I promised last week that I would steer clear of the UK election in these newsletters for the duration of the campaign and help you to keep abreast of developments elsewhere on our planet.
I intend to keep that promise, even though I am sorely tempted to break it after last night’s historic TV election debate. (Yes, since you ask, I really did find it fascinating.)
So on the off-chance that you haven’t been devouring all the latest snippets of news from Kyrgyzstan, allow me to bring you up to date – and explain why I think it matters.
(I’ll leave the Icelandic ash cloud for another day, although I’m pretty confident we’ll be talking about it on tonight’s programme. It can’t be true, can it, that after Iceland’s bank melt-down, Gordon Brown said he wanted them to send over some cash, but they misheard?)
Anyway, Kyrgyzstan. I mentioned it briefly in last week’s newsletter, but things have moved on since then. The most important development is that yesterday President Bakiyev – he’s the one who was deposed last week – fled the country and has gone into exile in Kazakhstan.
Sighs of relief all round, you might think. President Bakiyev wasn’t exactly a great advertisement for the virtues of liberal democracy – he himself originally came to power after a coup-cum-uprising-cum-revolution five years ago, and had become increasingly authoritarian in office. His brothers, sons, and brothers’ sons all got jobs in his administration, and were all rumoured to have made substantial amounts of money as a result.
But the key reason why this matters to those of us who don’t live in Kyrgyzstan – or even anywhere near it – is that it is hugely sensitive strategically. For one thing, it used to be part of the Soviet Union, which means Moscow still regards it as within its own sphere of influence.
For another thing, it has a long border with China. The two countries are linked by trade, and there is a significant Kyrgyz minority in China. So China too has a clear interest in who’s in charge in the capital, Bishkek.
As does Washington. The huge US air base at Manas is a crucially important way station for flying troops and supplies into Afghanistan. When Moscow tried to persuade President Bakiyev to shut the base down, Washington had to offer a substantial increase in rental payments to keep it open.
President Bakiyev decided to accept Washington’s kind offer, much to Moscow’s fury. In the words of former US ambassador John O’Keefe, speaking on the programme on Wednesday, it looked as if he had sold the same carpet twice, once to Moscow and once to Washington.
You can see where this is leading. As in Ukraine and Georgia, two other former Soviet republics, Moscow and Washington are jockeying for influence. The Kremlin remains deeply suspicious of what it sees as US attempts to buy off its neighbours.
Washington insists it’s doing no such thing. And true, the two governments have just signed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty – and they’re cooperating over the drafting of a new UN sanctions resolution against Iran.
So it’s not Washington and Moscow, eyeball to eyeball. But Kyrgyztan, a small, impoverished country with a total population of barely five million, could be on the way to becoming another former Soviet flashpoint. Its people want a better life and a better government – the world’s major powers want political stability in a region where instability can lead to big trouble.
Remember the Great Game, played for most of the 19th century by Russia and Britain, rivals for power in central Asia? Think what happened to Afghanistan and you can see where the dangers lie.
That’s why, UK election debates notwithstanding, I thought you might like to know a bit more about the country with the unspellable name. But if you’re interested in the debates as well, you may like to know that I’ll be presenting next week’s Radio 4 election debate special, at 7.45pm on Thursday.