Democracy and Strategic Rivalry in Central Asia

In New York on Mar. 17, Philip Shishkin traces the arc of democratic promise and disappointment in Kyrgyzstan from 2005 to 2010. (5 min., 7 sec.)

NEW YORK, March 17, 2011 - The massive and often violent upheavals in Central Asia in recent years highlights the fragile state of the region's social and political condition, according to Philip Shishkin, Asia Society's Bernard Schwartz Fellow, at a panel of experts convened by the Asia Society in New York.

Citing in particular Kyrgyzstan's recent history of revolutions, Shishkin noted the Kyrgyz people's nomadic past and readiness to uproot when existing social and political systems are rendered no longer suitable. "When [the people] don't like a government they just pick up and leave or they tell the government to go." Kyrgyzstan's revolutions in 2005 and 2010 were both marked by a groundswell of support as a corrupt leader was ousted in a popular uprising, Shishkin noted, but brutal ethnic cleansing in 2010 is proof of the danger such swift changes in governance can create.

"The institutions, however corrupt and violent, of the old state were dismantled, and the institutions of a new state were not yet in place," Shishkin said. "All of the underlying conflicts that were frozen under a police state [in Kyrgyzstan] came to the surface. It's a cautionary tale for revolutions everywhere."

Also joining the panel, which was moderated by Anthony Richter, Associate Director of the Open Society Foundations and Director of the Foundation's Central Eurasia Project and Middle East & North Africa Initiative, was Stephen Blank, Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, who noted that the region is also the center of a strategic rivalry resembling the "great game" of the 19th and 20th centuries in the region. "Today we have a multi-dimensional game played by multiple players, all the great powers, and all the neighboring powers who have an interest in Central Asia," Blank noted.

The great power rivalry in Central Asia, Blank emphasized, is chiefly "three-sided," and involves the United States, Russia, and China. While energy security and the proliferation of narcotics are major concerns for both the United States and Russia, stabilizing Afghanistan and stemming the spread of violent extremism is the primary objective for both of these countries. China, however, whose empire once stretched into this region, will be the real future great player in today's great game in the region, according to Blank.

"China's Central Asian policy is essentially a projection outward of China's internal security," Blank argued, "The Chinese are deathly afraid that the 'contagion' of Islamic fundamentalism, nationalism, and terrorism will reach Xinjiang province, and the integrity of the state and the political system is a core interest of the officials in Beijing." The Chinese have invested heavily in the past twenty years in large economic development projects, expansion in trade, and investments in energy and infrastructure deals in a bid to preserve stability in Xinjiang and its Western provinces.

Related links:
Philip Shiskhin on
Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellows program

Reported by Kinza Hasan