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Powers caught up in central Asia's new 'great game'

The Guardian - June 16, 2010

Simon Tisdall If recent history is any guide, the ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to be prolonged or to spark a wider conflagration in neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Similar outbreaks ignited by disputes over land, food prices and poll results across the divided Fergana Valley in 1990 and 2005 eventually subsided.

But these precedents offer scant comfort to the big powers Russia, China and the US whose economic, security and strategic interests are affected by central Asian instability.

Kyrgyzstan's unresolved problems poverty, ethnic and tribal rivalries, north-south divisions and the spread of Islamist ideology mean the next crisis is never far away.

Russia is believed to have triggered the latest upheavals by undermining the now-deposed president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Moscow's motives include control of key energy and transit routes and a desire to maintain, or restore, its pre-eminence in the former Soviet sphere.

But speaking after Russia helped consolidate the April putsch that overthrew Mr Bakiyev, President Dmitry Medvedev tacitly acknowledged the perils inherent in the interventionist policy espoused by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"We wanted to intervene in a situation that is ultimately another country's sovereign affair in order to prevent bloodshed," Mr Medvedev said. "As for whether this kind of situation could arise in other countries in the post-Soviet area ... anything is possible ... [it] could repeat itself anywhere."

Kyrgyzstan stands astride vital routes to China's central Asian export markets, notably Kazakhstan. More significantly, given the recurring unrest in China's western, largely Muslim, province of Xinjiang, the ethnic Uighur population of Kyrgyzstan is estimated at up to a quarter of a million. That makes the country's stability a key security concern for Beijing.

Author Richard Lourie, writing in The Moscow Times, said a new "great game" was under way in central Asia. During World War I, he said, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany had tried to instigate a Muslim jihad against British India. Now, China fears similar Islamist agitation spreading from the Fergana Valley into its territory. China is also mindful of defending its spreading pipeline network.

Amid these complex machinations and calculations, the Obama administration, not for the first time, looks like something of a helpless bystander. The US military base at Manas, logistically important for Afghan war supplies, is Washington's foremost concern, whatever it may mumble about self-determination and human rights.

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