Where does Kyrgyzstan go now?

MARIA BEAT
Published 05.09.2019 01:57
Kyrgyz dancers wave flags as they perform during the celebrations marking the 28th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan's independence from the Soviet Union at the Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, Aug. 31, 2019.
Kyrgyz dancers wave flags as they perform during the celebrations marking the 28th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan's independence from the Soviet Union at the Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, Aug. 31, 2019.

The conflict between former Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev and the ruling authorities culminated in an armed confrontation in August when law enforcement units tried to take Atambayev by force at his heavily guarded country residence.

The ex-president surrendered after two unsuccessful special forces attempts that resulted in several servicemen being detained by Atambayev supporters, the death of a commanding officer and 85 people wounded.

Now detained, Atambayev may face long-term imprisonment, if convicted, for his organized armed resistance to law enforcement units on top of the earlier accusations of corruption, embezzlement and sheltering a robber baron engaged in trafficking narcotics.

"His resorting to armed resistance was a provocation for civil unrest in Kyrgyzstan with the potential to affect stability in Central Asia," asserted Alikbek Djekshenkulov, Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Russia.

At his hearing on Aug. 20, the court decided to extend Atambayev's detention for another two months until Oct. 26. His lawyers consider this decision wrongful and lacking legal grounds and are ready to appeal it.

Tough measures taken by current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov are a reaction to the ex-president's continuous refusal to appear in court as a witness in the investigation into numerous wrong doings committed by Atambayev's cronies during his term in office. Apparently, the ex-president's reluctance to follow the order is explained by his grounded concern about potential detention in the courthouse amid the hearings. Against him, the current leadership has heavy, substantiated allegations of corruption, usurping power, collaborating with criminal gangs and other malfeasance.

Still, certain Central Asia experts believe that the dramatic events Kyrgyzstan is experiencing may result, as many times before, from conflicts among the country's powerful ruling clans in the north and south. Atambayev's detention doesn't end this protracted conflict with supporters declaring their readiness to go till the end and resort to the most crucial measures.

Stability in modern Kyrgyzstan is greatly affected by confrontation of internal elites and clans aggravated by ethnic tensions and socio-economic deficiencies.

The warring south and north

Since 1991, Kyrgyzstan has seen violence and revolution more than once. An impoverished Central Asian nation of 6.5 million, squeezed by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, it's divided by the Tien Shan Mountain ridge into the reasonably urbanized north and rural south. Two-thirds of the country's people live in the south, which is far less developed. This division sits at the core of conflicts and confrontations of Kyrgyzstan's ruling elites, traditionally grouping around the leaders either from the north or from the south. Almazbek Atambayev is from the north, while Sooronbai Jeenbekov, his former comrade-in-arms turned bitter competitor, is from the south.

Atambayev, a shrewd political fighter, is far from a fresh actor in Kyrgyzstan's power games. He founded the Social Democratic Party (currently in power) in 1993, which now largely supports his opponent Jeenbekov. Atambayev was a national parliament member in 1995 and 2000 and ran for president, though unsuccessfully, in 2000. In 2007 and 2010 he was prime minister and was elected president of Kyrgyzstan in 2011, having won the more than a 60% majority.

When in office, President Atambayev increasingly revealed himself as an authoritarian ruler and carried a referendum on changes into the constitution that was taken for an attempt to usurp power by the opposition and human rights supporters. Thus, Atambayev's rule was openly authoritarian in his last years in office when prosecution and detention of civil activists and opposition politicians became an established practice.

That hardly contributed to his popularity among the people and the ruling elite. Eventually, he lost the 2017 presidential elections to his protégé Jeenbekov, who started getting rid of Atambayev's people shortly after taking office. In June, parliament revoked Atambayev's status as ex-president and eventually deprived him of personal immunity.

Still, with the exception of Roza Otunbaeva, during its period of transition, Atambayev became the first Kyrgyz president to peacefully finish his tenure. His predecessors Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev lost power in 2005 and 2010 as a result of coups.

Relations with Russia

Kyrgyzstan's relations with Russia are close and fiduciary, and the Kremlin takes the ongoing feud between the former and current presidents to heart. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin separately met Jeenbekov and Atambayev in Moscow in a bid to defuse the confrontation though he was reluctant to take sides and reasoned that the "conflict is a purely internal matter of Kyrgyzstan."

In the meantime, the Russian president appealed to "unite around the president in office for the benefit of political stability and to assist him with the country development."

Kyrgyzstan is to Russia by means of interstate relations and regional co-operation initiatives, and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), in particular. In 2015, it joined the EEU after Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus guided by its politico-military and security concerns and trade and economic ambitions.

Economically, membership has ensured Kyrgyzstan such benefits as discounted prices for Russian oil and gas backed by investment in its energy sector. In January 2015, Gazprom announced that it would invest half a billion dollars to overhaul the country's gas infrastructure.

It also facilitated employment options for Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia and Kazakhstan whose remittances influx account for some 30% of the national GDP.

EEU membership allows free export of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers to other member countries, which contributes to the countr​y's well-being.

President Putin visited Kyrgyzstan in March 2019 and signed more than a dozen documents on bilateral co-operation that totaled $6 billion and covered various fields and sectors. Moscow is a key partner for Bishkek, and from the position of politics, their co-operation is almost cloudless. The countries' trade turnover for 2017 was $1.6 billion – more than 30% higher than the previous year.

Still, diversification of contacts with other countries is on the agenda of Jeenbekov who promised last year to resume co-operation with the U.S. with whom the relevant bilateral agreement had been denounced in 2015 by the initiative of Kyrgyzstan. In 2001-2014, the U.S. operated a military base at Manas airport, paying $60 million a year for rent to the government. When elected in 2011, President Atambayev persuaded the U.S. to leave the base in pursuit of meeting Russia's concerns about the American presence in Central Asia. Then, in 2012 the Russian government decided to write off over $500 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt after the Atambayev government agreed to host a Russian military base in the northern town of Kant for 15 years. The air base in Kant opened in 2003 under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Kyrgyzstan is home to other Russian military facilities; a navy base on Lake Issyk-Kul, a seismology center in the southern town of Mailuu-Suu, and a communication center in the town of Chaldybar near the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border. In 2012, all four facilities were united in one single entity called the Russian Joint Military Base.

In the early days of independence, Kyrgyzstan used to be called the "island of democracy" in the region due to its brave approaches to building a market economy. The country became the first post-Soviet state to gain membership in the WTO. This January, the European Parliament called on Bishkek to reduce its dependence on Russia and China to substantiate the European interest for cooperation.

All in all, Russian positions in Kyrgyzstan have been strengthened in recent years to become nearly unbeatable. Inter alia, Kyrgyzstan relies on the Russian market for exports and for remittances from migrant workers. Also, the countries enjoy deep-rooted and long-lasting ties in cultural and humanitarian fields on top of economic, military and regional co-operation interactions. At the national level, Russian is the second official language in the country according to provisions of its constitution.

Integration as a priority

For Russia, Kyrgyzstan is strategically important as a neighbor and party to the integration processes in Central Asia. The last meeting of the EEU intergovernmental council took place on the shores of the Kyrgyz Lake Issyk-Kul on Aug. 9; the next day ex-President Atambayev was detained. Prior to its start, there was speculation that the meeting might be cancelled because of disturbances; nevertheless, it went on as planned. Attended by the prime ministers of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, the one-day meeting of the EEU council considered matters of integration co-operation and supranational regulation. The EEU council plans to meet in Moscow in October 2019.

* Freelance journalist living in Istanbul

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