China Eyes Kyrgyz Unrest

Russia's role in Kyrgyzstan's political strife has stirred China's concern, experts say.
By Michael Lelyveld
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Gas from Turkmenistan is transported via a pipeline that avoids Kyrgyzstan, enters China at the Alataw Pass in Xinjiang, and connects to the West–East Gas Pipeline, where it continues to Shanghai.
Gas from Turkmenistan is transported via a pipeline that avoids Kyrgyzstan, enters China at the Alataw Pass in Xinjiang, and connects to the West–East Gas Pipeline, where it continues to Shanghai.

BOSTON—China is wary of Russia's efforts to regain influence in Central Asia following the government overthrow in Kyrgyzstan, analysts say.

The deadly riots that ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on April 7 followed months of turmoil in the isolated country of 5 million on China's western border.

Political and economic pressures prompted the takeover by a provisional government under former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva.

But it was also preceded by an unusual wave of criticism from Russian media, television broadcasts and Web sites, experts said.

"Clearly, Russia was interfering," said S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Washington's Johns Hopkins University.

Starr cited a "publicity campaign against Bakiyev" and "a large FSB [Russian security agency] presence in Bishkek, which is still there."

Moscow's role has stirred fears of power plays and unrest among bordering countries including China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, Starr said.

"Russia's hyperactivity has managed not only to very much raise concerns among Kyrgyzstan's real neighbors....but I'm sure it is also raising a serious concern in Beijing," he said.

"In the long run, no matter what activities they're engaged in now, the Russians are going to regret the way they've handled this," Starr said.

After international negotiations, Bakiyev fled the country for neighboring Kazakhstan on April 15, averting a threatened civil war.

Role 'in doubt'

Russia's role in the popular uprising remains in doubt, though Kyrgyzstan's foreign ministry complained to Moscow about its negative press coverage just days before the riots began, the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor reported April 1.

Russia also slapped export duties on fuel shipments to Kyrgyzstan at the start of the month, causing suppliers to halt deliveries, the Interfax news agency said.

Energy costs were already soaring because of steep utility price hikes imposed by the government in January, sparking discontent.

Conditions in the impoverished country have been volatile for much of the past year.

Following a widely criticized election last July, Bakiyev had grown increasingly isolated amid charges of corruption, nepotism, and repression.

But Russia's anger has been traced to his decision last June to renew the U.S. lease on a transit center at Manas airport for the war in Afghanistan.

Stephen Blank, a regional specialist and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College, said Bakiyev's government had accepted part of a large Russian aid package with the understanding it would close the U.S. base.

Friction with Moscow has also grown over U.S. plans for an anti-terrorist training center in southern Kyrgyzstan's Batken region and over negotiations for a possible Russian base in the south.

Russia already operates an airbase in the north at Kant.

Blank said Russian pressure pushed the Bakiyev government over the edge.

"This was a Russian-instigated coup, I have no doubt," Blank said. "It was a coup. It's not a revolution."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has firmly denied any part in the unrest.

"Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events," Putin told reporters April 7.

But Blank said the sequence of Russian pressures makes the denial unbelievable.

"This is orchestrated," he said.

China's interests affected

Officials of the provisional government visited Moscow twice in the week following the change of power, seeking new Russian aid.

The United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan made "joint efforts" to negotiate Bakiyev's departure, according to a statement by Kazakhstan in its role as chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) April 15.

While China was not involved in the talks, its interests were greatly affected by the regional instability.

"Americans tend to see this in personal terms, but the main debate there of external powers is between Russia and China," Starr said.

Moscow's assertion of influence in Central Asia follows months of waning prestige with the opening of China's 2,000-km (1,240-mile) gas pipeline from Turkmenistan in December, effectively breaking Russia's dominance over the region's energy exports.

In choosing its gas route through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, China rejected appeals from Kyrgyzstan to include its territory after years of diversion and debt problems with Soviet-era pipelines.

But Kyrgyzstan has become China's third-largest trade partner in the Commonwealth of Independent States after Russia and Kazakhstan, the official Xinhua news agency said in January.

Days before the riots, China's Guodian Corp. announced plans to invest U.S. $4 billion in Kyrgyzstan's heating and power sector over the next five years, Interfax reported.

Chinese businesses also suffered "heavy losses" from looting during the riots in Bishkek, Xinhua said.

The Chinese Guoying commercial center was burned for the second time since Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in 2005.

Despite the losses and Russian pressure, analysts believe China's influence will continue to grow in the region.

"To me, the Chinese are the long-term favorites because they're going to have more economic power and will develop those ties over time," Blank said.

"There have been short-term Chinese losses, but I think in the long run, China's hand is only being strengthened in the region while Russia is fighting a noisy but ineffective rear-guard action," Starr said.





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