Fragile Stability in Central Asia ; the Region, Where There Have Been Recent Uprisings, Is Buffetted by Demands from the US, China, and Russia

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A post-Soviet arc of crisis stretching from the oil-rich Caspian Sea to the mountains of Central Asia is beginning to worry regional experts that fresh upheavals and revolutions are on the horizon.

Varying mixtures of social misery, authoritarianism, corrupt governance, and outside agitation continue to fuel political and social turmoil. Violence has already marked the run-up to Sunday's election in Kyrgyzstan to replace former President Askar Akayev, who fled the country in March after after a one-day, lightning revolution.

Making the region increasingly important to Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, many of the six mainly-Muslim former Soviet states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan contain vast reserves of oil and gas.

Most are also allies in the battle to contain Islamic extremism and fight terrorism. The US has maintained air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to provide support for its effort in Afghanistan. But on Tuesday, a regional alliance led by China and Russia called for the US to set a deadline for its departure from the region.

Many see this as a move by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to bolster the regional clout of China - hungry for Central Asian resources - and remove US influence from Russia's own backyard.

Because these countries are on the doorstep of Afghanistan, where there is a post-Taliban surge in poppy production, they are also known as a lucrative throughway for narcotics. Some Russian experts say drug lords often make common cause with religious extremists, to sow rebellion and expand their influence.

"Everyone is watching with very deep concern as the drug pipeline widens and deepens, while political stability deteriorates in some parts of Central Asia," says Sergei Kolmakov, an expert with PBN, an international strategic consultancy.

All of these countries face near-term social and political challenges that threaten to ignite upheavals, which in turn could spread shock waves around the region.

* In Kyrgyzstan, since Mr. Akayev was unseated, the country of 5 million has staggered through economic stagnation and political crisis under its provisional president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Riots rocked the southern city of Osh last month, where unrest in Uzbekistan has radicalized many, experts say. Two weeks ago a crowd supporting banned presidential candidate Urmat Baryktabasov stormed Bishkek's main government compound before being ejected by baton- wielding security forces.

Six candidates are vying in Sunday's presidential polls, with an electoral alliance between Mr. Bakiyev, who hails from the ethnically diverse south, and northern strongman Felix Kulov considered the most likely victor.

Experts doubt that a successful vote will end Kyrgyzstan's season of unrest. "The new Kyrgyz leadership has failed to create a clear and legitimate system of power, recognized by all," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "There is a growing tendency toward anarchy there, and it looks like anything might happen."

* In Uzbekistan, an uneasy calm has set in since government forces put down a rebellion centered in the Ferghana Valley town of Andijan in May. …