Shaun Walker: Why this far-flung republic is on West's radar

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The Independent Online

Kyrgyzstan is not at the top of most people's geopolitical radars. It does not have an abundance of natural resources like neighbouring Kazakhstan, and it has little trade with the West. Britain doesn't even have an embassy in the country.

But this doesn't mean it's not important. If the unrest in the country continues to escalate, there could be serious consequences both for the neighbouring Central Asian countries and for the world at large.

The small, landlocked territory has, in recent years, taken on significance as part of a battle for influence between Russia and the US. It remains the only country in the world where both powers have airbases.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev agreed to close the US base at Manas after Moscow offered him a huge loan, but then changed his mind when the Americans offered more money to keep the base open, making Moscow deeply unhappy.

Russia is believed to have fanned the flames of discontent against Mr Bakiyev, and the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, was the first to recognise the new government in Bishkek as legitimate.

Now, a renewed struggle for influence is going on with the new government. The US needs to keep Manas open to supply its troops in Afghanistan, and the new government has said that, for now, the lease on the base will be extended. But they have also made it clear that Moscow is Kyrgyzstan's leading ally.

Most worrying locally is Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous country, which shares a border with Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana Valley. The country is one of the most autocratic in the world and its ageing president, Islam Karimov, has had an iron grip on power since the fall of the Soviet Union. No dissent is tolerated, there is an all-pervasive atmosphere of fear, and analysts say that if there is an uprising there, it could be very bloody.

Five years ago in the Uzbek city of Andijan, just over the border from Osh, security forces opened fire on a crowd of protestors. There has never been an independent investigation, but it is believed that hundreds were killed. There has not been a major protest in the country since.

Violence involving Uzbeks just across the border in Kyrgyzstan will be a worrying sign for the Uzbek authorities, who will fear a spillover into their own territory.