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Kyrgyzstan unrest adds new edge to global powers' regional rivalry

As politically and ethnically-charged violence continues in Kyrgyzstan, three powerful nations who have hugely important strategic and geopolitical interests in the region are becoming particularly concerned.

A man examines a burnt-out car in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan's violence has implications beyond its borders

The Central Asian nation's worst ethnic violence in decades, which has reportedly left at least 179 people dead, many more injured and has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes, has wider implications in a region full of strategic and geopolitical importance for the world's biggest powers.

The violence that erupted on Friday between Kyrgyz and Uzbek clans may have been ignited by the escalating tensions between the country's two dominant ethnic groups but the conditions for the fighting have been created by the on-going unstable political situation in Kyrgyzstan; a situation that has the fingerprints of the world's most influential nations all over it.

Kyrgyzstan's wider role in international affairs is such that Russia and the United States continue to jostle for military influence there while China, which shares a 530-mile border with Kyrgyzstan, pursues significant strategic and economic interests in the country and its surrounding region.

This most recent uprising stems from the ousting of the Washington-friendly regime of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April which left the country in turmoil. Bakiyev's removal from power and the rise to power of the current provisional government has not only allowed ethnic tensions to reach boiling point in Kyrgyzstan but could trigger a new struggle for proxy control of the country and the regional benefits which come with it.

Bakiyev's installation as president in 2005 with US backing may have provided Washington with a friendly government with whom to do business with but it also gave the US a significant foothold in a country that some strategists believe is paramount to its plans for regional dominance.

Regional unrest could put US objectives under threat

US Air Force aircraft seen at the US Gansi air base located at Manas airport, Kyrgyzstan

Unrest may put the US base at Manas under threat

Experts say that it has been a prime US strategic objective to increase its influence in the former Soviet states of Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The inclusion of Kyrgyzstan and three other central Asian states in NATO's Partnership for Peace program in 1994, was seen as a major step toward increasing US military presence in the region which eventually led to the US base at Manas, outside Bishkek in the north, being established.

"During the April unrest, the US Manas Airbase was closed and the vital supply route for sending military hardware and troops to Afghanistan was not being used," Asher Pirt, an expert on Central Asian affairs and military issues, told Deutsche Welle. "The US needs a stable Kyrgyzstan in order to keep the supply route working."

"There is also the possibility of Uzbek intervention in the restive Osh region due to the fact that Uzbeks are being killed and hurt in the violence and any such intervention is likely to lead to further instability and will continue cause problems with the US principle supply route to Afghanistan and its troops deployed there," he added.

"Another issue is if the instability spreads throughout the rest of Central Asia and there is a rise of Islamic extremism this could significantly affect US interests in the region.”

US presence increases Russia's concern over NATO plans

While Manas remains a key hub for US operations in Afghanistan, it is also used as a NATO base - a situation which angers and concerns Russia which fears the eastern enlargement of its former Cold War opponent, putting Kyrgyzstan at the center of a power struggle for regional influence.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev

Medvedev wants a friendly government in Bishkek

"The current unrest is a major threat to the authority of the Kyrgyz government," Dex Torrike-Barton, an international security analyst, told Deutsche Welle from Kyrgyzstan.

"The provisional government is still very weak. If violence spreads beyond the cities currently affected, then we could see major political instability. In that context, all bets are off the table on whether the US can retain its airbase in the country. There are plenty of political factions in Kyrgyzstan who don't want to see the Americans keep any sort of foothold in the country. If Russia or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation - the regional defence alliance - ultimately ends up intervening, the same result is likely."

Russia, which itself has its own military base at the Kant airbase near Bishkek and a strategic naval base on Lake Issyk-Kul, is highly suspicious of the United States' interest in Kyrgyzstan and the wider Eurasian region. Since the US-backed Bakiyev regime was ousted in April, Moscow has unsurprisingly been the biggest supporter of the new provisional government, presumably in the hope that if order is restored the swing of influence will return to Russia.

Washington's plans for the regions sit very uncomfortably with the Kremlin. While the US may justify that its increased influence is mutually beneficial by claiming its presence will help stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia and solve the hugely destabilizing problem of Afghanistan, Russia believes the US has another agenda. The Kremlin says that Washington is aiming to prevent Russian and/or Chinese hegemony while securing energy resources and pipelines.

Read more about the volatile situation in Kyrgyzstan

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