Facing Tough Choices
Russia Profile

Is Facing a Post Imperial Crisis in Central Asia That it Can’t Ignore

The ongoing turmoil in the southern region
of Kyrgyzstan – the worst violence to hit the country since independence
– underscores the rise of instability in strategically located Central
Asia. The Kyrgyz crisis also highlights the difficult choice Russia will
have to make: whether it should or should not intervene to help settle
the flaring conflict.

The turbulent events in Kyrgyzstan,
touched off by the toppling of the clannish and corrupt government of
Kurmanbek Bakiev in April, demonstrate just how volatile the local
authoritarian regimes are – they appear to be still going through the
tortuous period of post-imperial readjustment almost 20 years after the
collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Russia is also haunted by its
imperial legacy. The fact that Russia was an empire for a major part of
its history is something which cannot be emphasized enough. For a huge
land-based empire, protecting its extremely long and often porous
borders is a security issue of paramount importance. In fact, constantly
expanding its outer periphery, absorbing new lands, and creating buffer
zones is a set of policies that a land-based empire usually resorts to
in order to make its vulnerable frontiers secure. This strategy was also
a key factor behind the continental empires’ territorial growth: the
same pattern brought Russia into Central Asia in the middle of the 19th
century and has kept it there ever since.

Although, unlike the
Soviet Union, present-day Russia is no longer an imperial state, the
former continental empire finds it infinitely more difficult to
disengage from its former colonies than maritime empires do. The
interpenetration of the imperial metropole and colonial periphery is
much more intimate and intensive in the first case. Even after the
demise of the empire, territorial contiguity leads to a situation where
many challenges presented by the former colonies should be seen and
analyzed not only as phenomena exclusively pertaining to the sphere of
foreign policy, but also as factors directly affecting the domestic
situation in the former imperial center.

Russia’s principal
concern in the region remains the preservation of the internal stability
of the Central Asian nations. Any local turmoil that might potentially
be caused by a botched succession crisis or the escalation of political
confrontation, by resurgent Islamists challenging the region’s secular
regimes, or by inter-ethnic clashes is going to be viewed by Moscow as a
direct threat to Russia’s own stability and security.

stability their top priority, Russian policymakers are intent on keeping
the local regimes afloat by trying to contain the advance of Islamic
fundamentalism and prop up the region’s secular authorities. But these
two sets of policies appear to run at cross purposes – Moscow is going
out of its way to support those regimes which are, in effect, secular
dictatorships pure and simple: they are clannish, corrupt, repressive
and utterly averse to any kind of democratic reform. With their
political base remaining very narrow and claims to legitimacy rather
flimsy, the Central Asian regimes are potentially very brittle (as
Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated in 2005 and again this year) – with the ever
more alienated and impoverished populace becoming increasingly
Yet Russia, fixated as it is on the struggle
against “terrorists,” appears to be completely unprepared to deal with
any kind of large-scale political turmoil caused by the rising popular
discontent and the growing Islamization of the region. Arguably, the
Kremlin finds itself in a trap of its own making: for Russia, the only
way to make the region truly stable is to be able to act as an agent of
change, as a force for genuine modernization, cautiously nudging the
local authoritarian regimes to transform, democratize and broaden their
socio-political base. But the nature of Russia’s own political regime
effectively acts as a brake on this progressive kind of policy. As a
result, Moscow is compelled to act rather as a conservative force, which
seeks to forge ties with the local rulers and back up those regimes
that appear to be geopolitically loyal to the Kremlin.

repeated collapse of government in Kyrgyzstan (seemingly the “weakest
link” among the region’s authoritarian regimes) appears to indicate that
Moscow’s previous policies toward Central Asia have been deeply flawed.
Now, as the death toll in Kyrgyzstan mounts and the number of refugees
fleeing across the border into neighbouring Uzbekistan rises steeply,
Russia is faced with a painful policy dilemma. As Russia has long been
casting itself as the main provider of security in the post-Soviet
space, the Kyrgyz crisis appears to represent a moment of truth of sorts
when Moscow has to deliver. All the more so since the hapless
leadership in Bishkek openly acknowledged that it had lost control over
the situation and directly appealed to Russia for aid, asking for
peacekeeping troops to be urgently sent in.

If Russia doesn’t
step up to the plate, referring, as it recently did, to the crisis as an
“internal conflict,” it risks losing face, prestige and the right to
claim the leading role in the post-Soviet Eurasia. Yet finding the most
appropriate way to intervene is not an easy matter. Given Uzbekistan’s
wariness of any Russian move in the region, the Kremlin seems to
understand that any deployment in Kyrgyzstan is conceivable only within
the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

if Russia does decide to get involved into the Kyrgyz imbroglio it will
face different kinds of problems – not unlike those the U.S.-led
coalition is currently grappling with in Afghanistan. After all, today’s
Kyrgyzstan is a truly failed state: its interim central government is
extremely weak, lacks legitimacy and depends heavily on external aid,
while the impoverished population is suffering from a deepening economic
crisis and is harassed by all sorts of local thugs, criminal kingpins
and drug barons. On top of that, the country is divided along ethnic
fault-lines – particularly in the southern regions where the sizeable
Uzbek minority is concentrated. The continuing inter-ethnic violence in
the south of Kyrgyzstan risks undermining the already precarious
stability of the entire country and, in the worst-case scenario, the
stability of the neighboring countries as well.

Given the stakes
involved in any of the policy options, the choice Russia is facing is
tough indeed.