The Oil and the Glory

Why isn’t anyone taking Kyrgyzstan’s calls?

Why isn’t anyone taking Kyrgyzstan’s calls?

Kyrgyzstan is in an unfamiliar, lonely position for a state on the much-fought-over southern rim of the former Soviet Union. The country has issued a call for the help of a superpower, any superpower, in implicit exchange for all the influence a savior can handle — and there are no takers. A reasonable amount of humanitarian aid has arrived from both the U.S. and Russia, but not the muscle necessary to end Kyrgyzstan’s current crisis, in which President Roza Otunbayeva says as many as 2,000 people have been slaughtered in the south of the country.

This is strange: Kyrgyzstan has never before had much trouble attracting the attention of great powers. In his 1938 classic Alone in the Forbidden Land, former Austrian prisoner of war Gustav Krist describes a winter spent in yurts with what he calls the Free Kyrgyz before they flee on horseback over the Chinese border in front of the Red Army. Fifty-five years later, the International Monetary Fund got the Kyrgyz to lead the way toward post-Soviet independence by dumping the ruble — and hence Russia — and creating Central Asia’s first independent currency.

That was the first salvo in an almost two-decade rumble between the United States and Russia over influence in the oil-drenched Caucasus and Central Asia, pipeline politicking that still goes on today. Most recently, the two countries have been tussling over whose military base will endure in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. Manas Air Base or Russia’s Kant. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal‘s Greg White published today, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered his view that Kant will prevail, diplomatically stating that Manas should not be considered a "permanent" installation. (Next week, Medvedev travels to Washington for his first state visit to the United States, although Kyrgyzstan no doubt won’t occupy much of his face time with President Barack Obama.)

But since the ethnic clashes began last weekend, the playing ground for the fabled Great Game seems to have suddenly fallen off everyone’s map. In a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, Otunbayeva asked directly for U.S. military assistance. But the United States signaled that it wasn’t in the cards. Otunbayeva then turned to Moscow, a development that I initially viewed as the United States explicitly ceding Kyrgyz turf to Russia after years of implicitly suggesting that Kyrgyzstan and the rest of Central Asia was safely in American hands. But Russia gave her the cold shoulder, too.

The dual U.S. and Russian rejections say something different from the traditional zero-sum understanding of Great Power calculus, not just to Kyrgyzstan but to the rest of the region: They say that the Great Game is ultimately one of convenience, and nothing more. It’s a harsh message, but probably a useful one for the Central Asians, and all resource-rich nations that are targets of foreign courtship.