A power struggle between local oligarchies and a variable element in the “Great Game” being played out in Central Asia between America, Russia and China. This is the opinion expressed by Tiberio Graziani, editor-in-chief of the geopolitical magazine Eurasia, on the recent political turbulence in Kirghizstan. At the beginning of April President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was removed from power following a series of revolts and street clashes marked by violence with at least 80 people killed and over 500 wounded. Five years ago it had been Bakiyev himself, who has now taken refuge in Minsk under the protection of the Byelorussian head of state Aleksander Lukashenko, who had come to power using street protests in which a number of people were killed, removing his predecessor Askar Akayev after what was renamed the “Tulip Revolution.”
Interview by Matteo Tacconi.
What exactly has happened in Kirghizstan?
What happened was that President Bakyiev was removed by a number of his own ministers, using the same methods that Bakyiev himself had used to oblige Akayev to resign. This indicates that there is a power struggle within the political elite. The issue lies in the fact that there are factions fighting for control of power, the economy and the state institutions.
Did it ever cross your mind that five years after the “Tulip revolution” there would be another regime change in Kirghizstan?
When one thinks that Kirghizstan is the poorest and most fragile of post-Soviet Central Asian countries, these events are not surprising. Geopolitical issues have also encouraged internal destabilisation. This country is historically “Eurasia’s soft underbelly” and is situated within the “crisis area” extending from Egypt to Pakistan. In both cases I am quoting the American political analyst Zbigniew Brzesinski, Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor and now a trusted advisor to Barack Obama. All in all, from a geopolitical perspective the country is the crossroads of great interests.
Do you think that Bakyiev’s overthrow was caused by the rivalry between America and Russia in this region?
The United States uses the air base of Manas, leased after the beginning of the conflict in Kabul, to resupply and support troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. Russia too has a leased base in the country, the one in Kant. For different reasons, whether the war in Afghanistan or the hegemony in their ‘backyard’, both Washington and Moscow consider Kirghizstan a crucial junction. The same applies to China, which borders Kirghizstan and more specifically its most problematic province, the Xinjiang. It is obvious that there is a strong link between domestic politics and the geopolitical aspects, with geopolitics affecting internal politics, the choices made by the oligarchy in power and the oligarchy working to gain power.
What point has been reached in the “Great Game” in Central Asia?
I see two formations. On one side the Americans leading the Atlantic alliance, and on the other the Russians and the Chinese. Contrary to what is believed, Moscow and Beijing are more allies than rivals, and it is my impression that in recent years these two countries have established a strong bond. The cause of this is the American presence in Afghanistan. If America were not there, there would be no cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. The Russian-Chinese axis has every interest to ensure that Central Asia remains stable and hence militarily it contains the USA, which instead would benefit from a lack of stability. America is contained both militarily and economically. From a Russian and Chinese perspective, in fact, globalisation and liberalist policies do not mean progress, but are rather a means of political and then military penetration by the West. China and Russia are starting to see the results of these tactics, if it is true that since 2006 there has been a tendency by countries belonging to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, a regional organisation that China and Russia belong to together with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan), to try and enlarge the group to include Iran and perhaps Pakistan. In my opinion, it is an attempt to create a form of opposition to America and NATO, which tend to “encroach.” Furthermore, one very interesting geopolitical phenomenon, and one linked directly to this opposition, is Turkey’s new foreign policy. Ankara has recently started to turn more towards the East, in search of a more autonomous path than the western one traditionally pursued by the republican establishment, now in opposition. In the same way, I believe that the 2008 Russian-Georgian war was a tessera in the Great Game. At the time, by intervening militarily, Moscow intended to launch a clear message against western interference in the post-Soviet region and in Eurasia in general.
Were you to predict a new revolution, an imminent coup or a fall of institutions in Central Asia, which country would you choose?
Apart from Kirghizstan, the other unknown factor is Tajikistan, which could become a destabilised country. Like Kirghizstan, the economy is weak, there are strong political tensions and an overall fragility, with oligarchic groups opposing one another and significant geopolitical interests at stake.
Translated by Francesca Simmons