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An Imitation Empire

At the height of the slaughter in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, Federal Drug Control Service chief Viktor Ivanov’s only comment was that a Russian military base may be established in the city to add to the one already in Kant, just outside Bishkek. Ivanov’s suggestion underscores what journalist Alexander Golts calls Russia’s “imitation empire.”

The Kyrgyz are slaughtering Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. If Russia is an empire — with the white man’s burden and all that jazz — it must send troops. If it is not an empire, then the poor Kyrgyz and Uzbeks can sort out their own problems.

To make matters worse, Osh is a hotbed of fundamentalism. Many of the radical Islamic fundamentalists who Uzbek President Islam Karimov kicked out of Uzbekistan now live in Osh. This is why Uzbekistan is in no hurry to get involved and even remains reluctant to accept refugees, fearing that the fundamentalists will sneak in along with the refugees.

What could Ivanov’s military base possibly accomplish in Osh? Help traffic heroin? Rent military armored personnel carriers to violent gangs to help them carry out pogroms?

When Askar Akayev was deposed as Kyrgyz president in 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev ran to Moscow. The Kremlin bet on Bakiyev since he was the weaker figure in Kyrgyz politics at the time. They could have instead supported Bakiyev’s stronger contender, Felix Kulov, but the Kremlin got scared and chose the weaker guy. What Russia and Kyrgyzstan got in the end was a drug dealer and a con artist.

The problem is that Kyrgyzstan is only the tip of the iceberg. Ever since the Russians abandoned Kyrgyzstan, all of Central Asia is deteriorating into something akin to what equatorial Africa turned into after the British left.

Kyrgyzstan is the first to go down the drain because it was created as a phantom state by Stalin. It was a land of valleys and mountains and was divided into clans and families along geographical barriers. The Ferghana Valley in the south — the best piece of real estate in the country — was divided between Uzbeks, Tajiks and the Kyrgyz in a way that made the current conflict inevitable.

Kyrgyzstan is already a failed state, but other Central Asian nations are catching up. There is Turkmenistan, which was home to Saparmurat Niyazov — or Turkmenbashi (“the leader of all Turkmen”) — the first post-Soviet president who built himself a gold statue that used to revolve 360 degrees every 24 hours so that it always faced the sun. It seems that Niyazov’s personal physician, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and the country’s chief of security conspired to unseat Turkmenbashi, but Niyazov conveniently died. The physician proceeded to become the new leader and sent the chief of security to prison.

In addition, there is Uzbekistan, a mix of stiff Communist has-beens and holdovers from Central Asian feudalism. The Turkmen scenario can easily be repeated in Uzbekistan — and Uzbekistan is soaked in Islamic fundamentalism like a rag in gasoline.

If Uzbekistan does flare up, we will see real chaos in the region. Fundamentalism will spread like wildfire along Central Asia’s underbelly. Once this happens, what will Russia do? Of course, it could tell everyone about how badly the Americans screwed up in Iraq. But before Russia does this, perhaps it should remember how far Iraq is located from the United States and how close Central Asia is to Russia.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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