The initial failure of Kyrgyzstan's new government to take control of the country, with the ousted president holding out in the south, has raised worrying prospects of further bloodshed in a strategic part of Central Asia, close to Afghanistan.
It would certainly have benefited everyone had Kurmanbek Bakiyev left the country immediately, allowing the opposition politician, Roza Otunbayeva, to make a fresh start. Instead he lingered on, speech-making in Osh near the Uzbek border, before finally leaving for Kazakhstan yesterday. We must hope the threat a stand-off posed to the Western airbase at Manas, which supplies Nato forces in Afghanistan, is over. But these are early days. The West will need to keep its eye on a country, which, though poor and small, holds a strategic position on the crossroads between Russia and China, and the West and Afghanistan.
Some see Russia's hand in Bakiyev's overthrow, citing the feelers that the Kremlin extended to Otunbayeva and the offer of a Russian loan. Such theorists believe Bakiyev angered the Kremlin by trying to strike a balancing act between Moscow and Washington and by allowing the Americans to retain Manas against Russia's wishes. Exciting stuff, worthy of a Le Carré novel, but misplaced. Bakiyev was no plucky independence leader, trying to wriggle out of the Russian bear's embrace. He was a corrupt leader whose inability to tackle his country's grinding poverty exhausted his people's patience. The Kyrgyz got rid of him, not the Russians – and if his successor has sounded a pro-Russian note, such words accord with the pragmatic sentiments of most Kyrgyz.
This confuses those Kremlinologists who tend to view Russia through East European and Baltic spectacles and assume its dominant role in any region must always be bitterly resented. But the Kyrgyz felt less liberated than abandoned after the Soviet Union collapsed, handed an independence they never demanded and left with few resources. Its main ace has been its strategic position. But far from using this to snuggle up to Washington, Bakiyev played hardball, wrangling over the rent for the airbase and threatening to evict the Americans if they didn't pay. After winning this poker game, Bakiyev gave up threats to close Manas. But the airbase is not a make-or-break issue for the Kremlin these days. Whatever Russia's deep misgivings about US bases being planted in former Soviet republics, it does not want to sabotage the Western military effort in Afghanistan and dreads a Taliban victory, appreciating the knock-on effect this would have on restive Muslim Chechnya. There has, in other words, been no great shift of the strategic tectonic plates along the old Silk Road as a result of events in Kyrgyzstan. The crisis has not created new opportunities for Russia in the region but has merely exposed a role it already had, a mostly stabilising one at that.
What we need now, therefore, is for the US and Russia to co-operate, not compete, in restoring peace to Kyrgyzstan. There are welcome signs that they are doing that; they worked together with Kazakhstan to get Bakiyev out of the country for a start. Now they need to go further, putting together an aid package well beyond Russia's offer of $50 million. Purses may be tight right now. But if the Kyrgyz receive no assurance that the future may be brighter than the dismal recent past, Islamic insurgents will scent the opportunity and try to establish a foothold in a part of Central Asia in which they have yet to make headway – an undesirable outcome for the region, for Russia, and for us too.