Losing Central Asia

From the Chicago Tribune:

At a time when the world’s financial crisis has most countries hunkering down, Russia is parlaying the global meltdown into a lever for expanding its influence in Central Asia and other former Soviet republics that the Kremlin regards as its “near abroad.”

The Kremlin has stewarded a plan to prop up five cash-strapped former Soviet republics by establishing a $10 billion bailout fund, three-fourths of which would be nourished by Russian coffers. Moscow is also giving Armenia a $500 million loan and has promised $2 billion for Belarus.

With its economy in shambles, Kyrgyzstan has little choice but to comply with Russia’s wishes, experts say.

Sections of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, have endured daily blackoutsfor more than a year. Nearly a fifth of the country’s poverty-rackedpopulation doesn’t work. And from the mud hut villages in Kyrgyzstan’ssouthern regions to the capital itself, a burgeoning oppositionmovement is talking openly about rallying Kyrgyz against theirgovernment.

“Because of the economic crisis, countries like Kyrgyzstan cannot sayno to Russia,” said Mars Sariyev, a Bishkek-based political analyst anda former Kyrgyz diplomat. “Moscow has a lot of leverage over Kyrgyzstanand President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. We have half a million labor migrantsin Russia. If Russia forces Kyrgyz migrants to return to Kyrgyzstan, itwould mean economic disaster.”