This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Russia's blunder in Ukraine has sent shockwaves across the former Soviet republics.
Russia's blunder in Ukraine has sent shockwaves across the former Soviet republics after the Kremlin's disastrous year of conflict in eastern Ukraine, crippling Western sanctions and falling oil prices. In recent years Kyrgyzstan has come to be known for its political turbulence, having had two governments overthrown since 2005. Vladimir Putin himself was also part of the movement to oust the Bakiyev regime in 2010, when violence paved the way for even greater violence in the south of the Kyrgyz Republic. At the heart of the regime changes in Kyrgyzstan are complex internal politics, large-scale corruption within Kyrgyz state institutions, and widespread poverty. And yet, Kyrgyzstan faces the very same issues in 2015 which have brought down previous rulers. In light of Russia's catastrophe in Ukraine, the Kremlin leadership wants to avoid dramatic changes in Kyrgyzstan.
Russia's intelligence service - the FSB - has been officially operating in the country since 2013 "to provide advice and guidance to [Kyrgyzstan’s] intelligence and law enforcement agencies in conducting operational, search and other special activities." These FSB detachments operate in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Kyrgyzstan, and the primary goal for Russian intelligence is to preserve the ruling regimes in those countries, but not to fight drug trafficking and terrorism, as Russian security analyst Andrei Soldatov says. It has also been observed that a copy of Russia's anti-NGO "foreign agent" law has been effectively lobbied and passed through the Kyrgyz Parliament while at the same time President Almazbek Atambayev is backing out of his commitments to promote pluralism in the country over the last three years.
However, since last year the mountainous nation of Kyrgyzstan is experiencing a blowback effect from its direct dependence on the Russian economy, and this has caused drastic shrinking of migrant remittances. The estimated size of the seasonal labour force travelling annually from Kyrgyzstan to Russia and Kazakhstan is anywhere between 500,000 – 1 million. A UNDP report indicated that the decline in the volume of outgoing remittances from Russia to the Kyrgyz Republic was recorded at 12 percent in 2014 and 31 percent in the first half of 2015. The decrease of remittance inflows to Kyrgyzstan’s GDP since last year was registered at 31 percent due to the economic downturn in Russia and Kazakhstan. Additionally, Kyrgyz ruling elites have been traditionally loyal to Russian political interests in return for financial support from the Kremlin. The Kyrgyz Republic's accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and decline in imports has contributed to the state budget deficit. Unsurprisingly, an official from the Kyrgyz Ministry of Finance told journalists that the government is expecting a "Russian grant of $30 million to cover the budget deficit".
Despite the negative political and economic implications of invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea, Russia has been intensifying its efforts to leverage "soft power" in Kyrgyzstan since 2014, in order to maintain the Kremlin's positive image in Central Asia. Essentially, Russia was able to reach new heights in the Kyrgyz Republic where a recent Gallup poll found one of the highest (79 percent) approval ratings of Moscow's policies after Vladimir Putin's confrontation with the West over Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan is a significant territory to Russia, and this should not be underestimated. Russia has an airbase there and the location of the country makes it strategically important. Russia is also involved in managing Kyrgyzstan's rich water resources that feed one of the primary water lifelines of the region, Syr Darya. Kyrgyzstan has a vibrant civil society, the likes of which is virtually absent in neighbouring Central Asian states. In both uprisings during the 2000s, domestic NGOs were a significant factor because of their ability to consolidate the Kyrgyz public against rampant corruption, nepotism, restrictions on political freedoms and free speech, and to take an active position on social issues. Likewise, the Kremlin's anti-NGO policy in the former Soviet republics has been in place since early 2000s after the colour revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan wiped out many organisations friendly to Russia’s regime. The Russian leadership's strategic miscalculations in Ukraine have only upped the stakes in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Yet the Kremlin is using the very same policies of supporting corrupt governments and regimes in Central Asia with a more focused approach in Kyrgyzstan after the crisis in Ukraine. Russia's anti-Western propaganda campaign and Moscow's favourable view of the pro-Russian political factions in the Kyrgyz Republic have resulted in them securing the majority coalition in the nation's parliament and being able to lobby for close ties with the Kremlin. Domestic observers expect a "foreign agents" bill to pass soon in the new parliament. However, Kyrgyzstan’s modern history has shown that when the state curbs public freedoms and social and economic issues remain unresolved, violence may not be too far away (as seen twice in the 2000s). Since overthrowing the Bakiyev regime, Kyrgyzstan has failed to fix its broken system of governance, which remains as corrupt as it was under country's previous rulers, and has failed to improve its record on the poverty level. Transparency International’s corruption index placed Kyrgyzstan (136th) next to Russia for corruption, indicating that the two nations are birds of a feather.
The latest assessment of the socio-economic and political situation in Kyrgyzstan by International Crisis Group highlighted that "poverty is high, social services are in decline, and the economy depends on remittances from labour migrants. Few expect the 4 October parliamentary elections to deliver a reformist government." World Bank research has also outlined a staggering level of poverty in Kyrgyzstan which was at 37 percent of the population in 2013 before economic slowdown in Russia and Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz government has also introduced a last resort measure to ration consumption of electricity in the country, even though an overwhelming majority of the population uses electric power as a heating source during the winter. As of 1 August, the average household in Kyrgyzstan has to pay a regular tariff for a strictly rationed 700 kwt per month. It remains unclear whether energy rationing, in a country with an 8 percent unemployment rate (according to ADB’s assessment in 2013), will prove effective when rising utility prices under Bakiyev’s regime sparked public protests in rural parts of the country.
In an apparent sign of Kyrgyzstan’s degradation as a "beacon of democracy” in the region, the trend of regressing civil liberties in Kyrgyzstan is not confined to domestic NGOs as it appears. In October, a team from the European environmental group CEE Bankwatch was harassed and forced out of the Isyk Kul province in a hostile fashion by the Kyrgyz state security service. Intimidation of the Bankwatch representatives continued for the duration of their stay. The Prague-based CEE Bankwatch travelled to Kyrgyzstan last month to oversee EBRD's standards regarding sustainability practices in the country where a controversial gold mining project – Kumtor - that is partly financed by the EBRD, has become a source of tension in local communities, leading to anti-mining outbursts in 2013. The Kyrgyz state's treatment of the European environmentalists is the latest example of the political direction that is favoured by current leadership of the Central Asian nation.
Weeks ago, Vladimir Putin declared the creation of the joint military force between Russia and Central Asian republics, to guard region's southern flank in areas bordering Afghanistan. The Russian president's announcement comes after a Taliban offensive in northern Afghanistan that is believed to cause concern in the Kremlin. Russia maintains its regional political interests by keeping military installations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Analysts believe that Vladimir Putin is misleading the West on Russia's goals in Central Asia in a similar fashion to the Kremlin's conduct in Ukraine and Syria. Consequently, for impoverished and vulnerable states such as Kyrgyzstan, it is of primary importance to preserve the delicate internal balance in a country that is constantly gripped by domestic rivalries. The Kremlin's role in the overthrow of the Bakiyev regime in 2010 – which led the Kyrgyz state to the brink of collapse - is a dramatic lesson that should not be forgotten.
Ryskeldi Satke is a writer-contributor with research institutions and news organisations in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.