights on Nursultan Nazarbaev's petro-rich Astana instead.

Like Tajikistan's much hoped for Rogun endeavor, Kyrgyzstan hopes to exploit its underutilized hyrdropower sector by finishing a pair of costly dams along the Naryn river that were started in 1986 by Soviet planners ten years after Rogun was begun to the south. The dams, called Kambarata-1 and -2, were similarly indefinitely stalled after the Union's collapse in 1991. The Naryn begins in the Tian Shan mountain range near the Chinese frontier high in eastern Kyrgyzstan and flows westward to irrigate the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan where it merges with the dominant Syr Darya river. The completion of Kambarata-1 and -2 and has recently been revived to turn the Kyrgyz Republic from an overall net importer of electricity (with Uzbekistan being the nearest provider) to a net exporter of it with a hungry market in Kazakhstan to its north and potentially Russia in the future once the Kambarata dams are operational. Russia had officially agreed to a partnership on Kambarata but with the government of Kurmanbek Bakiev in February 2009. Folowing Bakiev's April ouster, much of the Russian funding that did arrive is reported to have fled Kyrgyzstan with Bakiev's cronies, Kyrgyz Minister of Energy Osmonbek Artykbayev told Kyrgyz news agency While Uzbekistan's Karimov wholeheartedly denounces water borne energy independence for either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan in that the two could then implement economic levers over Tashkent by controlling the amount of irrigation needed for Uzbekistan's yearly cotton output on which its economy has come to depend since the period of Stalinist totalitarianism. Karimov likely exacerbated the situation by dropping out of the Soviet designed power grid at the end of 2009 that previously integrated the five republics. Amid Uzbekistan's growing regional isolation, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan's other riparian neighbor, Kazakhstan, has suggested it has nothing to fear from such endeavors and may even endorse them. Herein lay bare the manifestation of Central Asia's ego driven power struggle between Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbaev who both see themselves as the macro region's natural cultural and political mantle bearers. In this match, Kazakhstan as the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and not being rumored to boil suspected political opponents alive, is leading. The Andijan massacre in 2005, though apparently the U.S. has moved on, irrevocably besmirched the image of the Uzbek regime. It is in this miasma that Uzbekistan is deftly maneuvering between Moscow, Washington, Beijing, and now Seoul.

As Central Asia's authocratic rulers (with shaky Kyrgyzstan being the perennial, useful exception) quarrel among one another, the United States military is desperate not to have the NDN interrupted as Pakistan's security environment has morphed into an undeclared civil war pitting urban suicide bombers against ham fisted counterinsurgency in the rural FATA. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan attacking supply lines there and putting NATO equipment in regular jeopardy is requiring increased dependence on still evolving Central Asian logistical hubs hampered by local political disputes within Central Asia and logistical limitations inherent in the vastness of the NDN. Russia is playing both sides in that it is happy to have NATO containing the Taliban for the time being maintaining a depleting status quo yet pressures Central Asian presidents about NATO quitting their countries and evaluates the region for the reintroduction of Russian forces within the auspices of the CSTO and various bilateral security frameworks (although when asked to intervene in Kyrgyzstan, it has balked). Uzbekistan is the geographic hub of Central Asia which views all of the adjoining republics as its spokes giving it a self-appointed position of natural leadership. It is also undeniably both the demographic heart of the region and the Turkic-Persian historical core of Central Asia. Tashkent is asserting its current isolationist tendencies through its own aspiring energy independence and playing competing, larger players off of one another. Karimov's have his cake and eat it too strategy may forming a de facto alliance of necessity among Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. These Soviet successor states remain ham strung by the congenital nature of their Stalin-era cartography and continue to be viewed by outside powers and as grand realm to be subtly conquered. All of Central Asia's leaders, and great powers both near and far, have insured that nothing here is written in stone in this realm of naked, eternal competition.

Notes:1. Along with the American drawdown slated for July 2011, the Netherlands having withstood 24 fatalities since its presence began in Uruzgan Province in 2006, has announced its withdrawal to appease a casualty-averse Dutch public and shore up an awkward Dutch governing coalition. Canadian and Polish forces may follow suit in the coming years while many other Alliance contributors are discussing their own exit strategies, which might inadvertently increase the difficulty of the planned American troop decrease.

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