Contemplating Ukraine: Kyrgyzstani perspectives

Update: On May 8, 2014, Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambaev attended an “informal” meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Moscow. Russia took the opportunity to show off its military might to attending CTSO members Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Putin also (ominously?) raised the specter of Ukraine, reminding attendees why the collective security – with Russia at its helm – is so vital to their interests and calling Ukraine’s current situation a consequence of its “irresponsible policies.”

Characteristically, President Atambaev skirted the hot-button issue of Ukraine. His public comments instead called on all member states to recognize their brotherly ties and peaceful borders (an apparent shout-out to Tajikistan’s President Rahmon, a co-attendee of the CSTO meeting. Some 300 to 500 Kyrgyz and Tajiks were involved in a violent border skirmish on May 7), wished Ukrainians a quick return to peace and recalled the USSR’s victory over Fascism (Victory Day, a major holiday in all ex-Soviet states, is celebrated on May 9).

May 7, 2014:

The implosion of Ukraine and Russia’s unabashed role in it have been surprising to many. So what’s the view of these events in Kyrgyzstan, an ex-Soviet republic that survived its own popular revolutions in 2005 and 2010?

Tellingly, Kyrgyzstan’s leadership has not staked a clear position. On May 21 – some 5 days after the Crimean referendum to secede from Ukraine – the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs endorsed the Crimean secession. Within a week, President Almazbek Atambaev backtracked, saying that the Kyrgyz government expressed no opinion on the events. That same day, Kyrgyzstan abstained from a U.N. vote on the illegality of the secession. (100 countries voted to deem it an illegal violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, 58 abstained and 11 voted against). The only consistent comments to come out of the government are that it feels deep sympathy for the people of Ukraine and that it hopes the two sides can agree to negotiate their differences according to “international law and the U.N. Charter.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right)

Kyrgyzstan is walking a foreign relations tightrope. The country is economically and militarily dependent on Russia, receiving desperately needed (and subsidized) gas from Russian conglomerate GazProm and arms shipments and training from the Russian military. Kyrgyz leadership is especially sensitive to Russian demands now, given that it is in the midst of negotiations to secure necessary investments in the country’s decaying energy infrastructure. Because of the poor state of the Kyrgyz energy system, the southern half of the country – the region most feared as the source of future dissent, protest and possible revolution – has spent weeks without gas and therefore without heat. Yet Kyrgyzstan also receives vital aid, training and supplies from western governments, both directly and through organizations like NATO and the OECD. It can take neither an explicitly pro-Russian nor a pro-Western stance given its reliance on both regions for support.

But the Kyrgzstani leadership’s noncommittal stance is equally – if not more – a reflection of internal politics as it is of international affairs. Kyrgyzstan is haunted by the specters of its 2005 and 2010 revolutions, and the Maidan protests that launched Ukraine’s present crisis are disturbingly reminiscent of both popular revolutions as is the ethnic violence that followed. The first Kyrgyz revolution, in 2005, saw the overthrow of President Askar Akaev. Elected as head of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990 (roughly 1 year before the country declared independence from the USSR), Akaev ruled for 15 years before being toppled by popular protests emanating from the Uzbek villages of southern Kyrgyzstan. His replacement, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ruled for some 5 years before he too was sacked by a popular revolution.

Protesters in Bishkek's main square during the 2010 revolution

Protesters in Bishkek’s main square during the 2010 revolution

Months of ethnic violence – primarily Kyrgyz against Uzbek – convulsed southern Kyrgyzstan after the revolution, reportedly resulting in some 2,000 deaths and countless incidents of rape and torture. For obvious reasons, many Kyrgyzstani citizens and politicians fear a repeat revolution. They are eyeing the Ukraine situation and its inspirational potential with concern.

Taking such concerns to an extreme, 18 Kyrgyz politicos and professors sent an open letter to the government, calling for a crackdown on what they deemed a dangerous opposition movement. Singling out several (ex) politicians for their anger, they argued that these “pro-Westerners” were seeking to “sow discord” and divide Kyrgyzstan into its northern and southern halves, “using the scissors of a united Russia-USA-NATO-European” front to “let blood and destroy unity, like in Ukraine.” Not long after the letter was sent, Deputy Bahtiyar Kadyrov, a member of President Atambaev’s SDPK [Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan], called on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “urgently” investigate the possibility of a Ukraine-like situation in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is by no means out of the woods yet, but at least its government appears to be methodically working its way through the thick forest of internal politics, a difficult history and countervailing foreign interests.

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