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Kyrgyzstan faces a new era in regional politics

The term “brother nation” has traditionally been very popular within the foreign policies of the countries of the former USSR. The Kyrgyz Republic and other countries of Central Asia have also often used this phrase given their common Turkic and Soviet history, Russia included. After February 2022, however, the countries’ relationships with Russia started to take a different form, far from “the spirit of allied relations”.

April 12, 2023 - Malik Borbugulov - Articles and Commentary

Aerial view of Ala-Too central square in Bishkek. Photo: Collab Media / Shutterstock

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other countries used the concepts of “cooperation between brother nations” or “aid to the nation with a common history” as core parts of their foreign policies. These were used in many ways, such as promoting and justifying their foreign policies towards each other and Russia. Russia’s position in Central Asia and support from the countries of the region were unshakable, with the growing Chinese presence unable to threaten the situation. The image of a strong and old country with a lot of resources capable of rivalling the US and China discouraged people from imagining any military invasion, except to fight terrorists. There were talks about the usual confrontation of interests between Russia and the US, and the efforts of Moscow to create some bloc to counterbalance NATO. Despite this, there was a belief that most goals would be reached through economic and political means.

In February 2022 early presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Kyrgyzstan. As a result, Sadyr Japarov became the new president and a new constitution was adopted. The government has now started the process of nationalising the “Kumtor” gold mining company. There was also a brief border conflict with Tajikistan, during which at least 41 people were killed. Kazakhstan has recently experienced rallies and riots throughout the country and the resignation of the government. Overall, there was tension in the region and economies were struggling with COVID-19 and its consequences. The countries were focusing on stabilising their domestic situation and resolving disputes with their neighbours. The start of the war in Ukraine was the last thing they expected and desired.

The war Russia is waging in Ukraine puts the Central Asian states in a difficult position, as it was effectively a stab in the back. This action was far removed from the “allied spirit of relations”. Since Kyrgyzstan’s independence, the Russian Federation has been viewed as its closest economic, military, and, in some cases, cultural partner. However, the invasion raises fears and questions about the next target. In the domestic politics and public life of the country, more topics have resurfaced and a lot of new issues are now being discussed. For example, how safe is it for Kyrgyzstan to continue its association with Russia? Should the period of the Russian Empire and the USSR be viewed as a period of colonisation? And should the whole country’s history be reviewed?

In the first days of the war, the population of the country was also waiting for the official reaction, wondering whether to believe the Moscow media’s speculations on the official position of the Kyrgyz leadership. But President Zhaparov directly called the war in Ukraine a war, contradicting Russian statements. In the past, most decisions regarding cooperation between the countries of the region and Russia were made through Kazakhstan, as the biggest economy in Central Asia. This time, in all likelihood, was no exception. The brave position taken by the Kazakh government on the war has given its neighbours some time to reassess their foreign policy.

Difficult circumstances

Kyrgyzstan, for which Russia is the largest trading partner and investor, is already facing serious economic costs. From an economic point of view, Kyrgyzstan is essentially a subject of Russia. Economic crises in Russia are always felt in Kyrgyzstan. The same is true when it comes to the lawmaking activity of the Russian Federation, as Kyrgyz draft laws are often directly copied from Russian legislation.

Firstly, Russia is the first choice destination for our country’s labour migrants. According to various estimates, up to one million of the adult population of Kyrgyzstan work in the Russian Federation. According to the World Bank, remittances make up about 30 per cent of the republic’s GDP. Russia’s share in the volume of remittances to Kyrgyzstan is 97 per cent. There were expectations that a lot of Kyrgyz migrants would leave Russia, but the outflow was not significant, probably due to an increase in the demand for labour, and the inability of Kyrgyzstan to offer decent wages for its citizens.

Secondly, Kyrgyzstan imports fuels, lubricants, metals, wood, food, and vehicles mainly from Russia. This trade makes up 30 per cent of the country’s overall imports. As a result, it is almost impossible to replace Russian supplies. The same is true with exports. As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the republic’s exports are also dependent on the economic situation in the region and ongoing sanctions may cut off other non-regional partners. The overall trade turnover with the EAEU countries, especially with Russia and Belarus, is increasing. However, it is difficult to evaluate if this is a positive development. After all, it is not the result of an improved economy but the fact that sanctions have not left a lot of markets for these two countries to trade with. The increase is also taking place to a greater extent due to inflation.

The inflation rate at the end of 2022 was 18 per cent. The supply of goods from Ukraine has stopped, which resulted in a lack of medicine in local drugstores. The “shadow” of COVID-19 is still lingering over the country and there are a lot of citizens with health complications after surviving the disease. The pandemic itself has introduced the majority of Kyrgyzstanis to the possibility of online purchases from Ukraine and Belarus at a relatively lower price, but the year 2022 has brought its corrections in lowering the standard of living.

In Kyrgyzstan, one should also expect a fall in real GDP, a devaluation of the national currency, and the significant impoverishment of the population in the coming years. Unemployment will be the main problem as the arrival of immigrants running from mobilisation increases the domestic supply of labour. Of course, some people view it positively, as there is an inflow of money to the country, but nobody knows how long it will last. It should be remembered that the savings of these “guests” are not limitless and sanctions have a tendency to become more severe in the long run.

Another possible consequence of the war in Ukraine for the Kyrgyz Republic is an escalation in the conflict with Tajikistan. There was fighting along the entire length of the disputed part of the border in September 2022. This was not the first conflict of its kind, there were always disputes concerning the border between the two countries. However, it was the first one to involve such a level of violence. More than one hundred people have died as a result of the conflict, and a lot of people have been injured and left homeless. There are a lot of theories about the reasons for this conflict, such as redirecting attention away from domestic problems in Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan, or from the Russian situation in Ukraine. One of the more complex theories suggests that the clear lack of unity in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (the intergovernmental military alliance between Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan) throughout the year has shown Russia to be less reliable to the Tajik government. This then encouraged Dushanbe to use the chance while Russia was distracted by the war to solidify its position and earn some political points.

New thinking

The start of the war and the economic sanctions faced by other members of the Eurasian Economic Union have allowed the Kyrgyz Republic to rethink and reassess its capabilities. The republic did not support the “special military operation” and declared its neutrality on the subject. Neutrality can be viewed as a passive or cowardly position by European citizens, but it means a lot for Kyrgyzstan when it comes to its past pro-Russian foreign policy. This is especially true for people who have lived in the republic for a very long time and are familiar with its domestic situation. It can be interpreted as a sign that the country is looking for a way to be more independent.

Nowadays the Central Asian region is becoming a hub between Europe, China, Iran and Turkey. The area itself is economically and logistically integrated. Many countries demonstrate an interest in Kyrgyzstan, which has been proved by the visits of various foreign delegations from the US, the Czech Republic, India and Saudi Arabia. Kyrgyzstan has taken a step forward towards the deeper integration of the countries of Central Asia. For example, the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project office has now been opened. Usually, similar infrastructural projects bypassing Russian territory were interrupted one way or another. Either one of the partners would decide to postpone it for later after a visit from a Russian delegation, or there would be supposed movement of terrorist groups along the borders. There is a popular opinion that Russia supports the political regimes in Central Asia, using its assistance as leverage when convenient. It is also believed that the revolutions in the Kyrgyz Republic were responses to the efforts of the “dethroned” leaders to shift away from the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, the recent diversification of foreign policy does not mean that the country’s international image has improved tremendously. Domestic policy also has to be changed. There are a lot of questions that the international community has asked of the Kyrgyz Republic, the most recent being about the government’s pressure on free media.

It can already be said that the impact of the war in Ukraine on our daily life will be comparable in scale only with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This includes all of its consequences, such as the complete restructuring of all economic processes, the formation of completely new economic relations, and new economic structures. Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of the 21st century differed from Kyrgyzstan in the first years of independence in almost all areas. Kyrgyzstan is in a position where on the one hand there is a deep-rooted dependency, while on the other one there is an opportunity to change the status quo. This time it may take more than a decade for the Kyrgyz Republic to find its place in the new economic order. The recent extraordinary summit of the Organisation of Turkic States has reminded us about international integration, which can become a new force due to Turkey’s continued rise in the international arena. Overall, the country has shown itself to be more autonomous in international politics throughout the previous year.

Malik Borbugulov is an economic researcher and a university lecturer from Kyrgyzstan with ten years of experience specialised in knowledge-based economy and international economy. He is a participant of the Kirkland Lane Scholarship Program.

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