Though the news was overshadowed by the sensational London bombings of July 7, the geostrategic pivot of the world shifted against the United States in Central Asia over the past week.
Following last week’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, two Central Asian nations signaled they want U.S. bases used in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan removed from their territory.
Kyrgyzstan announced it wanted U.S. bases out of the country. Its ambassador to Russia, Apas Jumagulov, said the United States must give up its base in the Central Asian republic, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
“The American base is losing its relevance, and this is an issue to be negotiated,” he said. “This was predictable.”
But Mr. Jumagulov also told a Moscow press conference the Russian base near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, should remain.
The announcement came less than a week after President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan signaled that he wanted the United States out of Khanabad air base, and would not let American forces move anywhere else in the country.
“Any other prospects for a U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan were not considered by the Uzbek side,” a Foreign Ministry statement from Tashkent said.
The two announcements amounted to the biggest blow to the U.S. position in Central Asia in the nearly four years since the terrorist attacks of September 11 led the Bush administration to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It was the drive to establish supporting air bases in Central Asia for the Afghan war that led the United States to become a direct player in the region for the first time.
Ironically, neither announcement was the result of terrorist attacks or of pressure from Iran, Hizb ut-Tahrir, al Qaeda or any other entity hostile to the United States. They were a backlash against, and a direct consequence of, President Bush’s attempts to foster the spread of democracy in the region.
Messrs. Karimov in Uzbekistan and Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan were alarmed that U.S. diplomatic pressure and Washington’s encouragement of the activities of nongovernmental organizations was destabilizing their countries and threatening to open the way for takeovers by Islamic extremists.
Islamic influence is believed to have been significant in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, where the disturbances began that led to the toppling in March this year of President Askar Akayev, in power since 1991. Mr. Bakiyev took over as interim president and moved fast to secure close ties with Russia, the traditional power broker in the region.
Mr. Karimov was outraged at U.S. criticism of him for human rights abuses following large-scale disturbances in the city of Andijan on May 13 that left hundreds dead.
The Uzbeks say, and the Russians also believe, that the protests were not peaceful, democratic activities similar to those that fueled the popular movements in Georgia and Ukraine, but planned and coordinated attempts by Islamist radicals to shatter state control and topple the government.
The governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan only acted against Washington after being assured of support by Russia and China at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana last week.
The SCO was founded in its current form on June 15, 2001, in Shanghai. It comprises China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and its explicit aim is to maintain “multipolarity” — diplomatic code for preventing the creation of a U.S.-led, “unipolar” system, in Central Asia. The SCO ended its Astana summit with a call for shutting U.S. air bases in the region, a call that Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have already responded to.
Back in May, Mr. Karimov had prepared for this move by announcing Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the pro-Western GUUAM bloc of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova — former Soviet republics that had all previously wanted to get out of the Russian sphere of influence and into that of the United States, NATO and the European Union.
Until May, Mr. Karimov in fact had exemplified the Central Asian post-communist model of playing off Russia and China against the United States and the European Union.
But, as analyst Michael Weinstein wrote in Asia Times Online this Wednesday, “The picture changed in 2004 and 2005 as a result of the successful regime changes in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine and, most important, of Kyrgyzstan, which awakened Central Asian leaders — including the new regime in Kyrgyzstan, which faces determined opposition — to their vulnerability.”
Russian experts agree with this analysis.
“The fundamental question for Karimov is how to avoid a revolution,” analyst Alexei Makarkin wrote for RIA Novosti in an article also carried by UPI.
“That was uppermost in his mind well before ‘the Rose Revolution’ in Georgia, to say nothing of Ukraine’s ‘Orange’ version. In fact, at the turn of the century, Karimov had two choices for preventing a possible revolution, which can tentatively be described as ‘the Western choice’ and ‘the Russo-Chinese option.’
“In Uzbekistan, the basic alternative to power is in effect radical Islamists allowed to legalize themselves by the Western recipe. These were the same forces that engineered the revolt in Andijan,” Mr. Makarkin wrote.
“… Political logic therefore pushed Karimov toward the ‘Russo-Chinese’ recipe, which means betting not on democratization, but on stability, a strong hand, and preservation of the incumbent regime.”
The clear statements of Presidents Karimov and Bakiyev, coming so soon after the Astana summit, therefore signal that the spread of U.S. influence in Central Asia, which had seemed unstoppable in recent years, has now been stopped and possibly reversed.
Ironically, the leaders of Central Asia had welcomed the arrival of U.S. military bases which, they believed, would protect them against popular Islamist threats to their stability. But now they fear this cure is liable to bring on the disease or kill the patient.
Their fear is that the Bush administration’s drive to democratize Central Asia will topple them all, and open the way for extreme Islamist regimes.
Washington’s loss has been a gain for Moscow and Beijing. They are the real beneficiaries of the backlash against the U.S. drive to democratize the region, and the winners of this round of the great game to control the heart of Eurasia.