Kyrgyzstan at the Hub of Superpowers’ Plans

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BBC News

Kyrgyzstan at the Hub of Superpowers’ Plans

by
Nick Childs

The Manas base in Kyrgyzstan is vital for US troops in Afghanistan. (AFP)

Reports of violence in the capital of Kyrgyzstan have prompted
the US embassy there to express deep concern, and the Russian
government to call for restraint.

These reactions help underline the strategic significance of Kyrgyzstan and the region it occupies.

Kyrgyzstan

has found itself in the cockpit of what has been dubbed the new "great
game" in the region - so-called because the modern big powers jostling
for influence there appear reminiscent of the 19th Century contest
between the British and Russian empires over access to India.

It
has been a scramble for access to energy and other natural resources,
trade routes, and more recently Western supply routes for operations in
Afghanistan.

For Kyrgyzstan - one of the poorest of the neighbours in this region
- the chief international focus has been access for military bases.

The

Manas air base

has become a key strategic staging post for the US military in Afghanistan - especially after the closure of the so-called

K2 base in Uzbekistan

.

That
itself followed the souring of relations between the US and Uzbek
governments in 2005, after the Uzbek authorities cracked down violently
on an internal threat posed by Islamic militants.

But the
sensitivities have been growing - not least from Moscow, as the US-led
operations in Afghanistan, and therefore also Washington's military
interest in the region, have become ever more prolonged.

The Kyrgyz authorities have played Washington off against Moscow.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev

had already been pressing Washington for significant increases in the rental payments for Manas.

But in early 2009, on the back of a Russian promise of a huge aid package, he announced that the base would close.

It took a personal intervention by President Barack Obama to keep
the Manas base open to the Americans. Even then it was on a compromise
basis, under which Manas was to be described as a "transit centre".

But
the bumpy nature of relationships in the region has helped fuel a
debate over how much commitment the West - and especially the US -
should have in the region in the long term, particularly if operations
in Afghanistan eventually tail off.

There are broader Western
concerns about stability, governance, access to energy, and worries
about the spread of Islamic militancy there.

But how these
should be translated into long-term policy, against the background of
Russian, Chinese and other local sensitivities, is very much open to
question.

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