BACKGROUND: Moscow instigated Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 revolution to unseat a government it regarded as treacherous, devious, and overly pro-American because it took Moscow’s cash and then preserved the U.S. base at Manas against Moscow’s wishes (See 14 April 2010 CACI Analyst). As most recently demonstrated in Ukraine, it is clear that Moscow is fully prepared to use revolution and violence to install pro-Russian regimes on its peripheries.
Thus Kyrgyzstan faces a never-ending threat to its sovereignty from Moscow. But it also faces Chinese attempts to reduce it to a dependency in economic if not also political terms. Anxiety over Chinese economic power and resentment of Chinese workers has led to a series of ethnic riots and clashes against the Chinese presence in Kyrgyzstan. Local police have proven unable to cope, signifying weakness in these organizations. While China has boosted military aid to Kyrgyzstan and conducted exercises with its domestic forces to improve the situation; it is unlikely to have assuaged the resentment against Chinese economic power or greatly improved the capacity of state security organizations.
But it is precisely the threat to Russian interests prompted by China’s presence in Central Asia generally and Kyrgyzstan in particular as well as the enormous increase in Russo-American tensions that drives Russia to lock Kyrgyzstan down as a member of its trade and customs bloc EEU. Yet that drive compounds Kyrgyzstan’s problems with independent-minded Uzbekistan, which has adopted a consistently adversarial posture towards Kyrgyzstan. Given Kyrgyzstan’s linkages to Russia and its adversarial relationship with Uzbekistan over ongoing ethnic issues, economics, trade, and water, Kyrgyz analysts worry that the great spike in Russo-American animosity due to Ukraine will adversely rebound upon Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s crises do not end here. Recruiters for the Syrian rebels and presumably ISIS are recruiting in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Just as Western rulers display anxiety about the possible return of homegrown terrorists to their countries from Syria, the same is true for Central Asia. In addition, Kyrgyzstan was last spring and summer embroiled in numerous armed clashes along the border with Tajikistan, clearly prompted by the same mix of issues that poison its ties with Uzbekistan: border disputes, water use, and ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to alleviate its crises appear to have backfired. Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has repeatedly stated that Kyrgyzstan intends to join Russia’s EEU – itself in this region an anti-Chinese formation to reduce China’s economic presence in Central Asia while boosting Russia’s presence there – by 2015. Moscow has also offered it large subsidies to facilitate this action. In August it pledged US$ 500 million to support Kyrgyzstan’s EEU integration. Beyond this gift, we see the usual pledges (that probably continue to go unfulfilled) about joint participation in major hydroelectric and power engineering projects. But Moscow is also writing off Kyrgyzstan’s US$ 489 million debt to Russia and by investing in a joint investment fund and US$ 200 million for establishing Kyrgyzstan’s disputed borders.
IMPLICATIONS: Even if Russia’s promises materialize, which is often not the case, it is questionable whether Russian subsidies will allow Kyrgyzstan to overcome its domestic and foreign policy crises. Western sanctions will severely cripple Russian efforts to subsidize other states, not just Kyrgyzstan, in order to achieve its foreign policy goals and these promised funds may therefore not materialize. Second, Kyrgyzstan sold its gas monopoly to Gazprom earlier this year in the belief that Gazprom could actually provide gas, possibly at lower prices. Instead, like its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan is experiencing a gasoline and gas shortage. Electricity prices, the trigger for the 2010 uprising, are expected to rise by 20 percent this winter. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan may fall short by about 25 percent of the water it needs as a power source, which may also affect Kazakhstan. The ensuing restrictions on power will clearly injure the economy. And it is now clear that it will again face a water crisis in 2015, an outcome that will likely further embroil Kyrgyzstan with Tajikistan.
But the crisis goes even deeper. Once Kyrgyzstan sold its energy firm to Moscow, Uzbekistan cut its supplies saying it had no contract with Gazprom and there is still no agreement between Tashkent and Bishkek. Kazakhstan is also blocking Russian fuel trains from going to Kyrgyzstan doe to its own fuel shortages. The proximate cause is that sanctions have driven up the price of Russian gas at home, causing producers to bypass Central Asian markets for more lucrative Russian ones. Thus, the sanctions imposed due to Ukraine will not only rebound on inter-state relations in Central Asia but could also undermine Kyrgyzstan’s domestic governance and security while exacerbating the already strong inter-ethnic tensions across Central Asia. Finally, the takeover by Rosneft and other Russian firms of Manas Airport not only consolidates their stranglehold on Kyrgyz energy, it also affords Moscow a base for operations in Kyrgyzstan and all of its neighboring states.
These interactive crises and Russia’s growing dependence on China despite its desire to assert itself against China’s rising economic dominance in Central Asia, suggest that the EEU is already buckling under the strain of having (predictably) to subsidize weaker economies at a time of mounting Russian economic constraint. But it also suggests that the interaction of the ethnic, economic, border, and international crises, along with Kyrgyzstan’s deepening state weakness may make this a hot winter from the political standpoint.
Should Kyrgyzstan fail to sustain itself, Moscow will have to bail it out. This factor also underscores the underlying weakness of both Kyrgyzstan and of Russia, for these imperial subsidies and bailouts are already exacting a heavy toll on an economy crippled by misrule, sanctions, and global economic slowdown. Meanwhile, China is investing a reported US$ 16.3 billion into its Silk Road Economic Belt project, much of which will go into Central Asia and further consolidate its superior economic position there vis-à-vis Russia. Hence, while Russia is subsidizing and buying debt, China is investing in infrastructure. The ensuing disparity in outcomes should not be difficult to foresee. Of course, this also hinges on China finding a way to regenerate its high growth rates and to stabilize Xinjiang. If not, its rationale and margin for large-scale investment in Central Asia, whose primary purpose is to help stabilize Xinjiang by making it a regional entrepot, will be compromised.
But if Moscow and/or Beijing prove unable to help Kyrgyzstan out of its difficulties, Kyrgyzstan’s future becomes all the more clouded given the internal situation and rivalries among Central Asian states. Neither is it the only state at risk from the concatenation of combined and interactive domestic, foreign policy, and global crises. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will certainly suffer from the diminution of the value of rubles sent back as remittances from the unemployment they exported to Russia. As the value of those workers’ remittances fail and as unemployment might grow in Russia these men, if forced back home with no secure economic future, will become a potential powder keg for future unrest.
CONCLUSIONS: These factors taken together suggest that despite the undoubted successes of Central Asian governments, they are vulnerable to the pressures emanating from the deteriorating international security and economic processes now operating throughout the world. These factors will interact with the vulnerabilities and areas of failed policies in their domestic systems to intensify economic hardship, socio-economic challenges, resource constraints, and the potential advent of terrorism either through ISIS or Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan might be the state most immediately vulnerable to these interactive and combined pressures. But it is by no means alone and it is equally uncertain that the resources of those states who aspire to be Central Asia’s “security mangers,” namely Russia and China, will suffice not only to suppress unrest but to help these governments achieve genuine stability as they seek to grapple with these challenges.
This consideration highlights the glaring absence of any coherent U.S. strategy for Central Asia. We have all learned that what originates in Central Asia may not stay there but actually strike directly at critical U.S. interests at home and abroad. Complacency that we do not need to think about the future, in Kyrgyzstan or elsewhere, is hardly a recipe for sound preventive action or at least a coherent response to challenges. Unfortunately, the predicament of Kyrgyzstan as well as its neighbors suggests that 2015 may well be a year of unexpected and severe challenges across Central Asia.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
(Image Attribution: Brokev03, via Wikimedia Commons and CC 3.0)