Kyrgyzstan's Soviet past

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Fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek people in southern Kyrgyzstan has left more than 180 people dead, and thousands of Uzbeks have crossed the border to Uzbekistan. Marco Werman talks with Peter Zeihan of the global intelligence company Stratfor about the historical background of the two former Soviet republics.

MARCO WERMAN: Peter Zeihan is Vice President of Strategic Analysis at Strator, a global intelligence company in Austin, Texas. Peter, is this just a power play between the in leaders and the out the leaders of Kyrgyzstan?

PETER ZEIHAN: Well, it may have started that way, but it's certainly borne into something much more serious. The first thing you need to understand when you're thinking about anything in the Ferghana Valley is remember that all of these lines on the map, all of these national borders they were all just constructs of the early Soviet period. Stalin literally went in with a pen and personally drew these barriers to make sure that should these states ever become independent that they would be at each other's throats instantly. Kyrgyzstan itself is a bit of a political fiction. It did not exist 50 years ago much less a 100 years ago or in the time before the Soviet Union.

MARCO WERMAN: Are you saying that there were ethnic Kyrgz people that?

PETER ZEIHAN: They certainly didn't identify themselves as such. The political geography of this region is extraordinarily fluid in the pre-Soviet times. And when the Soviets came in they forced people to basically choose a nationality even if they didn't know what that was. And, so the [PH] Kyrgzis were a direct result of Soviet political manipulation. And, it wasn't really until the post-Cold War period that those identities started to gel into anything. So Kyrgzstan by any definition is a new state. And, by most definitions it's not even a state. It doesn't have any core territory like Northern France or Northern Germany.

It doesn't have any natural economic hubs. Each city is on a small patch of flat land that is completely disconnected from any other major city. They all have closer economic, security, and political links to people outside of Kyrgzstan than within. And so the assessment that the Bakiah is behind some of this, I certainly buy that. But, bear in mind that the Bakiah came to power in an extra constitutional popular uprising, and was ousted from power in an extra constitutional popular uprising both of which were largely managed by foreign powers.

MARCO WERMAN: Right. So let me ask you a basic question, Peter. If you put an Uzbek and a Kyrgyz in a room, can you tell the difference between them, and to what extent can they understand each other's language or maybe have different clothes and customs?

PETER ZEIHAN: There are differences between them. I don't mean to suggest that Kyrgyzis are a complete invention, but they do not have a very long history. And, traditionally the two of them have been quite integrated in historical periods. And, it's only with the oncoming of the Soviet period and urbanization that they started to kind of split into these two different groups, which was something that Stalin definitely had on his mind when he was drawing his lines.

MARCO WERMAN: Now, Uzbekistan is the regional super power in Central Asia, and no friend of Moscow, and the government in Bezkek and Kyrgzstan is pro-Russian. How does that work into explaining this unrest?

PETER ZEIHAN: In the current context the United States had originally sponsored a Color Revolution in Kyrgstan. That's how the Bakiah came to power. Bakiah was seen as too close to the Americans, and so the Russians had him ousted just in April. The Uzbeks saw that most recent revolution as a direct preparation for a Soviet attempt to take over Uzbekistan. And when the Kyrgzis started asking the Russians to come and providing pace keeping troops, the Uzbeks saw that as confirmation. And so the Uzbeks started surging troops to the borders in attempts to convince the Russians that should they do that, they would be facing war.

MARCO WERMAN: You say Uzbekistan has been mobilizing troops all spring?

PETER ZEIHAN: Absolutely. There are actually several thousands in the borders ends right now.

MARCO WERMAN: Could there be some confrontation looming between Russia and Uzbekistan?

PETER ZEIHAN: Certainly. The Uzbeks think of Kyrgzstan as a non-entity. They see especially the highlands, the Ferghana Valley region, the area that the water comes from as their territory and territory that they have to control. The Russians want to retain an independent Kyrgzstan as a lever against the other major powers in the area, whether it be China or Uzbekistan. But, it's not clear that the Russians are willing to fight over that just yet.

MARCO WERMAN: Peter Zeihan, Vice President of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company in Austin, Texas. Very interesting stuff. Thank you for your explanation.

PETER ZEIHAN: My pleasure.