Outside forces have competed for influence in Kyrgyzstan since the vacuum left by the Soviet Union’s collapse two decades ago.
Kyrgyzstan allowed the United States to use its Manas airport for supporting efforts in Afghanistan and eagerly welcomed Chinese investment. Bishkek also granted Russia use of an air base at Kant. Kyrgyz policy appeared to play one power off against another.
For a time, Russia’s power appeared to be on the wane. But the overthrow of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s regime a year ago might have paved the way for Moscow’s resurgence.
A year ago, an angry Russia used a combination of hard and soft power to help destabilize Bakiev’s government, after the former Kyrgyz leader reneged on his promise to kick out the Americans from Manas in exchange for a $2 billion loan.
Alexander Cooley, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Barnard College, says that Russia’s response put into motion events that eventually toppled Bakiev.
“The Russian media launched an all-out blitz against Bakiev, accusing him of nepotism and corruption and repression and so forth,” Cooley says. “[Russia] also pulled its fuel subsidy, which led to the sky-rocketing in prices in early April. That mobilized a lot of the first anti-Bakiev demonstrations over inflation and unacceptable spikes in energy prices.”
The Kremlin suddenly revived ties with Kyrgyzstan’s political opposition. On the morning of April 7, the day that crowds chased Bakiev from office, several Kyrgyz opposition figures arrived in Bishkek from Moscow.
Ring In The New
Russia was the first country to recognize the leadership of interim President Roza Otunbaeva, and she repaid the favor by praising Moscow’s role as a key partner.
But it was the deadly clashes two months later, between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, and the subsequent humanitarian crisis that convinced Bishkek that the only country that could offer any serious help was Russia.
With Bishkek’s consent, the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) amended its charter in December to include intervention in internal conflicts of member states, a change clearly related to Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic clashes.
After parliamentary elections in October, newly elected Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev hinted that the agreement with Washington on Manas would not be renewed once it expired in 2014. He then announced that his first visit as head of the new government would be to Moscow. “Russia is and always has been our strategic partner,” Atambaev said.
In addition to America’s possible long-term exit from Manas, China’s announcement of a five-year moratorium on most foreign investments in Central Asia leaves Russia in the driver’s seat, according to John MacLeod of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
“It certainly will limit [Kyrgyzstan’s] options,” MacLeod says. “Moscow can step in as the substitute or replacement for China to an extent on the economic front. I guess Chinese ambitions were less overtly political whereas the U.S. interest was obviously political security and again the Russians can substitute that fairly neatly, so over the years perhaps the Western engagement falls away.”
In the meantime, Russia continues to press its advantage.
“Of course Russia has the Kant air base,” Cooley says. “It is also now seeking additional assets — not only this naval presence on Issyk-Kul but also constructing a new antiterrorism center under CSTO auspices in the southern part of the country.”
The naval presence to which Cooley refers is a torpedo plant on the shore of Kyrgyzstan’s scenic mountain lake. Russia has sought a stake in the Soviet-era plant for years, with Kyrgyz authorities seeking to squeeze the maximum amount of money from Russia; Moscow originally agreed with Bakiev to write off some $200 million in debt in return for a large stake in the plant. Russia now appears close to sealing that deal after saying it would only write off about $85 million of debt, in the face of continued Kyrgyz haggling over the plant.
Kyrgyzstan’s calls earlier this year for higher rent on the Kant military base that Russia uses quieted after Russian media started airing reports about the questionable business links of some officials in the new government.
“I definitely think this kind of signaling goes on, and I definitely think that Russia wants to remind each member of the ruling coalition — as if they need reminding — of the potential kind of mechanisms of control that they have,” Cooley says.
Prime Minister Atambaev indicated during a visit to Moscow in mid-March that the signal was received loud and clear.
“We promise to respect all of our old agreements and we will fulfill them,” Atambaev said. “On the [Kant] military base, we’ve been discussing this and the proposal from our side about raising the rent and other matters, and…we have withdrawn this request and decided matters of security should never be an issue for bargaining.”