The country that stands most affected, aside from Russia, by a color revolution in Kyrgyzstan is China. Kyrgyzstan shares a long, porous 1,063-kilometer border with China’s Xinjiang that snakes its way across towering mountain ridges and peaks of the Tian Shan range, with two border crossings at the Torugart Pass (3,752 meters) and the Erkeshtam Pass (3,005 meters)
For a variety of reasons, Kyrgyzstan’s stability is of vital importance to China. The Soviet era had largely assimilated the tiny Uighur community in Kyrgyzstan into a Russian-speaking society. But there has been a churning after the collapse of the USSR, with the arrival of Uighurs fleeing Xinjiang.
Kyrgyzstan’s Uighur minority are the remnants of the vast Uighur Empire, which toward the 8th century stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria and was eventually overrun by the tribes that became today’s Kyrgyz, with most Uighurs migrating into China and some staying back in the Ferghana Valley.
Bishkek walks a fine line by discouraging the Uighur organizations sympathetic to or linked in their sympathies with Uighur separatism. The activities of the Uighur diaspora are a matter of high sensitivity for Beijing after several violent incidents targeting Chinese government representatives in Bishkek.
More important, perhaps, Kyrgyzstan is a gateway for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. A Xinjiang-Uzbekistan railway line is yet to materialize as it lacks a full Kyrgyz link.
Differences over financing and the perennial problem of track-gauge size held up the highly strategic BRI project, which could provide the shortest route for China to trade with Europe and the Middle East, saving at least five days compared with the traditional route via Kazakhstan’s Khorgos.
China has grand ideas of extending the rail line through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey to Europe, which could also help transport Kyrgyzstan’s coal, gold, aluminum, iron, and other mineral resources to the world market.
Interestingly, the new Kyrgyz prime minister, Sadyr Japarov, hails from the northeastern Issyk-Kul region, which is surrounded by the Northern Tian Shan Mountains that open into Xinjiang via the Torugart Pass.
It is inconceivable that Japarov’s name doesn’t ring familiar to the Chinese ear. Beijing would have watched with interest his ascendancy to the Kyrgyz presidency.
Beijing would have been in consultation with Moscow, which has, apart from a key military base in Kant, a Soviet-era facility at the Issyk-Kul lake’s east end for testing submarine and torpedo technology.
Yet, like the curious incident in the Sherlock Holmes story of the dog that did nothing in the nighttime when the eponymous racehorse Silver Blaze got stolen, Beijing remained impassive when all hell broke loose in Bishkek and Japarov rose like Phoenix from the ashes to be the monarch of all he surveys in Kyrgyzstan.
Beijing puts faith in Moscow’s capacity to be the provider of security for Central Asia and as the metro of the region’s political elites.
To be sure, Russia and China would do what it takes to ensure the US did not consolidate a security presence in Kyrgyzstan. In all likelihood, they suspected a classic color revolution brewing in the country.
The US Embassy in Bishkek behaved rather strangely, to say the least.
It issued a statement on October 5 highlighting the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observer mission’s assessment that “a number of civil-society organizations, international observers, and political parties, including those parties that will be represented in the next parliament, also expressed concerns regarding reported irregularities in the democratic electoral process.
“We urge the Kyrgyz authorities to investigate alleged electoral violations and to address further improvements to legislation.”
Indeed, large-scale protests soon erupted. And the US-government media, social media, et al jumped into the fray to fuel the protests.
On October 7, even as protesters forced the resignation of the Speaker, prime minister and key security officials in Bishkek, the US Embassy threw caution to the winds with a second statement declaring, “The United States stands with the Kyrgyz people as they make decisions about their future, the composition of their government, and how and when elections are organized.”
The statement concluded: “The events of the last few days are a reflection of internal political dynamics, not external ones. We call on all of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors and international partners to refrain from violating its sovereignty during this delicate moment in its national history.”
The tone had completely changed, assuming that the color revolution was rising to a crescendo. The implicit warning to Russia gave the story away.
But then something terrible happened – Japarov’s emergence. Radio Liberty wrote a vengeful commentary on Japarov condemning him as an interloper.
And the US Embassy came out with a third statement on October 13, lamenting that the “democratic progress of Kyrgyz people was under threat from an attempt by organized crime groups to exert influence over politics and elections.”
The statement exhorted the Kyrgyz people, “Citizens and their leaders must continue to fight against the influence of organized crime and corruption in politics. The ultimate goal must be to uphold the Kyrgyz Constitution and rule of law.”
It concluded: “The United States stands with the Kyrgyz people during this time and urges all of the Kyrgyz Republic’s neighbors and international partners to respect Kyrgyz Republic’s sovereignty as the Kyrgyz people work to resolve these issues internally and without violence.”
Indeed, by then, Kremlin envoy Dmitry Kozak had already come and gone with some message from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Thus Moscow summarily aborted a color revolution in Kyrgyzstan for a second time, 15 years after the “Tulip Revolution.”
This new color revolution got the green light after a Central Asia tour by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February when he co-chaired in Tashkent a meeting of the so-called C5+1, comprising the Central Asian nations and the US.
A Voice of America (VOA) report wryly commented at that time that “perhaps the most important country in the (C5+1) discussions was the one that wasn’t there – China.”
Pompeo met individually with each of the five Central Asian foreign ministers. He said, “The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this [Chinese] repression. We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China. Protect human dignity. Just do what’s right.”
The VOA commentary noted with prescience, “The issues are not insignificant in a region which lies at the strategic crossroads of Afghanistan, China, Iran and Russia.… Washington has long maintained that it does not want to compete with Russia and China in the region. But its growing emphasis on Chinese practices and public calls for Central Asian countries to re-evaluate their interactions with Beijing threaten to undermine that argument.”
Pompeo couldn’t comprehend that the Central Asian states are unlikely to heed his call to re-evaluate their growing relations with China significantly.
The failure of the color revolution in Kyrgyzstan comes as a blow to the United States’ standing in Central Asia. The ease with which the Kremlin derailed the Kyrgyz color revolution, despite its preoccupations over Nagorno-Karabakh, carries a big message regionally.
This is a follow-up article to one published on October 16. Read it here. M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.