Kyrgyzstan’s new president has been taking aim at Moscow, but he may end up shooting himself in the foot.by Chingiz Toloev 2 April 2012
BISHKEK | Since taking office in October, Kyrgyzstan’s president, Almazbek Atambaev, has made needling and resentful remarks about Moscow and has even threatened to throw Russian troops off a military base in the Kyrgyz city of Kant. In return, the Kremlin, never apt to use a light touch with its neighbors, has adopted an approach one expert called “arm twisting.”
There’s little doubt that if the antagonism continues, Bishkek will be on the losing end, and some commentators wonder if Atambaev will learn from the example of his predecessor, another Kyrgyz leader who paid a high price for crossing Moscow.
Although he has insisted that Russia is a key partner for his country, in late-February interviews with major Russian media Atambaev was pugnacious. He questioned whether Kyrgyzstan needed a Russian presence on the Kant airbase near Bishkek and said Moscow had neither been paying rent nor, as agreed, training Kyrgyz military pilots there.
In addition, he was clearly still rankled by a package of aid Moscow sent then-president Kurmanbek Bakiev months before the 2009 election, in which Atambaev was a challenger. “I know this well because I was a single opposition candidate, and this money was allocated against me,” he told an interviewer for radio station Ekho Moskvy.
In that deal, the Kremlin agreed to write off $180 million worth of Kyrgyz debt and extended a $300 million loan and a $150 million grant. It also promised $1.7 billion worth of investments in construction of major hydro power plants. In exchange, Bishkek voted to close down the Manas air field, which continues to be used by NATO forces to supply operations in Afghanistan, and to transfer a 48 percent stake in the Dastan torpedo factory, majority-owned by the Kyrgyz government, to Moscow.
After a February trip to Moscow, Atambaev maintained the defiant rhetorical stance. “We’re a small but sovereign nation. I believe that in matters of foreign policy, henceforth Kyrgyzstan should be guided only by the interests of Kyrgyzstan,” he said on national television. “We should not get tuned in to any country.”
In late March, Atambaev went on television again and accused Russia of having “representatives of special services make themselves at home in Kyrgyzstan and distribute money during elections. I know this. ... We should stop this. If you have extra money, please give us a grant, but do not allocate [money] to stir up the situation.”
Central Asia scholar Alexander Knyazev described relations between Bishkek and Moscow as “very bad.” He said the only time they have been worse in the post-Soviet era was right before the ouster of Bakiev, which many believe Moscow had a hand in. Knyazev blamed Atambaev – “a weak and very poor politician” – for the rising tension.
Arkadiy Dubnov, a longtime journalist and analyst in Central Asia, called the new president “a difficult partner for Moscow.”
“Atambaev positions himself as one of leaders of the Kyrgyz revolution who broke the backbone of Kyrgyz authoritarianism and nepotism, and so demands respect for his country,” Dubnov wrote in an email. “But due to peculiarities in his personality, he is not always appropriate and diplomatic.”
In contrast to the contentious meetings with Russian leaders, Atambaev’s January trip to Turkey, his first official one as president, was a love-in. Before he even arrived in Ankara, Turkey had announced it would write off $49.2 million in debt from Kyrgyzstan. During the trip, Atambaev showered effusive praise on Turkey, calling it a “shining star” for the Kyrgyz people, and reportedly referred to Turkish President Abdullah Gul as “a big brother.”
That, some in the Russian press noted, has historically been Moscow’s role. According to Knyazev, Atambaev has lost sight of the fact that Kyrgyzstan has gotten much more from its relationship with Russia than from its relationship with Turkey.
He sees the president’s tough stance as, in part, a reaction to past criticism that Atambaev was too pro-Russian.
“If that’s so, he has a terrible team [of advisers], which is far from serving the interests of the country,” Knyazev said, adding, “There is a lot of Kyrgyz nationalism in Atambaev’s remarks.”
The Kremlin has responded. First, it paid the $15 million that Atambaev said Russia owed in back rent for the use of military facilities in Kyrgyzstan, although Kyrgyzstan’s debt to Russia amounts to $490 million.
Second, the Kremlin told Russian media that Atambaev had confused the Russian airbase in Kant, on which it is not obliged to pay rent, with two other Russian military facilities, on which it is.
A Kremlin spokesman, quoted in Kommersant, said that rather than making enemies of friends, “Mr. Atambaev [should] focus on solving the problem of poverty. … Responsibility for the plight of the citizens of Kyrgyzstan will inevitably fall on heads of state personally." He also suggested that Atambaev get up to speed on the status of foreign military facilities in his country.
ONCE BITTEN …
Despite the recent verbal volley, the seeds of discord between the countries is Russia’s bitter experience with Bakiev, whom it supported in the 2009 presidential election.
With the help of Russia’s generous aid package, Bakiev raised social benefit payments and won the elections. But then Bakiev did a double deal, allowing the Americans to stay at Manas for an increase in rent payments.
Bakiev put a fig leaf on his reversal by changing the name of the facility from a military base to a cargo transit center, arguing that there was no more American-occupied military base in Kyrgyzstan.
In March 2010, Russian media began to attack Bakiev, accusing him of corruption, nepotism, and economic mismanagement. Then, on 1 April, Moscow hiked the tariffs paid by Kyrgyzstan on Russian gasoline and diesel shipments. Immediately fuel prices went up by 25 percent, taking consumer prices with them. The Kyrgyz opposition, led by Atambaev, took advantage of the angry public mood and helped to overthrow Bakiev, who fled the country.
“Today’s situation … in relations with Russia is like déjà vu of the beginning of spring 2010,” Knyazev said.
Atambaev, who has said NATO forces would have to leave Manas when the current lease expires in 2014, has also talked about “reformatting” the base in language that is close enough to Bakiev’s verbal shell games to make Moscow uneasy. The new president has said he wants to transform Manas into a civil transport hub, but he has not explained what he means by that.
“Certainly, there must be no foreign military men at the civil hub as there are today,” Atambaev said in March, although a top defense official suggested around the same time that the fate of the base after the lease expires is still up for negotiation.
During his February trip, Atambaev was repeatedly pressed by skeptical Russian journalists about whether he would actually oust the Americans.
Adjar Kurtov, editor in chief of Russian Strategic Research Institute magazine National Strategy Issues, warned that Atambaev may suffer the same fate as Bakiev if his remarks on the base issue echo his predecessor’s.
“Such politicians don’t learn from history. Nobody likes to be duped. Naturally, he may pay for that,” Kurtov said. “Moreover, not only Moscow but Beijing is interested in getting rid of the American base, as well as many other regional players.
“It’s a dangerous way to ignore the neighbors’ opinions. If something happens, nobody will come from overseas to protect Atambaev’s government.”
Moscow’s reaction, meanwhile, has gone beyond angry words from a Kremlin spokesman.
In late March, the Russian government announced that it had abandoned a bilateral agreement streamlining the citizenship process for people from Kyrgyzstan. The move, which must be approved by the Duma, could hinge on whether Bishkek cools its heated rhetoric.
Kyrgyzstan’s economy is heavily dependent on remittances from labor migrants in Russia. Various official sources say about 500,000 citizens of Kyrgyzstan, or 10 percent of the population, work in Russia, and more than 200,000 have become Russian citizens over the past decade. Unofficial sources say about 1 million migrants from Kyrgyzstan work and live in Russia. If the Russian government makes things difficult for them, anger could be turned against Bishkek.
Dubnov, the Central Asia analyst, called the Kremlin’s gesture “an obvious signal” that Moscow is ready to up the ante if Atambaev continues to be an irritant.
A few days after the announcement of possible changes to the citizenship accord, Russian media reported that Moscow plans to change a 2008 Russian-Kyrgyz agreement on investment in hydro power stations, demanding a 75 percent share in future projects instead of the currently agreed 50 percent.
Russia also reportedly wants to rewrite the 2009 debt deal, in which it was promised nearly half of the Dastan factory. It’s now demanding a 75 percent stake, according to Kommersant.
In addition, Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom, keeps postponing its purchase of 75 percent of Kyrgyzgaz, the Kyrgyz national gas company, as Bishkek becomes increasingly desperate for investment into its creaky natural gas infrastructure.
Kurtov said a risky investment and political climate has made Russia gun-shy about pouring money into Kyrgyzstan.
“For large investments (and the Kyrgyz want large investments into construction of power stations on the Naryn River), it takes not years but decades to see returns,” he wrote in an email. And the Kremlin has to be sure that regardless of who signs the contracts, they can be enforced years down the road. The Dastan deal, for instance, has yet to go into effect, with each side blaming the other for the delay.
If Kyrgyzstan could stand up to Russia on some thorny issues while finding investors elsewhere, Dubnov said, it would set a “rather important precedent in the entire post-Soviet territory.”
But for now, hobbled by a weak economy, dependent on remittances and a handful of industries, and facing persistent legal challenges to its privatization efforts, Bishkek is hardly in a position to bargain.
For its part, Russia is seeking to win the loyalty of this tiny country by arm-twisting, which Dubnov said in an email does not amount to a coherent strategy.
“There is a mechanically imperial approach to the post-Soviet territory in [Russia’s] efforts to keep it under control,” Dubnov wrote.
“If Moscow wishes to keep and even increase its influence in Central Asia, it should work for it, not only by throwing its weight around (in the preservation of military bases, pressure on Central Asian partners to remove the American and NATO military presence, winning preferences for Russian businesses), but also by real, sometimes unprofitable investments.
“In other words, Russia should demonstrate ‘soft power.’ ”