Vladimir Putin’s attempt to create an empire — a real empire, where one kingdom controls other, nominally autonomous ones — has had its ups and downs. Belarus and Kazakhstan chafe at the imperial yoke, but have come along. Armenia capitulated last year. Faced with economic extinction, Ukraine started to yield and is now in limbo. Azerbaijan remains free, Moldova will likely be split in at least two, Georgia is already split in three, and the Central Asian powers are in flux.
Kyrgyzstan is ready to sign on for subjugation.
Bishkek has not had the most wildly successful run as an independent state since the Soviet Union came undone. The clumsy attempt at nationalization of the Kumtor mine ended in a face-saving split-the-baby with Centerra, the Canadian operator of the mine. Its economy is, putting this delicately, a wreck. A generation of Soviet-trained apparatchiks have exactly no clue how to stimulate and support private initiative. Democracy is not so much a sham as in its neighbors, but is neither mature nor backed by anything like a civil society.
And then there is foreign policy, where the prevailing approach since independence has been “latch on to the strongest power in the area.” When the United States came with rage and thunder in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Bishkek was ready to offer airfields (and imported white slavery for passing military personnel). As the US has receded from the scene, Moscow has been ready, willing, and impatient.
Russia is beefing up its military operation in-country, and taking control of Kyrgyzstan’s pipe network. This will functionally give Moscow control of both Bishkek’s military posture and its natural gas supplies, in return for a couple of pittances and some bare infrastructure improvement. In return, Moscow gets a captive audience for Gazprom and the ability to more directly project military power into the Near East and Central Asia.
Be assured that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have noticed.
Vladimir Putin will not live forever, and at the rate his people are having children and dying, neither will Russia. But however brief its renewed moment in the sun, it appears Russia may once again be called an empire — and all for a few billions of dollars.
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