Kyrgyzstan has become subject to both ethnic unrest and armed conflict between the ruling elites and Islamic groups. It is not, therefore, surprising that the corrupt and autocratic rulers of the Central Asian Muslim country have allowed both Russia and the US to maintain troops there as part of the international ‘war against terrorism'. The US, which uses its base to launch attacks on Afghanistan, pays an annual rent of US$2 million (£1.1 million sterling). But with the war in Afghanistan becoming more complex and expected to take much longer than originally planned, and the economic situation in Kyrgyzstan deteriorating, president Kurmanbek Bakayev is now demanding a much larger rent for the base.
Bakayev, who was first elected president last July, has publicly threatened to close down the US military base if Washington fails to agree to a huge increase in its rent. According to him, negotiations for an increased rent began in July. The US government knows that the base, including the airfield at Manas, enables it to maintain its military presence in a very important region, and should not quibble about paying a substantially greater rent. But it also knows that Bakayev values both the Russian and the US military presence in his country as useful aids to staying in power, especially now that both Islamic and nationalistic resistance to his rule is growing. But the US cannot be seen to succumb to Bakayev's demands, which explains why the US embassy in the capital, Bishkek, has refused to comment on the demand for more rent.
The US and Russia are not in competition over which of them dominates Kyrgyzstan, as they are in some countries. The two are happy to work together to prevent Islamic groups from acquiring power or even great political influence. Washington knows that for historical reasons, regional proximity and the presence of a large Russian population, Moscow is bound to have more influence in Kyrgyzstan. Of the population of approximately 5.1 million, 65 percent are of Turkic origin, 12.5 percent Russian, and 14 percent Uzbek; the remainder consists of Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars and Kazakhs. But as an indication of how strong Moscow's influence remains, Russian continues to be the country's official language, enjoying equal status with Kyrgyz, which has been an official language of the country only since 1991. However, Uzbek, which is spoken by a greater number of people (all Muslim), does not have this status.
Russia uses its military base and ethnic presence in Kyrgyzstan to prevent Islamic groups not only from acquiring political and economic power but also from transmitting military and financial assistance to the Islamic – and secular – resistance in Chechnya that is fighting for Chechnya's independence. But Russia is not the only country in the region trying to destroy or isolate Islamic groups in Kyrgyzstan. China, which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan (and in the distant past ruled it), is also anxious to prevent any assistance from being transmitted to fellow Muslims in China, who are also fighting for independence from Beijing. It comes as no surprise, either, that China is not competing with the US and Russia for influence but is, instead, cooperating closely with them.
The three "big powers" – normally wary of each other in their quest for global hegemony – commonly believe that political Islam can be a grave obstacle to their ambitions, and that Islamic groups working for Islamic revolutions must be resisted at all costs. The ‘war on terrorism' is a convenient cover which corrupt and autocratic Muslim rulers, such as Bakayev, can also be persuaded to adopt. But clearly the three foreign ‘intruders' are the real terrorists in Kyrgyzstan, considering the methods they are using to suppress Islamic resurgence in the former communist country. For example, they stir the ethnic unrest in the country to divide the Muslim population. The tension between the Kyrgyz people and the Uzbeks, which since independence has occasionally flared into violence, is encouraged. But no such encouragement is evident in the case of non-Muslim ethnic groups, which are instead encouraged to spy on and conspire against Islamic groups.
The three Western powers also encourage the country's security and military forces to clash with Islamic activists, particularly near the border with Tajikistan. It is easier for Russia and theUS to back the assaults on Islamic groups as they have troops of their own in the country. The government is clearly happy to receive such help. Its anti-Islamic bias is shown by the fact that publications by Islamic groups are banned in the country.
When president Bakayev was a member of the opposition, he was openly opposed to the corrupt and autocratic rule of his communist predecessor, Askar Aliyev. He took a leading role in removing him from power by a popular uprising. But he is himself now just as corrupt and anti-Islamic, and may well suffer a similar fate. In contrast, the country's Islamic groups deserve much better treatment than they are getting, not only from the government but also from opposition politicians and secular organisations.
After all, it was the Islamic activists that fought the Russian occupiers and drove them out. They were widely praised for this achievement, and many of Kyrgyzstan's people continue to admire them. However, they are now targeted as terrorists by the secular establishment and its foreign backers. But fortunately they are not discouraged or dismayed; instead they are determined to continue to resist.