Foreign Policy Blogs

Trouble in Kyrgyzstan

Things are very bad in Kyrgyzstan right now.  The Central Asian republic recently underwent a dramatic political upheaval that resulted in the replacement of a sitting government for the second time in five years, and it is now experiencing violent ethnic riots targeting Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek population.  The riots have spiraled out of control to the point where the Kyrgyz government finally requested foreign help in quelling them, allegedly first from the U.S. and then from Russia.  Russia has troops in the capital, but not yet near Osh where the riots are centered.

Courtesy: Google Images; London Evening Standard

Courtesy: Google Images; London Evening Standard

Kyrgyzstan is a country of high interest to the U.S., most notably because of its strategic value as the site of the Manas airbase.  However, U.S.-Kyrgyz relations have always been complicated by the latter’s proximity to Russia, status as a former Soviet republic, and membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).  Russia has, for some time, wanted the U.S. out of Kyrgyzstan, which it regards as being part of its sphere of influence, and it also has an airbase there.

This crisis is a complicated matter for the U.S.  In the past, the U.S. has asserted itself to defend its presence in Kyrgyzstan, much to Russia’s consternation.  But sensitive to Russian hostility to any American presence in Central Asia and keen to continue promoting a thaw in Russo-American relations, the Obama Administration will defer on this issue to Russia.  This can be read a number of ways: as a retreat, a limited willingness dive into a tricky situation with an already-full plate or a challenge to the Kremlin to “influence its sphere”, so to speak.  Or, perhaps some measure of all three.  However, the Russians do not appear to be interested in rushing in to stop the crisis.  The matter will, however, be taken up by the Russia-dominated CSTO on June 14 during an emergency session.

In seeking foreign help, the Kyrgyz government admitted that it is too weak to resolve the crisis itself.  If the U.S. defers to Russia on this crisis and the Russians drag their feet in participating, it is not at all clear who will stop it or how it will end.  And if one side does intervene to help, it could upset the delicate, uncomfortable balance between the two in the country.

President Obama’s election was greeted as a return to realism in U.S. foreign policy.  But the biggest knock on realism is the perception that it can appear, in practice, to be an amoral worldview indifferent to politically inconvenient crises like this one.  Liberal interventionism might do no better here; it’s hard to imagine what an American plan for deploying here would even look like, and it is equally difficult to conceive of what pressuring Russia to own the problem would achieve either.  In sum, this crisis threatens to become an orphan – exactly the sort of crisis that slips through the cracks.

An additional note clarifying this post was published on June 16, 2010 and can be viewed here.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.