Although Russia was successful in consolidating its partnership with Kazakhstan and taking Astana into the Russia Kazakhstan Belarus Custom Union, certain countries in the region became extremely difficult to negotiate with. Uzbekistan withdrew from the EurAsEC Corporation and reduced its CSTO presence to a formal membership, Turkmenistan diversified its gas exports, and Tajikistan became an unruly and challenging ally. Another threat to Russia’s Central Asia Policy came from Kyrgyzstan, which had historically been one of the most supportive and least troublesome of Russia’s associates.
In April 2010, five years after Kyrgyzstan’s first president; President Askar Akayev was dismissed, the country once again experienced an unconstitutional change of power. The violent overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev brought about ethnic and social tensions. In June the same year, Kyrgyzstan was shattered by wide scale pogroms in Jalal-Abad and Osh. This was the first outbreak of violence of such magnitude since 1990. The county experienced a hasty transition to a parliamentary and scheduled for a presidential election Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan: Life and Politics During the Soviet Era by Dadabaev, Timur and Hisao (2017).
Since then, Kyrgyzstan has become the least predicable and stable amongst the five Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan is a small and poor country, an integral element f the Central Asian regional security complex. It is tightly interdependent with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to a lesser degree, in political, military, environmental, economic, and societal sectors.
The current turmoil that Kyrgyzstan faces is increasingly creating a challenge for Russia which sees itself and is regarded by other states as the Central Asia’s security guarantor and the most powerful external actor within that region. Russia had to choose between intervention and non interference to make the choice hastily and uncertain environment as Kyrgyzstan moved from one crisis to another Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order by Khanna (2009) .
Russian Policy Objectives in Kyrgyzstan
Even though most of the documents that spell out the fundamentals of Russian foreign policy do not openly mention Kyrgyzstan, they devote enough attention to the post soviet space so as to allow for a deduction of major policy objectives that Russia pursue in Kyrgyzstan. The entire post soviet space is said to be a priority of the Russian foreign policy and part of the world where Russia aspires to become the leading force in the development of a new system of interstate political and economic relations Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan: Life and Politics During the Soviet Era by Dadabaev, Timur and Hisao (2017).
Central Asia is seen as a rather detailed segment of the previous Soviet Union (a place where the risks of destabilization are predominantly high the international rivalry is intensifying). The vision of Moscow in Central Asia has a very high security. The country’s military and security elite shape the understanding of Russian Interests within the region.
The policies of Russia in the Central Asia have always been incomplete, reactive and also self contradictory, however, the analysis of the both the public and practical statements of Russian officials calls for the grouping of Moscow’s fundamental policy objectives within Central Asia around the notions of stability and influence. The leadership of Russia believes that it is very important for Russia to keep military alliance with the Central States of Asia, to retain the ability to sway their main foreign policy and economic decisions to the advantage of Russia, and to minimize the degree to which some of the major powers can dispute Russia’s prime position within the region.
Additionally, Russia has several foreign policy concerns around the world and its economic resources and military are both limited and scattered, it should therefore avoid expensive and protracted interventions within Central Asia. It is therefore Russian’s interests to have Central Asian political regimes and societal structures that are steady and able to cope with inter and intra state contradictions and the pressure of transitional challenges in place. Russia is seeking to increase the benefits of being a regional security guarantor and to reduce the costs of acting in the capacity of a security guarantor.
The objectives of Russia in Kyrgyzstan are mainly derived from the small and poor country’s position as a part of the regional picture and from Moscow’s broader geostrategic and transitional considerations. Russia aims at:
Stabilizing Kyrgyzstan or barring it from total state implosion and failure and containing the transitional pressure proliferating through and from Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan’s lapsing into ceaseless political anarchy, territorial disintegration, and upheavals would put at risk a flimsy status quo in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and might lead to a regional condense, exacerbating pressure to Russia’s security and imposing much tension on military and economic resources, therefore undermining its ability to act in other arenas that involves political activities. Russia is concerned about Kyrgyzstan’s position in the transit of the Afghan drugs, the increasing popularity of radicalization in Islam mostly among the youths of Kyrgyz and facts about the country’s territory turning to a safe haven for the Islamic militants.
Retaining the country’s as their loyal and predictable partners in foreign policy, a submissive member of the Moscow led multilateral institutions and a country that does not disobey its neighbors.
Maintaining the military facilities that it has in Kyrgyzstan which happens to be an integral part of Russia’s regional military posture
Kyrgyzstan has a substantial Slavic minority and this fact about it brings another aspect to Moscow’s concerns about the country’s stability. Russia has never experienced difficulties it compatriots in Central Asia faced during the post Soviet periods and its support for Central Asia has mostly been reduced to silent declarations. Nevertheless, a weakening of social and political conditions for Russia in the Kyrgyzstan would lead to a negative publicity within Russia and taint the images of Russian leaders. Hence, the protection of the status quo of the ageing and dwindling Slavic minority in Kyrgyzstan is also a desirable policy objective.
When it comes to the economy of Kyrgyzstan, the country is hardly important for Russia. Its economy is around 0.2% of Russian trade income and the investment that has been directly accumulated from Russia was a total of $90 million in year 2010. On the contrary, some of Russian major companies actively operate in Kyrgyzstan like Gazpromneft, mobile phones and bank operators. The Russian government is also interested in the Dastan factory that produces torpedoes for Russian Navy.
Russian Influence in Kyrgyzstan: Instruments and Constraints
Kyrgyzstan is mostly and truly said to be heavy dependant on Russia. These two countries are in a military alliance that binds them to one another and are also members in two organizations, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) both of which Russia is the Supreme member. From the early 90s both the two country officials have termed her bilateral relationship as being very positive.
The Russian country also has very important military equipments in the Kyrgyzstan. In 2003 they put up an airbase in the Kant city near Bishkek with about 500 military personnel and 10 military aircraft. It also has navy liaison base in the Chu region of Kyrgyzstan, a facility for testing at the Issyk-Kul and two military seismic laborites. Kyrgyzstan is also part of the Russian Controlled CIS United Air Defense System. Its military is dependent on Russia for deliveries of equipment, arms, and training officers Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order by Khanna (2009).
Additionally, Kyrgyzstan’s economy is tightly linked to Russia. Kyrgyz’s government data of 2009 shows that Russia topped the country’s foreign trade partner which was 27% of the total income, imports were 36% and exports 11%. Kyrgyzstan receives most of its oil and oil products from Russia and it is Russia is also among its chief creditors. More than half a million of Kyrgyz are employed in Russia, and their remittances are estimated at around 27% of the country’s GDP Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order by Khanna (2009) .
Russia plays an important role and maintains a substantial presence in Kyrgyzstan’s information space. Russian Radio and TV, websites and newspaper channels can easily be accessed in Kyrgyzstan; they are also very popular there. Russian also has its language used as an official language in Kyrgyzstan, and the country’s capital is a Russian speaking city. The business, cultural, and political elite is majorly inclined to communicate in Russia.
Russian has the ability to provide support and protection to Kyrgyzstan Vis-à-vis Bishkek’s much powerful and larger neighbors. Kyrgyzstan has close, multi faceted and outstanding stable relationship with it and it is the country’s leading foreign investor and its third largest trade associate. Moscow is believed to be a country that is able to exert pressure on Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are neighbors and are often in conflicts.
The alliance between Russia and Kyrgyzstan is seen as one of the means that Kyrgyzstan can use to flee from the steady transformation into a satellite state within China, and the country’s elites see this prospect very alarming and realistic. Russian has accumulated some symbolic capital in Kyrgyzstan and this is a fact that should not be overlooked. It is seen as a familiar, potent, and friendly force that gives an impression against the backdrop of Kyrgyzstan’s social malaise and political turbulence, of a safe, stable and a country that is economically stable.
Russia is seen as Kyrgyzstan’s central ally, and it is very common for the politicians in Kyrgyzstan to seek approval of Russian top officials and to position themselves as having dependable associations to Moscow.
On the other hand, Russia experiences serious challenges in its dealings with the country. It has a very small military contingent in Kyrgyzstan hence not able to make impact on the ground. Any military operation taking place in Kyrgyzstan would have a complicated logistic system and less familiar among the Russian public. Kyrgyzstan’s important foreign policy connections by pass Russia, in particular with Turkey, US, and China, and its political elites is vulnerable to incentives and pressures from numerous centers of power.
Moscow cannot be watchful of interests and potential responses of the US, China, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan while dealing with Kyrgyzstan and it has to take into deliberation the implications for the status of Russia in the face of the European partners and for the cohesiveness and future prospects of the EurAsEC and CSTO.
Lastly, and maybe illogically, a psychological predisposition among the policymakers of Kyrgyz to depend on Russia for support, to expect Moscow to actively get involved in their domestic issues and to exaggerate its ability is both Russia’s constraint and asset on its behavior. Kyrgyzstan’s political atmosphere is heated and it is full with rumors, conspiracy theories, and forebodings of threatening disasters, Russia should therefore take precautions to avoid the misinterpretations and misperceptions of its intentions, actions, and statements.
Russia and Political Turmoil in Kyrgyzstan
In mid 200-s, Kyrgyzstan entered into a long period of economic and social malaise and political turbulence. In 2005 March, the rigged parliamentary elections led to a large scale public turbulence that saw Askar; the first independent president who was once a champion of market and democratic reforms, to give up power and leave the country. His tenure was replaced by an alliance between Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Felix Kulov, which represented the Northern and Southern regions of the country. Bakiyev was appointed the president while Kulov the prime minister.
Akayev’s ouster came to be known as the Tulip Revolution, did not do much to untangle the Knot of problems that Kyrgyzstan faced. Corruption rose, land and property were illegally seized from the public, and there were frequent chaos and reshuffles in the government, frequent constitutional revisions and expansion in societal rifts. Bakiyev then dismissed Kulov in 2007 and tried to consolidate and expand his powers. He geared conflicts among the opposition leaders, bribed or intimidated his rivals, and established his own political party that got majority seats in the parliament in 2007.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s Ouster
In 2009 July, Bakiyev was successfully reelected for a second term. He gained 76% of the votes and the total turnout was 79%. His reelection was followed by an uncontrolled campaign to concentrate the political power and the most valuable economic assets in the hands of his extended family and close partners. He established a Central Agency on Development, Investment and Innovation which was in charge of the infrastructural projects over the country’s financial institutions.
The president’s youngest son; Maxim Bakiyev, was appointed as the director of the Agency. The Kyrgyztelekom- a phone operator and Severelektro – a company in charge of supplying electricity within the northern parts of the country were sold at ridiculously low prices to entrepreneurs who happened to Bakiyev’s younger business partners. The president then came up with some constitutional amendments that were interpreted as steps to facilitate the transfer of power to his son. He then reinforced his family’s control over the security structures. He disbanded the Drug Control Agency, experts believe that he did this so as to consolidate his family’s control over drug trafficking.
The steps taken by Bakiyev happened at a period of exacerbating economic hardships and decrease remittances from the labor migrants. In early 2010, the tariffs on heating and electricity were doubled. At the same time, even though his regime conquered the judiciary parliament, the political environment in the country remained tolerant enough to enable the distribution of public protests and resentments. The media experienced an ever greater pressure from the authorities, but it still enjoyed a higher level of freedom than anywhere in Central Asia. The country had a group of opposition figures which had strong bases of support locally.
It was during this time that the family of Bakiyev lost its concentrated power and economic assets; it also lost Russia’s support which is Kyrgyzstan’s important foreign partner. His foreign policy became so mercurial and overtly mercantile Russia could no longer see Kyrgyzstan as a loyal and reliable associate. Russian leadership was intensely upset with Bakiyev’s reversal on his promise to close the Manas air base.
Consequently, the country also promised Russia a second military airbase, but they did not reach an agreement as Moscow and Bishkek differed on where the air base was to be located at and the conditions of its functioning. Additionally, Russia was deeply vexed at Bishkek’s readiness to host an anti terrorist training center that was funded by the US in the southern region.
Kyrgyzstan also failed to comply with the agreement between her and Moscow to pass 48% of Dastan factory stocks to Moscow in exchange for the repudiation of 180 million dollars of Kyrgyz gratitude. The recalcitrance of Bishek was personified in Bakiyev’s son who was known to speak Russia leadership and Russia as a whole in tones that degraded Russia and was also frequently involved in seizing assets that belonged to Russian company.
During the early months of 2010, the relationship between Bishlek and Moscow deteriorated so much that it reached the lowest level in the history of the post Soviet. The officials of Russia began to accuse Kyrgyz’s authorities openly of misspending Russian credit and Russia made it clear that it will withhold the promised loan that was meant for the construction of the Kambarata-1 hydroelectric station.
President Putin refused to meet the Kyrgyz prime minister who visited Russia, and the bilateral Intergovernmental Cooperation Commission session which the prime minister had come to ended in a humiliating failure for the delegation from Krygyz. In response to that humiliation, Bishkek hinted that it will ask Russia to pay for rent for the Kant airbase or it would even consider closing the air base, threatening that it would undermine the entire political and strategic pattern of Russian presence in the Central Asia. Russia therefore had to act very fast to avoid the crisis that threatened the foreign policy.
Two leading media channels in Russia started a heavy criticism against Bakiyez in March a time when heavy protests in the Northern Kyrgyzstan were experienced and those who were opposed to Bakiyez had united. These two channels, First TV and the Izvestiya, had close links to the Russian government. The Kyrgyz government responded to this and blocked the Russian websites that delivered news in the Russian language ignoring completely the voice of concern from the Russian embassy.
On the 1st of April, Russia banned export of oil and related products to Kyrgyzstan saying this was due to Kyrgyzstan’s non membership in the Russia-Kazakhstan-Belarus Customs union. This led to inflation in gasoline prices by up to 20% in Kyrgyzstan. This move acted to prove to the Kyrgyz government the intentions of Russia sending to them clear signals, undermining the little that had remained of the regime’s trustworthiness and reputation.
This however does not confirm whether the Russian government participated in Bakiyev’s removal. It’s actually more probable that Moscow convinced Bishkek into an agreement rather than into overthrowing the government. However, Russia’s behavior in Kyrgyzstan can be interpreted as trying very hard to change the governance. In as much as it is very clear that the Russian government had a close relation with the Kyrgyzstan’s opposition, it is also clear that the fall of its government was from the public’s discontent and the chaotic developments other than from its opposition.
After the fall of Bakiyev’s government, Russia reacted swiftly. On the 8th day of April, the president of Russia, Putin, called the president in the acting government (Rosa Otunbayeva) that had been formed by the heads from several opposition parties. He pledged material help to the new government. As Russia’s press secretary says, Otunbayeva was the “de facto head of executive power in Kyrgyzstan” .
Russia, the media and the general public agreeably put the blame for the fall of government on Bakiyev and his officials. A few days after Bakiyev left Bishkek, Putin’s government disbursed 50 million dollars to the Kyrgyzstan government and also lifted the ban on gasoline export into Kyrgyzstan. It also clearly said that full scale economic cooperation between the two countries would fully resume after the Kyrgyzstanis formed a legit government Central Asia’s Security: Issues and Implications for U.s. Interests by Nichol (2011).
Bakiyev moved to the south of the country while on the run and he tried to unite his supporters against the acting government. The Russian government came in to help together with Kazakhstan and in an unusual togetherness with Washington. The presidents of these three counties unanimously agreed that Bakiyev should resign and discussed this with Bakiyev himself pressing him to take that option. They also asked the interim government on behalf of Bakiyev, to let him leave the country by a plane provided by Kazakhstan.
The Interim Government
Russia didn’t have anyone in hand to replace Bakiyev and there are no facts that prove that it tried to influence the decisions on the of Kyrgyzstan’s interim government. None of the five leaders had a reputation of being pro Russian or having good connections to the power structure of Russia. The Russian media and its experts were doubtful about the competence of the new leaders and were suspicious of their choices of future foreign policy.
The new leaders dissolved some institutions that were formed under Bakiyev’s regime and revoked several of the former administration decisions including the ones on privatization. The ground was made ready for power distribution and control over the main structures of the economic assets and security. The interim government however became a venue for bitter struggle for power, with the major members pursuing different agendas Central Asia’s Security: Issues and Implications for U.s. Interests by Nichol (2011) .
In May, an uneasy compromise of the configuration of power was reached and Otunbayeva was appointed president to rule for one and a half years, but he was not allowed to run in the next presidential election. A drafted new constitution stated that Kyrgyzstan would be changed into a parliamentary republic. A referendum on Otunbayeva’s nomination and the new constitution were set to take place on the 27th of June.
Moscow was not left out in Bashkek’s attempts on reform. The Russian government saw the parliamentary form of government as inappropriate and dangerous for that small country, as an amplifier of instability and a poor example to other countries within the region. President Medvedev appointed Vladimir Rushailo in mid may as a member of the upper chamber of Russian parliament and he appointed the former executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent state to as a special envoy overseeing the development of the relations between Russia and Kyrgyzstan.
His duties were to coordinate the activities of the Russian governmental agencies and representatives in Kyrgyzstan, inform the president of the developments that were taking place in the country and advised Kyrgyzstan leadership. His main duty was to help Bishkek to draft a new constitution.
Drafting of the new constitution proved to be difficult for Rushailo, they were both political elites in Kyrgyz and each of them lacked the resources to guarantee ascendancy to the presidential position. In spite of the admonitions from Russia, the interim government insisted on rejecting the presidential form of government. Therefore, Bishkek and Moscow openly fell out on a very important issue, the fall out made it possible for Russian influence on Kyrgyzstan to be exposed.
The confidence that the Russian leadership had about the parliamentary form of government; that it was going to be unstable and transient in Kyrgyzstan, made it possible for Moscow to develop a wait and see policy concerning Bishkek. Markedly, the tax duties on exported oil were not waived.
On 27th June, 91% of Kyrgyzstan voters voted for the new constitution and it was approved. The reaction from Russian Official was directly dubious. President Medvedev said he did not imagine how it was going to be possible for Kyrgyzstan to work with parliamentary model and further warned against that the country will experience disintegration danger.
Regional and Geostrategic Dimensions of Kyrgyzstan Turmoil
Kyrgyzstan developments posed three sets of challenges for Russia’s posture in Central Asia in the whole world. They were likely to complicate the relationship between Bishkek and Kazakhstan and increase the tension between Uzbek and Kyrgyz. Worst cases would see Kyrgyz turmoil spilling over into the Tajik and Uzbek parts of the Ferghana valley. The developments in Kyrgyz could lead to weakening of the Russia led multilateral institutions which are the CSTO and EurAsEC, that are already suffering from lack of coherence and failure to show a substantial practical output Democracy in Central Asia: Competing Perspectives and Alternative Strategies by Omelicheva (2015)
Moscow handled these challenges cautiously, by trying to reduce the damages caused by the effects of the turmoil, and it tried to contain the turmoil within Kyrgyzstan. Basically, Moscow was trying to show the world that it was acting in consonance with other actors. In other words, Moscow tried to depend on the alliance with Kazakhstan not to antagonize Uzbekistan and to mitigate the difference between American and Russian interests in the perceptions of Kyrgyzstan.
The basic dilemma that faces Russian policy in Kyrgyzstan is a choice between active involvement and non interference. Russia active involvement in Kyrgyzstan’s affairs mostly the military intervention, would be very expensive and unpopular with the Russian public opinion. This intervention would complicate the relations with Uzbekistan and create a new irritant in the relationship between Moscow and the EU and the US. The non interference policy in Kyrgyzstan would end up very problematic since the turbulence experienced in Kyrgyzstan shows a looming spilling over far beyond their borders and being used by Islamist militants, drug traffickers and even terrorists.
The post- Bakiyev political unrest and the ethnicity that was experienced in Kyrgyzstan forced Russia to try resolving the dilemma by trying to put forward its influence. On the 20th day of June when the crisis was at its peak, Moscow chose not to interfere citing the situation as not dire and that it would return to normal on its own accord. The Russian policy helped a lot in preventing the Kyrgyzstan nation from getting deep into chaos and also helped it return to some kind of stability. Moscow continues to grant financial and economic benefits to Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan’s instability means that’s its position with reference to Russia has metamorphosis from Moscow’s asset to and economic liability. Its recent presidential election may either give the country a break from the political fights or take it to the levels of implosion and break-ups. After all the main grievances faced by the Russian foreign policy from Kyrgyzstan have all been carried forward rather than been dealt with an approach that evidently cannot be pursued until further notice.
Dadabaev, Timur, Timur Dadabaev, and Hisao Komatsu. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan: Life and Politics During the Soviet Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017. Internet resource.
Khanna, Parag. The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009. Print.
Omelicheva, Mariya Y. Democracy in Central Asia: Competing Perspectives and Alternative Strategies. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Computer file.
Nichol, James P. Central Asia’s Security: Issues and Implications for U.s. Interests. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2011. Internet resource.