By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On June 2, upon the invitation of his Turkish counterpart, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev paid a visit to Ankara to participate in a meeting of the Supreme Kyrgyz-Turkish Interstate Council. The Council was formed after the April 2010 events in Kyrgyzstan and determines the strategy of bilateral relations in a wide range of areas, including in the economic, agriculture and cultural spheres. As part of his Turkey visit, the Kyrgyz President also took part in the fourth meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States along with the presidents of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
Since its establishment in 2010, a number of meetings of the Supreme Kyrgyz-Turkish Interstate Council have taken place, where parties reached a joint agreement to increase the trade volume between their countries up to one billion dollars. To reach this goal, Turkey has continuously expressed its readiness to more actively engage its businesses in Kyrgyzstan and invest in the hydropower, tourism, transport and communication sectors. But despite these statements, the volume of bilateral trade remains low at slightly over a quarter billion US$. For comparison, trade between Turkey and Tajikistan has recently reached US$ 600 million, and with Kazakhstan the amount is close to US$ 4 billion.
Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Russia-led Customs Union was also discussed during the President Atambayev’s meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The head of the Turkish government described Kyrgyzstan’s intention to join the Union as “a positive step that opens up great opportunities for the Kyrgyz Republic.” Kyrgyzstan’s former Minister of Economy Akylbek Dzhaparov described Erdogan’s statement as a symbolic gesture of diplomacy and believes that Ankara is preoccupied with finding ways to maintain its influence in the region despite Russia’s intention to create a larger Eurasian Union. Regarding the volume of bilateral trade, an expert noted that it will decline after Bishkek enters the Customs Union. According to him “because of the law tariffs, goods from Turkey and China arrive first to Kyrgyzstan and are then exported to other countries. The Customs Union will lead to the same rates and therefore it is logical that the goods from these countries will be delivered directly to Russia through seaports.” To further discuss Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Union and escape the possible negative consequences for Kyrgyz-Turkish economic relations, the Turkish Minister of Economy will visit Bishkek on June 20.
Atambayev’s visit to Ankara immediately received various comments from local experts. According to political analyst Mars Sariev, Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Russia-led Customs Union will have a negative impact on Kyrgyz-Turkish relations and on the country’s foreign policymaking in general. In his words, “the Customs Union is foremost Moscow’s geopolitical project and smaller countries that are heavily dependent on Russia, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, will feel pressured and will not be in a position to carry out a multi-vector foreign policy, unlike Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. In that geopolitical situation, Kyrgyzstan will not have any other option but to cooperate and seek agreement on its foreign policy actions from Moscow.”
In Ankara, the fate of Manas International Airport was also discussed. Turkey once again expressed its plans to participate in the transformation of the airport into a civilian hub. In turn, President Atambayev stated that “American soldiers have almost left Manas and soon it will be a truly civilian airport. Which country will come to the airport, we do not know, but we would welcome the participation of investors from our partners and work out joint projects.” Russian media has also featured speculation that Turkey will purchase the Kyrgyz airport assets and then rent it to the United States. In light of those developments, the Russian state owned company Rosneft reached a preliminary agreement with the Kyrgyz authorities to purchase shares in the airport, but Kyrgyzstan has refused to continue the talks due to its internal political instability and demonstrations by the National Opposition Movement. Thus, the airport’s fate after the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops remains unclear.
During his visit to Turkey, along with his other counterparts, President Atambayev also participated in the fourth meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States. As a result of the summit, the participating states adopted the “Bodrum Declaration,” calling for more cooperation in developing the tourism sector.
The author wrote this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which the author works.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 12, after many rounds of negotiations, the Kyrgyz government has approved the road map to join the Russia-led Customs Union. According to Kyrgyzstan’s Minster for Economy, Temir Sariev, the document was submitted to the parliament to be thoroughly reviewed and debated by its committee on international affairs and fiscal policies. In the meantime, the Kyrgyz public is still engaged in heavy discussions with some approving the decision and others disapproving it.
Indeed, over the past couple of years, there has been a fierce debate on Kyrgyzstan joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with which Kyrgyzstan conducts more than 40 percent of its external trade. The terms of the country’s accession to the Union was negotiated at numerous occasions and none of the road maps presented earlier satisfied Bishkek’s preferences. This time, the sides have managed to reach an agreement and the Kyrgyz government approved the presented terms of entry into the Union.
According to state officials, the approval of the road map does not mean that Kyrgyzstan is already a member of the Customs Union. The recently nominated Kyrgyz Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev stated that “the road map forms a legal basis for harmonizing the country’s legislation in accordance with the terms of the Customs Union. Within its framework, parliamentarians should adopt around 100 new legislative acts and only then a special treaty indicating concrete terms of entry with all the preferences will be developed.” The Kyrgyz Prime Minister did not exclude the possibility of asking for extra time for preparations before assuming full membership in the Union. According to local analyst Azamat Akeleev, Moscow might support this request, “due to its heavy geopolitical interest in expanding the Customs Union but might not find full support among its other members.” In one of his interviews, Kazakh Vice-Prime Minister Bakytjan Sagyntaev stated that Bishkek is asking for too many preferences, which according to him “are not in the competency of the Customs Union” and suggested that Kyrgyzstan should instead join the Eurasian Economic Union directly.
On May 29, upon the invitation of his Kazakh colleague, President Atambayev took part in the Astana meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council. The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have signed an agreement on forming the Eurasian Economic Union. The Russian side expressed its readiness to assist the Kyrgyz Republic in carrying out all the preparatory procedures necessary to join the Customs Union and later the EEU as well. For these purposes, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Russia reached an agreement to form a joint “Development Fund,” with a capital of US$ 1 billion. Additionally, Russia has promised to transfer US$ 200 million on a grant basis. This money, according to Minister for Economy Sariev, will be used “to implement the recently approved road map.”
After the approval of the road map, heavy discussions started in the parliament, with its factions making varying remarks. The Social Democrats welcomed the government’s decision to approve the road map and prepare to join the Customs Union, which they consider to be in line with the country’s economic as well as geopolitical interests. According to them, Kyrgyzstan cannot abstain from integration processes taking place among its geopolitical and strategic partners. Yet opponents of the Customs Union, the independent MPs Ravshan Jeenbekov and Omurbek Abdrakhmanov have once again warned the government of the negative consequences of this decision, naming high inflation rates, price increases for many commodities, as well as the loss of sovereignty for Kyrgyzstan. The MPs described the government’s decision as “unconstitutional,” meaning that discussions in the country’s legislature is taking place only after the road map was approved, in conflict with the principles that “underlines the very core of the parliamentarian republic.”
In the meantime, civil activists and prominent members of the Supervisory Councils under a number of ministries have issued a joint statement criticizing the government’s failure to launch a wide public discussion on the matter. Activists called on the country’s authorities to adhere to democratic principles, carry out public dialogue, and to undertake a thorough analysis of the presented road map and its concrete impact on various sectors of Kyrgyzstan’s socio-economic life.
Indeed, the question of joining the Russia-led Customs Union has divided the Kyrgyz public. Lacking detailed information on the consequences of joining the Customs Union, people have come to perceive the matter as a question of being pro or anti-Russia. The Kyrgyz public TV channels tend to feature experts delivering one-sided pro-Customs Union views. Thus, at this stage, the call from civil society activists is justified and the government should do a better job at explaining to the public of what awaits them in the future.
By Ebi Spahiu (05/21/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
With a growing rhetoric of militant Islamism in Kyrgyzstan and increasing records of human rights abuses against vulnerable groups, the pervasive use of torture remains one of the most pressing issues in Kyrgyzstan’s judicial system. Being the only democracy in Central Asia, and having gone through constitutional changes since the new government took over after the 2010 revolution, the country’s judiciary has yet to effectively address issues of torture that frequently affect targeted minorities and vulnerable groups. Very often the use of torture is justified by law enforcement to combat increasing threats of violent extremism. However, apart from being a political approach to fight threats of terrorism or unjustly target political dissent, torture also occurs due to a deeply flawed judicial system and law enforcement investigative mechanisms currently operating in Kyrgyzstan.
Even though the prevalence of torture remains a regional human rights issue due to the repressive regimes in most Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is the only democracy in the region although its systematic use of torture strongly resembles that of its oppressive neighbors. However, despite the climate of impunity for law enforcement officers and highly flawed judicial system, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the region that is taking measures to address this problem.
A recent event organized by the Tian Shan Policy Center at the American University on torture prevention mechanisms exposed some of the largest legal gaps and challenges the country faces on the issue of torture. The event was supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Coalition against Torture and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights based in Bishkek, and brought together representatives from civil society, the office of the general prosecutor, and members of parliament to address the realities of hundreds of torture cases that mostly go unpunished. “The system encourages law enforcement officers to use torture. The assessment is based on the quantity of criminal cases closed, which encourages the use of torture. If police officers do not fulfill this quota, they’ll be punished. It is the norm for confessions to be obtained through torture because police are not trained to conduct investigations,” says Alexandra Cherkasenko, Associate Legal Officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative in Bishkek, which provides legal support to torture victims and promotes legal reform based on international standards on torture prevention throughout Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan is a signatory state of the ICCPR (International Convention of Civil and Political Rights) as well as the CAT (Convention against Torture). Despite the international legal platforms available and recommendations for the development of mechanisms to prevent of torture, the number of charges among law enforcement perpetrators remains very low. For the first time this year, two police officers based in the southern province of Jalalabad were brought to justice and received sentences of up to 11 years in prison for having tortured minors. “The pressure from civil society is quite strong, but there is still a long way to go,” says Cherkasenko.
Apart from international agreements on the prevention of torture, recent discussions among scholars and civil society representatives have revolved around the role of regional economic and political alliances, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) between China and Central Asian states, in maintaining a prevalent climate of torture justified by the war on terror. In January 2014, a group of 11 ethnic Uyghur men were killed on the border between China and Kyrgyzstan on allegations of extremist activities. According to a statement of the border authorities reported by the Associated Press, the 11 men appeared to belong “to an organization of Uyghur separatists.” Human rights organizations, however, disputed the claim due to insufficient investigations and continuously raise their concerns over the SCO agreements and “murky” definitions of terrorism to justify repression of political dissent in the name of the war on terror, also grouped under the organization’s definition of “three evils”: separatism, extremism and terrorism.
Following the 2010 ethnic conflict in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalalabad, inhabited by predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, the country still faces the challenges of a corrupt and skewed judicial system whose investigations have been marred by arbitrary arrests and torture. The court proceedings and investigations into the killings of over 400 people during the conflict have failed to resolve the pains of a transitioning state. Widespread torture and targeting of ethnic minorities among other groups remains an obstacle to the highly politicized judicial processes. “In Kyrgyzstan investigations are compromised because the investigative body is still the Ministry of Internal Affairs with prosecutorial supervision. The complaints are usually made against operative officers who are also under the Ministry. These complaints are made because police officers are torturing in the context of an investigation so there is inherent conflict for both the prosecutors and the Ministry,” says Sarah King, Human Rights Program Manager at the Tian Shan Policy Center in Bishkek.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (05/07/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 29, Kyrgyzstan’s newly nominated Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev paid his first official visit to Moscow. During his two days in the Russian capital, Otorbaev met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, and held talks with Gazprom’s Chief Executive Officer Alexey Miller and the new deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. After his official meetings, Otorbaev held a press conference with representatives of Russian media and met with Russian Central Asia experts to discuss the state of bilateral relations.
Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Russia-led Customs Union was the main subject discussed between the Prime Ministers. In his meeting with Medvedev, Otorbaev stressed that Russia is and will remain Kyrgyzstan's strategic partner and that joining the Customs Union is a right step that will help his country tackle a number of economic and social challenges. Talking to Russian journalists, Otorbaev stated that Kyrgyzstan’s products, except for its gold, are mainly being exported to the Customs Union member states, i.e. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and that it would therefore be wrong to close the borders to those countries. In his turn, the Russian Prime Minister welcomed his Kyrgyz colleague and expressed Moscow’s readiness to be flexible and if necessary, further negotiate Kyrgyzstan’s terms of entry into the Union.
As part of his official visit, Otorbaev met with representatives of the Eurasian Economic Commission to finalize the “road map” for Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Customs Union. As a result of these talks, the new head of Kyrgyzstan’s government stated that the road map is practically completed and expressed his hope that it will be soon approved by the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission. Only afterwards will Bishkek take further actions to finalize the entry into the Union.
At this stage, no one questions Bishkek’s accession to the Russia led Customs Union. Agreements have been reached, the road map is being finalized and Bishkek's preferences are being met. But despite of all these developments, opposition politicians and experts continue to express their concern over Kyrgyzstan’s membership. For them, the Customs Union is primarily a political project and a part of Moscow’s continuous effort to strengthen its influence over the former Soviet Republics or in its zone of “privileged interest,” as Medvedev once described it.
During his Moscow visit, Otorbaev also met with key representatives of the Russian business community and held talks with Gazprom CEO Miller, whose company has recently purchased the KyrgyzGaz Natural Gas Corporation for US$ 1. Miller reconfirmed his Company's full responsibility for the timely supply of gas to Kyrgyzstan. Besides its business activities in the country, Gazprom intends to engage actively in supporting and implementing social programs in all the country’s regions. In turn, Otorbaev expressed his government’s full support for Gazprom and all other international companies willing to invest and do business in Kyrgyzstan.
It should also be mentioned that Russia’s state oil company Rosneft recently refused to purchase a majority stake in Manas International Airport. Shortly before this announcement, Kyrgyzstan’s United Opposition Movement held its first rally and heavily criticized the government's deals with foreign companies to sell the country’s strategically important assets.
In his address to the population, President Atambayev blamed the opposition for damaging Kyrgyzstan’s investment climate and stated that the country has no other choice. “Those screaming that no shares can be given to Rosneft, they in fact want to put an end to the future of Manas,” said Atambayev. Indeed, with the U.S. shortly leaving the Airbase, the Kyrgyz government is preoccupied with replacing the financial loss, which is according to all estimates a substantial share of the country’s budget. Otorbaev’s visit to Moscow is yet another effort to assure that Kyrgyzstan is a safe place for Russian investments.
Kyrgyz experts and analysts express varying opinions of selling the country’s strategic assets to companies owned by a foreign government in return for promises of investment, modernization, and development of natural resources. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Marat Kazakpaev, “to abstain from these developments Kyrgyzstan should improve its investment climate and attract private foreign investors. The fact that both Gazprom and Rosneft are state owned companies and are purchasing our country’s strategic assets gives a political connotation to the situation. This is not business, but politics,” stated Kazakpaev.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (04/23/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 10, Kyrgyzstan’s recently created National Opposition Movement conducted its first rally in the capital Bishkek, as well as smaller supporting rallies in the cities of Jalalabad, Osh and Karakol. The number of participants in Bishkek ranged from 1,000 to 1,200 people, including a number of media representatives. In the provinces, the number varied from 200 to 500 demonstrators.
The demonstration took place in Bishkek’s Gorky Park in a relatively peaceful manner, despite the detention of several dozens of demonstrators. According to the chief of Bishkek city Police, Melis Turganbaev, and Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman Bakyt Amanbaev, more than 200 rally participants were detained because they gathered outside of the aforementioned park. They were released several hours later. Also, in an interview to local journalists, Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman criticized state television channels for the biased coverage of the rally by portraying the demonstrators in a negative light. The Ombudsman stated that “all the citizens have inherent rights to peacefully hold rallies and demonstrations, where they can openly declare their opposition to any decisions taken by the country’s authorities and their voices must be heard.”
During the protests, prominent leaders of the National Opposition Movement delivered their speeches to their audience and put forward their demands to the country’s political leadership. The demands ranged from renegotiating the agreement over the Canadian-run Kumtor Gold Mining Company, the president’s resignation and the dissolution of the current Parliament, changing the sentence of the arrested former speaker of parliament Akhmatbek Keldibekov, and several other demands. The movement’s leader, the independent MP Ravshan Jeenbekov, said that “the fundamental objective of the rally is to raise public awareness of the president’s full control of the country and his continuing efforts to establish a fully authoritarian form of government in Kyrgyzstan.” The opposition leader added that the rally was also conducted to call on the president and the country’s top political leadership to stop selling the country’s crucial assets to the Russian Federation. Kyrgyzstan’s government recently reached a preliminary agreement with the Russian state oil company Rosneft to transfer its majority shares in Manas International Airport in exchange for assistance to create an international hub. This, according to the rally participants, heavily undermines the country’s economic as well as political independence.
At exactly the same time as the united opposition was holding its first public rally, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev met with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller. The sides signed a final document according to which the world’s largest extractor of natural gas will take over Kyrgyzstan’s KyrgyzGaz natural-gas corporation for US$ 1. During a press conference, Alexei Miller termed the deal “historic” and stated that “all debts of the Kyrgyz state company will become Gazprom's responsibility, the prices for gas for consumers in Kyrgyzstan will be decreased, and all projects and programs, including social ones, related to the company will be outlined and implemented with the Kyrgyz government’s involvement.”
The first rally of the recently created National Opposition Movement got a mixed reception from the Kyrgyz wider public and the local experts. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Shairbek Juraev, “in a democratic state, every political and social movement has a right to demonstrate, publicly deliver their ideas and there is nothing wrong with it, but there is a firm belief in our society that each demonstration shall lead to a revolution or a complete overthrow of the regime.” Regarding the movement’s demands, Juraev added that all of them are not groundless. Kyrgyzstan is indeed facing a number of socio-economic problems. The issue of the Kumtor Gold Mining Company and Manas International airport should be solved in the best interest of the country by holding public debates and discussions involving all the political forces. It remains a challenging task for the current political leadership to seek that involvement with the opposition forces who demand the immediate resignation of the current political elite.
While the opposition leaders claim that the rally was conducted in a fairly peaceful and democratic manner, the country’s recently nominated Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev stated that the rally inflicted economic damages amounting to at least 100 million Kyrgyz soms. On the day of the rally, local entrepreneurs feared looting and closed their shops and businesses.
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 the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.