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Cuddling With the Bear: Will the Recent Shift of Power in Kyrgyzstan Give Russia Tighter Control in Central Asia?

Map of Central Asian Portion of Commonwealth of Independent States and EnvironsAs the dust settles around new Kyrgyz President-elect Almazbek Atambayev, the focus shifts onto how he might shape the future of Kyrgyz-Russian relations. With Russia looking toward a stronger role in Central Asia, the pro-Russian Atambayev's election might just mean a Russian diplomatic victory. But as is often the case in the vast, politically-charged expanse of Central Asia, the renewed affair between the two countries is perhaps more complicated than it seems. The vote in Kyrgyzstan came about a month after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin outlined his ambitious plans for a Eurasian Union, a supranational body somewhat akin to the European Union and "poised," Putin said in his article in Izvestia, introducing the idea, "to become a pole in the modern world." While Putin has downplayed concerns from observers that he wants to reincarnate the Soviet Union, he has underscored the wide-ranging economic and, eventually, political integration such a union would seek to establish. And Central Asia, naturally, is just the region he plans to pull in.

Yet while in many ways it has remained part of Russia's sphere of privileged influence, the region has nonetheless been the site of recent strategic tussles between global powers ­ painted by many analysts as the new "Great Game." With the United States, China and, to a lesser extent, Europe and the Middle East looking to also plant stakes in the region, Russia's influence there has increasingly come into question. And Kyrgyzstan, at times, has been a considerable thorn in its side. The only country in the world to host both U.S. and Russian military bases, it has attempted in the past to strike a difficult balancing act between American and Russian interests. Later in his presidency, former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, toppled in 2010, had bounced back and forth between supporting the U.S. Manas Transit Center and Russia's Kant military base ­ irking the Kremlin as well as the White House.

Those days, however, might be over. As Atambyev ascends to the Kyrgyz presidency, his policy moves will likely pull Kyrgyzstan closer to its erstwhile Soviet caretaker, which would head both the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as well as the Eurasian Union itself ­ both of which Kyrgyzstan is expected to join. And if Atambayev's personal position toward the Russian leadership is any reflection ­ he proposed to name one of the country's tallest mountains Vladimir Putin Peak ­ it may not be long before Kyrgyzstan is firmly within Russian hands.

Sure enough, one of Atambayev's first announcements after the elections was that he would see to it that the United States withdraws from Manas. While he stressed that Kyrgyzstan would honor its international agreements, he sees no reason for the United States to retain its presence there beyond 2014, when NATO forces are set to withdraw from Afghanistan. "I do not think the military base in Manas ensures the safety of our country," RIA Novosti quoted Atambayev as saying. "I would not want to see any other country strike the base in a retaliatory move. A civilian airport is a civilian object, and it must remain so." On Kant, curiously, he has remained silent, suggesting the Russian base poses no problems.

But though experts agree that Atambayev is undoubtedly pro-Russian, they said there's more to what meets the eye. Erica Marat, a security expert at the Washington D.C.-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, said the newly minted president realizes the consequences that may come from getting too close with Moscow. "He's ideologically pro-Russian ­ not only in terms of economic and political interests," she said. "But even though he will be very pro-Russian, he will still try to maintain some contacts with the West, because he understands that unless he has a balanced foreign policy, the Russians will always have the upper hand."

Part of the closeness, Marat said, is a result of Atamabyev's political acumen within the realm of post-Soviet politics. But she added that while Atambayev knows his way around politics involving Russia, he has had little exposure to Western politics and remains inexperienced in dealing with potential American or European allies. "Atambayev has very good relations with Putin. He knows how to talk with Putin, and he knows what sort of language to use," said Marat. "He doesn't have this sense with Western partners."

Whether such inexperience will leave him vulnerable to Russian pressure remains to be seen. One thing, however, is for certain: the lure of Putin's ambitious integration plans will continue to be a powerful force, especially as the United States pitches its own "New Silk Road" project ­ to be implemented as it withdraws from Afghanistan ­ as a means to offset Russian influence by establishing key Central Asian trade routes. Analysts have long painted Putin's efforts as a masked ploy to pull former Soviet states back into Moscow's orbit.

But Kyrgyzstan seems to have few other options. Former interim President Roza Otubayeva, herself often depicted as moderately pro-Western, even conceded that Kyrgyzstan's future lies within Russian-dominated organizations, largely because of the country's economic and security concerns and its long history with Russia. According to Marat, even if Atambayev does attempt to balance relations between East and West, his hands may be tied by Russia's political influence and Kyrgyzstan's limited economic activity. "It looks pretty obvious to most people that the Customs Union is more of a political union. It's not so much economic ­ economy comes after political alignment. By joining the Customs Union, these countries are showing that they support Russia politically," she said. "For Kyrgyzstan it is sort of a trap. Kyrgyzstan doesn't really have many choices."


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