BISHKEK and KANT – On October 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov spent seven crucial hours in Kyrgyzstan meeting Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev and opening a Russian military base in Kant, described by the minister as “a deterrent to international terrorism.”

Is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) about to turn the contiguous alpine republic into a caliphate? Not really. Putin said that “on the whole, the current military and political situation in Central Asia is stable. However, one should remember the possibility of terror attacks from the outside.”

The Kant base, only a 20-minute drive from the capital Bishkek, was built in World War II for rear support to the Soviet Air Force. During the Soviet era, foreign pilots studying at Frunze College trained at Kant: one of them was the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad. Kyrgyzstan has granted Russia all the infrastructure of the base. Russia has spent US$3.3 million in reconstruction, and will spend $10 million more to modernize it, apart from an annual $5 million in maintenance. The Russians will station five Su-27 fighter jets, seven Su-25 bombers, two Il-76, one An-26 military cargo and one L-39 training plane at the base. Kyrgyzstan will have five planes and two helicopters.

Putin himself made another fine distinction on his visit to Kant: the American military base at Manas airport in the country is engaged in the stabilization of Afghanistan; the Kant airbase will take care of security of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries in their southern borders. Colonel General Boris Mylnikov, the head of the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center in Bishkek, holds the same view: the threat to Central Asia comes from Islamic fundamentalists operating in the south.

Kyrgyz – nomads who came to Islam only in the 15th century, and for whom an al-Qaeda worldview is totally alien – are comfortable with that view. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, bright young officials are more worried about “peaceful Sinification” – the very real possibility of an invasion by get-rich-quick immigrant Han Chinese. Nonetheless, trade with China remains essential. Almost all goods imported by Kyrgyzstan come from China, via the Torugart pass. When China temporarily closed its borders because of SARS, thousands of Kyrgyz lost their jobs.

China has shown what Kyrgyz define as “self-control and wisdom” as far as both the American and Russian bases are concerned. In a recent visit to Bishkek, Jiany Hong, a female Chinese general, stressed that the American and Russian bases will not affect further military cooperation with Kyrgyzstan – which will be concentrated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Kyrgyz military leaders cheerfully speculate that sooner or later China may also try to open its own air base in the country.

From Russia, Kyrgyz expect above all lots of investment in hydro-electricity, the mining industry and agricultural processing – although the latest agreements were basically related to transport and power engineering. Kyrgyz place great hopes in the Eurasian Economic Community – which at the moment consists of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Belarus, with Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova as observers. Average annual investment in Kyrgyzstan has been a mere $100 million since 1995, but that represents 7 percent of the gross domestic product.

Washington was obviously not pleased with the news from Kant. Kyrgyz point to some very visible consequences. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) office in Bishkek has become tougher towards Kyrgyzstan. And the State Department has opened its own independent printing house – which means opposition newspapers will be back in full force.

Kyrgyz are very pragmatic and have no historical hang-ups: it’s easy for a foreign visitor to catch himself in a Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” mood. The country’s greatest writer, Chingiz Aitmatov, insists that Russian is the key language link for Central Asia’s common development: this has nothing to do with preserving national culture, he says. It was only on August 16 that Vladimir Lenin’s statue in Biskek’s Ala-Too square was finally toppled – replaced by an independence statue. Bishkek has its eyes glued on Moscow: like every other CIS leader, Akayev has not said a single word on the arrest in Russia of Yukos chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Kyrgyz and Kazakhs are essentially the same people. Both these descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde migrated south from Siberia. The Kyrgyz – originally called Kara-Kyrgyz – chose to live in the mountains. The Kazakhs chose to live in the steppes. Before the October Revolution of 1917, they were both Kyrgyz – as far as the Russians were concerned. Once again, it was Josef Stalin who imposed on them a geographical and ethnic divide.

Modern problems may essentially be attributed to a combination of Stalin’s demented mapmaking and the IMF’s dreadful structural adjustment policies. Few Kyrgyz ever joined the Communist Party – even after being tamed by the iron hand of Stalinism: this means that when the Soviet republic became independent in 1991, there were very few Kyrgyz bureaucrats and technology experts. Stalin’s bouts with geography led to the country being split in the middle. Russians are settled in the north and in the largest cities; Uzbeks dominate Osh and the south. The Uzbeks, linked to the ultra-sensitive Fergana Valley (more later in this series), form a powerful economic and business lobby in Osh, but are completely excluded from political power in Bishkek.

Akayev, whom Kyrgyz mockingly refer to as “Papa,” was a researcher in St Petersburg and an associate of legendary Russian physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. He bears the distinction of being the one and only non-communist elected as president of a Central Asian republic in free and fair elections, in 1991. But independence revealed itself to be an economic disaster: Kyrgyzstan, famously described as being able to feed the entire Soviet Union, suddenly lost its market for dairy products. Akayev went Western: in 1993 Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian republic to privatize state-owned business and land (90 percent of state firms have already been privatized) and to adopt IMF policies. And in 1998 it became the first Central Asian republic to join the World Trade Organization.

The problem is Kyrgyzstan’s vulnerability: it depends on neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for oil, gas and coal, and Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov can be a very moody leader. Inevitably, Kyrgyzstan’s external debt started to grow: thanks to the IMF it is now the largest debt per capita of any Central Asian republic. The result has been massive loss of jobs and increased poverty, affecting 60 percent of the population, according to World Bank figures.

With the economic situation deteriorating and political opposition growing, Akayev’s only possible exit strategy was to turn from democrat to autocrat. Faced with the threat of a mass exodus by the Russians, Akayev set up a Slavic University in Bishkek (there is also an American University), and in 1999 named Russian as a second national language. Karimov forced Akayev to repress Islamic fundamentalism: Akayev arrested dozens of people and forced all mosques and religious schools to be state-registered. China for its part forced Akayev to repress Uighurs. And so the Kyrgyz dream of religious and political tolerance came to an abrupt end – largely by pressure from its undemocratic neighbors.

But ironically it was thanks to the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, closely aligned with the Taliban, and which considers Karimov its bete noire, that Akayev managed to achieve one of his cherished goals: a greater economic cooperation between Russia and Central Asia (Karimov was always against it). As a side effect of the “war on terror,” Kyrgyzstan has become a de facto key pawn for Russia, the US and China in the New Great Game. Thus the American base at Manas, the Russian base at Kant, and the Chinese base somewhere in the future.

German political scientists consider the diverse Central Asian authoritarian models as an objective and inevitable phenomenon – especially now that policies of the European Union, for example – as well as America’s – are all geared towards fighting radical Islam. The Kyrgyz army was basically re-equipped with EU money. Regimes like Akayev’s are thriving with the West’s security obsession. This means that no one in Washington or Brussels – and forget about Moscow or Beijing – is bound to mention the words “democracy” and “Central Asia” in the same phrase for a long, long time.