By Arslan Sabyrbekov (01/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On December 23, Kyrgyzstan signed an accession agreement to become a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The new union is an expansion of the Customs Union grouping together Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and now also Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

Upon signing the new accord, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev expressed his hope that Bishkek will become a full-fledged member of the EEU by May 2015 and thanked his colleagues for fairly determining accession conditions. The treaty will now fully enter into force after its ratification by the member countries’ parliaments. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin welcomed Bishkek’s decision and noted that the new union will now have a combined economic output of US$ 4.5 trillion, bringing together more than 170 million people.

In the meantime, Bishkek-based civil society activists have issued a statement criticizing the political leadership’s quick decision to enter the EEU. According to them, the government has failed to engage in comprehensive public debate on the subject matter and made the decision behind closed doors. According to MP Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, an outspoken critic of Bishkek’s integration with Moscow, “no one has probably seen the text of the treaty except the country’s key political leadership. The Parliament was supposed to take a decision approving the initiative of the president to enter the Union, but the procedure was not observed. The text of an agreement consequential to the nation’s sovereignty was approved in half an hour.”

Bishkek’s EEU deal comes in the midst of the financial crisis in Russia. Over the last couple of months, the Russian currency has lost between 40 and 55 percent of its value against the Dollar and for the first time in history has even lost ground against the Kyrgyz Som. The ongoing depreciation of the Ruble means that millions of Central Asian migrant workers in Russia can send home less money. The Kyrgyz government is preparing for windfalls from abroad to fall by approximately US$ 1 billion. The decline in remittances, accompanied by massive government spending to keep the currency closer to the dollar, clearly poses a problem to the country’s already troubled budget. In addition, the ongoing financial crisis in Russia along with tougher regulations is already forcing a number of labor migrants to return home and join the pool of unemployed. According to Bishkek based economist Azamat Akeleev, “Kyrgyzstan lacks capacity to accommodate its returning work force and this will definitely lead to various social tensions in the future.”

The decline of the Russian currency is not only a concern for the dependent economies of the Central Asian states but risks undermining the overall stability of the EEU. In light of the ongoing crisis, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has demanded trade in the Union to be denominated in Dollars or Euros and not in Rubles. He has also sharply criticized Moscow over its trade dispute with Minsk. In response to Western sanctions, Moscow has recently banned imports of foodstuffs from the European Union and in order to prevent Minsk from reselling EU products to Russia, has halted imports of Belarusian milk and meat products through its territory, referring to alleged sanitary reasons. “Contrary to all international norms, we are being denied the right to transit goods from the territory of Belarus and all of this has been imposed unilaterally, without any consultations,” Lukashenko said.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has also suggested that Russia’s isolation from the West over the crisis in Ukraine is creating tensions between Moscow and its closest partners. “The instability of world markets and the policy of sanctions will impact the process of building the Eurasian Economic Union,” said the Kazakh leader during his state visit to Ukraine. Contrary to the Kremlin’s position, the Kazakh President also spoke in support of the country’s territorial integrity and offered financial and energy based aid to the struggling government in Kiev.

These stark differences in positions is proof that Moscow’s capacity for influence might be shrinking. The Kremlin was able to draw two small states into the Union, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, but its ability to transform the union into a broader alliance extending to the political and diplomatic arenas is unlikely to be realized, at least for the time being.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports

By Tavus Rejepova (12/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

President Almazbek Atambayev, leading a large government delegation from Kyrgyzstan discussed the possibility of importing electricity and petroleum products from Turkmenistan during the official talks with his counterpart President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in Ashgabat on November 11, 2014. Within the framework of the visit, a package of numerous bilateral agreements was signed to increase the level of commercial and economic ties between Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.  

The agreements include an agreement on establishing a Turkmen-Kyrgyz Intergovernmental Commission for trade, economic, scientific, technical, and humanitarian cooperation; an agreement between Turkmenistan’s State Committee for Sports and the State Agency for Physical Culture and Sports under the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic on cooperation in the sphere of physical culture and sports; a cooperation agreement between the ministries of culture of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan; a cooperation agreement between the Chambers of Commerce of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan; a Memorandum of cooperation between the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan and the Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan; an agreement between the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan on cooperation in providing reciprocal assistance over tax legislation compliance; an agreement between Kyrgyzstan’s State financial Intelligence Service and Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Finance on cooperation against money laundering and terrorism financing; and an agreement on cooperation in physical training and sports.

During the high level talks, President Berdimuhamedov said that Kyrgyzstan is Turkmenistan’s strategic partner in the yet-to-be constructed pipeline (Line D of the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline) that will be constructed through the territories of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to eventually reach China. Within the framework of the top level talks, Kyrgyz President Atambayev mentioned that Turkmenistan is currently ready to help Kyrgyzstan with electricity supply in the amount of 700 million kWh per year and increase this amount up to 1 billion kWh next year. Though this announcement came out during the press conference, no agreement, either on cooperation in the electricity sector or purchases and sales, was signed during the visit. The sides have not made it clear how and which route they would go to sell the promised electricity.

The only viable route to import electricity from Turkmenistan to Kyrgyzstan is through Uzbekistan but it was not clear how Kyrgyzstan was going to address the problem of transit via Uzbekistan. It is noteworthy that in 2009 Uzbekistan cut Turkmen electricity exports to Tajikistan across its territory when Uzbekistan withdrew from the united power grid of Central Asia’s electricity system. No electricity cooperation was mentioned during Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s visit to Turkmenistan on October 23-24. The Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil visited Ashgabat on October 25-26 to meet with President Berdimuhamedov and other government officials but no announcement was made to possibly addressing this standing issue.

Turkmenistan currently sells electricity to neighboring Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, and has held talks to sell to Pakistan in the future. In April 2013, the country introduced a US$ 5 billion plan to develop Turkmenistan’s power industry for the period 2013-2020 and announced plans to increase the current export amount of about 2.5bln kWh by five times within this period.  

President Atambayev’s visit to Ashgabat followed his state visit to Kazakhstan on November 7 where he and his counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev agreed on the import of one billion kWh of Kazakh electricity to Kyrgyzstan during the winter. This is in addition to an earlier report saying that Kazakhstan was going to supply 500 million kWh for water provided by Kyrgyzstan during the irrigation period. Kazakhstan is expected to produce an estimated amount of about 100 billion kWh of electricity in 2014. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s possible electricity supply could significantly help Kyrgyzstan address its serious power deficit during the winter. The cost of electricity in Kyrgyzstan is expected to increase given that the reservoirs feeding hydropower dams are about twenty percent lower than usual. Kyrgyzstan’s power shortage is further exacerbated by uncertainty regarding the winter gas tariffs after Russia’s Gazprom bought 100 percent of Kyrgyzgaz for a symbolic US$ 1 with its estimated US$ 40 billion debt.

Atambayev has also expressed Kyrgyzstan’s interest in importing petroleum products from Turkmenistan such as gasoline. Relations between the two countries started improving this year, manifested in President Atambayev’s first-ever official visit to Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan appointed an ambassador to Kyrgyzstan in August this year, following Kyrgyzstan’s appointment of a new ambassador to Turkmenistan in July.

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 26 November 2014 11:02

Soros Visits Bishkek

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (11/26/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On November 17, the American business magnate and philanthropist George Soros paid two days visit to Kyrgyzstan. Soros is Chairman of the Open Society Foundation, a global network of institutes aiming to shape public policy to promote democratic governance, human rights, legal and economic reforms. In Bishkek, several dozens of pro-Russian activists held a peaceful rally near the U.S. Embassy, protesting Soros’ visit.

The initiators of the rally are activists from the Union of Russian Compatriots Russkiy Mir (Russian World) and members of Kyrgyzstan’s Communist Party. Participants were mostly elderly people, holding posters in both Russian and Kyrgyz languages reading, “U.S. hands off from sovereign Kyrgyzstan;”  “Kyrgyzstan+Russia = Customs Union;” “Soros, please let us live in peace” and many others.

In an interview to local journalists, Union of Russian Compatriots chairwoman Nadejda Ladojinskaya emphasized that Soros finances local non-governmental organizations aimed at destabilizing the socio-political situation in the country and is one of the main initiators of the so called “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space. In her words, “America should listen and accept the choice Kyrgyzstan has made. We support the policy that our government has taken and its growing partnership with Moscow. We are against those who try to prevent these positive developments and brainwash our people against Russia.” The rally participants demanded Embassy representatives to come out and speak with them. However, there was no response and the small crowd dispersed within an hour.

The Kyrgyz public and local experts have taken varying positions on the demonstration by pro-Russian activists. According to Kyrgyzstan’s former State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov, the rally should be regarded as a complete disgrace for the country and there is no evidence whatsoever pointing to sabotage activities by George Soros or his Institution. 

The Soros Foundation has been active in Kyrgyzstan starting from the first days of the country’s independence and continues to strongly advocate democratic governance reforms by launching and supporting initiatives in all spheres of public life. Moreover, Soros has stood at the forefront of creating the American University of Central Asia, which has become a renowned regional educational institution, training future leaders and offering a multi-disciplinary learning community in the American liberal arts tradition. As part of his visit to Bishkek, Soros also met with the president and student body of the American University and inspected the University’s new campus, built by his donation.

It seems that Bishkek’s growing partnership with Moscow contributes to a growing activism among pro-Russian forces in Kyrgyzstan. This is not the first rally conducted by the Union of Russian Compatriots. Recently, Union activists have also protested in front of the Ukrainian Embassy in Bishkek, urging Kiev to stop military actions. But unlike the dozens of young people who recently protested the government’s decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union, the security forces did not take any actions against the Union members, describing the entire Ukrainian nation as “fascists.” According to MP Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, this is indicative of the current power holders’ tacit agreement with or even direct involvement in these processes.

However, the developments around Soros’ visit to Bishkek did not prevent the country’s President Atambayev to meet the man who over the course of Kyrgyzstan’s independence invested around US$ 80 million in various social and educational projects. According to the President’s press service, they briefly discussed the activities of the Soros Foundation and of the American University of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan’s president expressed his gratitude to Soros for remaining Kyrgyzstan's good friend and a great supporter of democratic reforms.

In the end of October, the multi billionaire investor published the article “Wake up, Europe” in the New York Review of Books, warning Europe’s democracies against the threat that a resurgent Russia poses to the continent. Soros wrote that “The Russian attack on Ukraine is indirectly an attack on the entire European union and its principles of governance,” and called for more economic and military support for Ukraine, as well as for the abandonment of the Eurozone’s current austerity programs.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports

By Stephen Blank (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Kyrgyzstan is considered the least authoritarian state in Central Asia, but it is also the most crisis-ridden and least stable of these states. Its long-standing domestic weaknesses are compounded by its external crises and only Ukraine has achieved a similar level of instability among post-Soviet states. In both cases, recent revolts have been aided by direct Russian hands-on efforts at destabilization. Kyrgyzstan risks a turbulent 2015 as it faces a decline in Russian subsidies amid pressure to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), along with the interaction of several ethnic, economic, border, and international crises, which Kyrgyzstan’s weakening state will unlikely be able to handle.

640px-Bishkek capitol revolution 2010

Published in Analytical Articles

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan has expressed her concern over the country’s ability to maintain and follow the democratic trajectory in light of increasing ties with the Kremlin.

“Kyrgyzstan’s growing cooperation with Russia is a challenge to our efforts to support Kyrgyzstan’s democracy,” Ambassador Pamela Spratlen wrote in an article published on the website of the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this week. “Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership would welcome a partnership with the United States, but places a priority on its relationship with Russia, which often comes at our expense. It remains an unanswered question how Kyrgyzstan can maintain its democratic trajectory while pursuing this partnership,” Spratlen wrote. The Ambassador did not elaborate on how exactly Kyrgyzstan’s democracy was under threat, but she did note that, as a result of pressure from the Kremlin, Bishkek was forced to evict the U.S. Military airbase at Manas, is set to join the Russia-led Customs Union and has largely accepted the Russian narrative of what is happening in Ukraine due to the massive presence of Russian media sources in the country.

The statement of Washington’s envoy drew heated discussions in the local political and expert circles. According to Kyrgyzstan’s former General Prosecutor Kubatbek Baibolov, the Ambassador’s concerns are not groundless. “It is not a secret that over the course of only one year, Kyrgyzstan has taken a big step back in its democratic development and reforms. Look at how law enforcement bodies are now treating peaceful protesters and civil society groups protesting the decision of the authorities to enter the Russia-led Customs Union,” noted Baibolov.

Indeed, signs abound that Central Asia’s only democracy is increasingly unable or unwilling to maintain its democratic trajectory. The country has recently adopted initiatives that speak against the fundamental principles of democracy. Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament outlawed the promotion of positive attitudes towards non-traditional sexual relations. Many observers detect the hand of the Kremlin, which passed a similar law banning “gay propaganda” last year. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek issued a statement condemning the legislation, saying that it violates fundamental human rights principles, Kyrgyzstan’s democratic gains and constitutional guarantees. The parliament’s press office shot back, stating that the U.S. was interfering in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs.

In addition to this law, discussions are ongoing regarding the adoption of a law similar to that in Russia, requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents.” The law presents a real threat to Kyrgyzstan’s relatively vibrant civil society and aims to limit their activities. These initiatives are not coincidental and indicate Moscow’s efforts to impose undemocratic views on its allies. As New York Times columnist Masha Gessen put it, “the promotion of Russian style legislation and ideology is a stealthy expansionist project.”

As ambassador Spratlen also noted, all these worrying developments seem to demonstrate that Kyrgyzstan’s increasing cooperation with Moscow might be coming at the expense of the country’s democratic achievements. A common view among local political analysts is that due to the country’s heavy economic dependency on Moscow, Bishkek has no other option but to join the Kremlin’s integration projects. According to the ex-speaker of the Kyrgyz Parliament Zainidin Kurmanov, from the economic standpoint, neither the European Union, nor the U.S. have much to offer Central Asia’s only democracy, facing serious socio-economic challenges and risks. In his words, “further cooperation with the EU and the U.S. can take place in the framework of the democratic governance agenda.”

During her recent visit to Bishkek, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar reiterated Washington’s readiness to further support democracy in Kyrgyzstan and called on the country to stay open and strengthen its relatively active civil society. Commenting on ambassador Spratlen’s article, Sumar replied that it contained nothing that the State Department hadn’t stated before.

In the meantime, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved Spratlen’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to neighboring Uzbekistan. If confirmed for the post by the full Senate, it will be Spratlen’s second ambassadorial post, in a country that is far less democratic and is considered by many to be reemerging as Washington’s main regional partner.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports

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Joint Center Publications

Silk Road Paper Svante E. Cornell, Per Eklund, Mamuka Tsereteli, Under the Radar: Georgia’s October 2016 Elections, October 2016.

Oped Halil Karaveli, "Turkey's Fractured State," The New York Times , August 1, 2016.

Article Svante E. Cornell, The fallacy of ‘compartmentalisation’: the West and Russia from Ukraine to Syria, European View, Volume 15, Issue 1, June 2016.

Silk Road Paper Shirin Akiner, Kyrgyzstan 2010: Conflict and Context, July 2016. 

Silk Road Paper John C. K. Daly, Rush to Judgment: Western Media and the 2005 Andijan ViolenceMay 2016.

Silk Road Paper Jeffry Hartman, The May 2005 Andijan Uprising: What We KnowMay 2016.

Oped Svante E. Cornell, "Vladimir Putin's European Front", Wall Street Journal,, April 6, 2016.

Silk Road Paper Johanna Popjanevski, Retribution and the Rule of Law: The Politics of Justice in Georgia, June 2015.

Book S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, eds., ·Putin's Grand Strategy: The Eurasian Union and its Discontents, Joint Center Monograph, September 2014.

Book S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Princeton University Press, September 2013.


 

 

The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst brings cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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