Kyrgyzstan, Russia & US in Central Asia


A review of The Base of Contention: Kyrgyzstan, Russia and the U.S. in Central Asia (2001-2010), by Alisher Khamidov.

Alisher Khamidov’s The Base of Contention is a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan from 2001 to 2010. Specifically, it provides an explanation for the fluctuations in the relationship between these two countries and frames the research in larger regional and international contexts. These include relations in Central Asia between former Soviet Republics, China and the US as well as the interplay between Moscow and Washington. However, the research not only studies the nature of Russian-Kyrgyz relations in innovative ways, but also offers interesting theoretical contributions to the fields of International Relations and Comparative Politics.

At the core of the research stands the argument that since the arrival of US troops in Kyrgyzstan in 2001, as part of the logistics for the international intervention in Afghanistan, three distinct periods can be identified in the relationship between Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Khamidov argues that between 2001 and 2004 Moscow and Bishkek’s partnership seemed stable and fairly equal – Moscow backed the opening of the American base, but saw Russian language gaining official status in the country and successfully requested that Bishkek allow the installment of a Russian base. However, the author argues that the 2005-2006 period saw marked Russian pressure and Kyrgyz resistance to Moscow’s insistence that Bishkek evicts the US base and ends its multi-vector foreign policy. Finally, between 2006 and 2009, Russia diminished its pressure and recurred to a policy of financial incentive to fully bring Kyrgyzstan back into its sphere of influence. Bishkek’s initial acceptance of Russia’s loan and its later U-turn towards the US prompted Moscow to suspend its economic assistance to Kyrgyzstan and start a public campaign against its leadership. These were decisive factors in this latter’s removal in 2010.

Khamidov presents an explanatory hypothesis that defines the fluctuations of the Russian-Kyrgyz relationship in these three phases as a result of changes in the perception that decision-makers had of their bargaining power. In the first period of cooperation (2001-2004), a shift away of bargaining power from both Moscow and Bishkek was perceived; the second period characterized by Russian pressure (2005-2006) witnessed the perception of a shift in the balance favorable to the Kremlinand in the third period, when Russia recurred to financial incentives (2006-2009), the balance was perceived as having shifted towards Kyrgyzstan.

In Chapters I and II, Khamidov carefully reviews both the theoretical literature as well as the one specifically focused on Central Asia and presents his own integrated methodology and sources. In his review of theoretical literature, the author shows how the main theories of International Relations, adopted singularly, do not represent meaningful lenses through which Russian-Kyrgyz relations can be looked at and explained. Khamidov criticizes neorealism (Rosenau, Waltz, Jervis) for its propositions on great powers dominating the international system and on small states that, as insignificant actors, are left only with the option of joining a given great power’s camp. The author recognizes the value, but also the insufficiency, of the small state theory’s insights (Lindell, Persson, Handel, Rothstein, Branner, Goldmann, Wolfers, Frei, Ronfeld), namely, the significance of tension between great powers, of international norms and of a state’s geographic location. The society-centered and government-centered interpretations of the bureaucratic politics model are also considered (Elman, Foyle, Skidrome, Hudson, Allison, Zelikow), but their focus on domestic groups or bureaucratic branches is deemed by the author to be only partially capable of explaining the Russian-Kyrgyz case. Finally, the two level games theory (Putnam) that combines the domestic and international levels of analysis is considered, but its proposition that a small state’s internal differences go to its benefit is contradicted by the Russian-Kyrgyz case.

The author also critically engages with the existing literature on Central Asia, categorizing it according to its emphasis – on the systemic or domestic level – and identifying its two main assumptions that concern the Russian-Kyrgyz case: great powers dominate over smaller ones; when great powers compete over the same region, smaller states can benefit from political chicanery and the adoption of a multi-vector foreign policy. However, Khamidov states that such literature only partially explains the research puzzles and criticizes its partial tautological and deterministic nature, its recurrent incapability to combine the systemic and domestic levels of analysis as well as its poor coverage of Russian-Kyrgyz relations, its lack of care for the complex evolution of the various actors’ behavior and its primary focus on the sole issue of American military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

The author’s careful reflections on theory and existing literature open the way to the presentation of his original and compelling methodological approach. Such methodology incorporates insights from the systemic and domestic levels of analysis. Indeed, Khamidov regards power asymmetries between large and small states as well as elite groups and domestic politics as meaningful elements in relation to leaders’ foreign policy choices. Furthermore, he defines interaction between decision makers as a dynamic process and regards the latter’s perception and misperceptions as crucial. Khamidov also borrows insights from bargaining theory, since he views the interactions between states as bargaining processes. In doing so, he specifically accepts as meaningful principles of analysis a player’s degree of patience and aversion for risk as well as the availability of alternative options. However, the author accepts such principles only by complementing them with three variables that according to his theory create bargaining situations and affect states’ bargaining power: “1) The degree of tension between dominant powers at the international (systemic) level, 2) The degree of elite contestation of ruling regimes (domestic level), 3) The degree to which economic resources are available to the regimes in power (domestic level)” (p. 71).

The research is based on an impressive amount of secondary and primary material. The first category includes theoretical works related to the fields the analysis draws on, as well as several other publications in English, Kyrgyz, Russian and Uzbek. The crucial added value of the research is however represented by the vast amount of primary material the author gathered over the course of his different activities in Central Asia. Precisely, Khamidov’s knowledge of Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek allowed him to realize an impressive number of semi-structured interviews with Government officials, regional and foreign experts and journalists and to consult a large variety of Government documents, periodicals, online editions and newspapers.

Chapter III is devoted to the analysis of Russia’s reassertion in Central Asia in the 1991-2001 period. The author carefully describes the first steps of post-Soviet Russian foreign policy in the context of internal Russian politics, factional rivalry in the Yeltsin leadership and shifting relations between Russia and the main actors of the international arena. The core of this third section of the research is devoted to the observation of the continuities and discontinuities between the Yeltsin and Putin period, in relation to Russian policy towards Central Asia. Khamidov shows how the widely shared opinion that Yeltsin’s Russia retreated from Central Asia, while Putin’s one re-engaged with it, is only partially true. Russia in the 1990s did not retreat from Central Asia. However, it regarded it only as part of the “near abroad”, which included all the former Soviet Republics. The author specifically identifies a change in Russia’s behavior towards the issue as one of the main discontinuities between the Yeltsin and Putin era; indeed, since 2000 Central Asia was regarded by the Kremlin as an area that deserved to be treated as a separate region from the other former Soviet Republics. Such change was already perceivable in 1999, when Putin’s first visits as Prime Minister were paid to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but was far more substantial than that. Indeed, the author reports how Yeltsin’s approach to Central Asia as part of the “near abroad” through the CIS was replaced by Putin’s focus on multilateral treaties such as the Collective Security, Economic Union and Shanghai ones. In the framework of such treaties, which later on evolved into organizations, Central Asia was not only regarded as a crucial area, but also as one separated from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. In fact, the Shanghai treaty and subsequently the SCO had Central Asia as primary focus and the CSTO’s Rapid Reaction Force area of deployment was similarly Central Asia. Another crucial element identified by the author is the existence of a regime convergence between Russia and Central Asia that, together with security and economic issues, crucially contributed to the betterment and deepening of relationships between Moscow and the Central Asian Republics in the early 2000s.

Chapter IV provides an overview of the events in Kyrgyzstan, between the collapse of the Soviet Union and 2001. The author covers the initial political and economic liberalization in the Central Asian Republic and its outcomes, including the inflow of foreign investment and aid as well as the emergence of economic elites that developed political aspirations. However, the ruling leadership, sensing that the emerging opposition represented a grave threat to its stability in power, began reversing the democratization process. Such events, and the consequent increase in opposition, were accompanied by the reduction of foreign investment and aid as well as the emergence of terrorist threats.

Chapters V, VI and VII are each devoted to one of the case studies i.e. the three phases of Russian-Kyrgyz relations, the first of which was characterized by cooperation, followed by Russian pressure and Russian financial incentive in the two subsequent chapters. These chapters contain the verification of the hypotheses related to decision-makers’ perception of their bargaining power (away from both Moscow and Bishkek, away from Bishkek and towards Moscow, away from Moscow and towards Bishkek) and of the three postulated variables concerning bargaining situations (tension between great powers, the level of political contestation and the availability of economic resources).

In Chapter V, the author observes the relationship between the US, Russia and Kyrgyzstan, as well this latter’s internal politics in the 2001-2004 period. Through the analysis of such events he demonstrates the validity of the hypothesized perceived shift away of bargaining power from both Moscow and Bishkek. The author shows how Moscow’s position was weakened by the US deployment of troops in Central Asia, which the Kremlin supported and which caused a decrease of tension between the two super-powers. This event favored Kyrgyzstan in economic and security terms, but the country’s increasing internal instability caused a deepening of Bishkek’s political reliance on Russia. Finally, the American invasion of Iraq and the Georgian Rose Revolution heightened the confrontation between Russia and the US and affected both Russian and Kyrgyz ruling elites.

Chapter VI covers the events of the 2005-2006 period. The author shows how tension between Russia and the US was on the rise due to political developments in the CIS and how turmoil in both Kyrgyzstan (where regime change took place) and Uzbekistan (where popular uprising was repressed with an iron fist) decreased Washington’s influence, opening the way to Moscow. Indeed, this is the period in which Russia perceived favorable shifts in the balance of bargaining power prompting the Kremlin to more markedly pressure Kyrgyzstan. As a matter of fact, the other main issues the author covers are the SCO’s request of a deadline for the complete withdraw of US troops from its member states, and Kyrgyzstan’s initial compliance with the plan and its subsequent decision to refuse it and use it as a bargaining chip to extract more financial resources from the US. The author interestingly argues that precisely the closure of the Uzbekistan base increased the value of the Kyrgyzstan one for Washington and that, at the same time, Moscow failed to back its pressure on Bishkek with economic assistance and political support.

Chapter VII focuses on the events that took place between 2006 and 2009. As Khamidov shows, the failure of Moscow’s pressures on Bishkek, its decreasing influence in the CIS and increasing conflictuality with the West as well as Kyrgyzstan’s initial success in dealing on its own with internal consolidation were the causes of the perceived shift of bargaining power away from Moscow and towards Bishkek. The author also covers the phase of political contestation in Russia surrounding the Putin’s succession as well as the effects of the economic crisis and of the rising international tension among great powers. As Khamidov shows, all these elements prompted Moscow to rely on financial assistance as a strategy to regain influence in Central Asia, while “a combination of greed, envy and miscalculation” brought Bishkek to continue its partnership with the US, causing Russia’s reaction (p. 310).

In Chapter VIII, the authors draws the conclusions of the research and outlines its innovative character, which included: looking at Russian-Kyrgyz relations combining the systemic and domestic perspective; placing such relations into larger regional and international contexts; paying attention to antecedent conditions; identifying different stages of the relationship between Moscow and Bishkek and giving the rightful coverage to several issues often neglected in the existing literature, which tends to focus only on American military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

The research not only successfully verifies both the explanatory and theoretical hypotheses postulated by the author, but provides also new perspectives on a number of different topics – such as international negotiations and the impact of informal institutions on foreign policy-making. Last but not least, Khamidov’s work makes also a number of interesting theoretical contributions to the fields of International Relations and Comparative Politics. This excellently sourced, methodologically strong and conceptually precise research will therefore be of great interest not only to students of Russian and Central Asian politics and foreign policy, but also to a broader audience of political scientists.

Giovanni Cadioli
DPhil Candidate
Faculty of History
University of Oxford


Contemporaneous Government documents in English, Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek (policies, decrees, reports, press-releases, instructions, memos, published interviews, official websites). Periodicals, newspapers and online editions in English, Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek.
Author’s oral interviews (twenty-four in total) with Government officials, regional and foreign experts and journalists (mainly in the United States, Russia and Kyrgyzstan).

Dissertation Information

Johns Hopkins University. 2011. 436 pp. Primary Advisor: Bruce Parrott.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Wikimedia Commons.

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