“The “geo-politicized” period has been replaced by the time of the undisputed priority of Russia for Kyrgyzstan. Will Kyrgyzstan remain independent in terms of membership in the EEU or accept the passive and more predictable fate? The question remains open, and this time, the answer depends primarily on the nation itself”, said Emil Juraev, a political analyst (Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek), in an article written exclusively for CABAR.asia.
Despite its small territory and partly because of its lightness, Kyrgyzstan has remained in a strong “geo-politicized” condition during the last 10-15 years, getting into difficult situations in relationships with large actors of world politics and large actors in the region. Relatively speaking, the “geo-politicized” condition is a status of the political and geographical area where the competing interests of several countries meet. For Kyrgyzstan, it began with the anti-terrorist war in Afghanistan, and the establishment of an air base of the coalition forces at the airport “Manas”. With the recent accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), it can be argued that the “geo-politicized” mode came to an end, and Kyrgyzstan will experience either a predictable but not fully independent period, or even more serious difficulties than the maneuvering during the previous 15 years.
“Geo-politicization” in 2001-2015
After independence in 1991, for about ten years, Kyrgyzstan remained at some distance from the big geopolitics, representing a zone of only limited interest as a liberal democratizing, and then authoritarian regime with a very modest economic capital. The world politics became directly interested in Kyrgyzstan and the Central Asian region after the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September 2001, when the attention and arms of the global coalition were drawn to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The arrival in Afghanistan of the global anti-terrorist coalition, which soon became the western coalition and was increasingly associated with the United States, resulted in the establishment of a US military air base at Kyrgyzstan’s main airport in late 2001 to maintain operations in Afghanistan. Given that similar bases were opened in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it was predictable that Russia and China would not be happy about such development of events. Moreover, the beginning of the 2000s, shortly after Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin, was a period marked by the revival of Russian foreign policy in Central Asia.
Without going into details of the history of the geopolitical processes of those years, it is enough only to mention some most important elements for Kyrgyzstan. First, the opening of the air base in “Manas” airport was followed by the opening of the Russian air base in Kant airport in 2003. Secondly, on a larger scale, these developments had led to the emergence of so-called “new Great Game” for Central Asia between the big powers – the US, Russia and China – as well as of the game of the countries in the region between with each other and with external actors. Third, as a specific consequence of these events for Kyrgyzstan, there began periodic “attacks” from Moscow and Washington on the issue of closing or saving the airbase “Manas”. Some observers were talking about this factor of competition as one of the reasons for both “color revolutions” in Kyrgyzstan.
Returning to the Russian presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin stated the vision of Russian foreign policy in his article, including a project of creation of the Eurasian Union as one of its priorities. The Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – the first step towards the Eurasian Union, in which the Kyrgyz leadership has expressed a desire to participate – began to operate the same year. Besides, the new President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev had unconditionally committed himself to closing the “US base” at the end of the contract in the summer of 2014. These two positions of Kyrgyzstan had clearly expressed the preferred vector of the foreign policy of the country and became the final stage of “geo-politicization” of Kyrgyzstan. The military base in “Manas” airport that was renamed in 2009 to the “Transit Center” was closed as promised.
Joining the EEU: neutralization of geopolitics?
On May 8, 2015, in a highly politicized atmosphere on the eve of May 9, President Almazbek Atambayev signed the documents on accession of Kyrgyzstan to the EEU during his visit to Moscow. This quite controversial and important step that had been previously disputed in Kyrgyzstan during two years happened somehow very quickly and surprisingly smoothly. With the signing of the agreement on membership in EEU, it can be argued that the “geo-politicized regime” in the foreign policy of Kyrgyzstan that lasted during 10-15 years has basically came to an end.
What does this mean? Has Kyrgyzstan become a geopolitically neutral zone, i.e. a no longer disputed zone of influence between the big countries? Most likely, the answer must be affirmative, but not in an exceptional measure.
With the closure of the airbase in “Manas”, as expected, the foreign policy interest of the United States in Kyrgyzstan has much declined. The presence of other Western countries and the EU remains very limited. Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the EEU is a more definitive fact of losing its attractiveness in geopolitical terms.
However, there are some, albeit weak, preconditions for the preservation of competitive interests in Kyrgyzstan. Firstly, it concerns China. Beijing has repeatedly stated that it does not see the EEU as a threat or an unwelcome phenomenon. Nevertheless, such public statements do not necessarily reflect reality, and China would clearly prefer full openness of Central Asian countries to cooperation in the framework of its “economic belt of the Silk Road.” Kyrgyzstan, taken separately, does not have such great significance for China’s policy in the region, and therefore the importance of this geopolitical factor has only a regional value.
The second potential geopolitical factor concerns the interests of Uzbekistan in the region, and Kyrgyzstan in particular. The antagonism between the two countries has increased significantly during the same “geo-politicized” period, and it remains unclear how the relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will develop further.
The third moment of the lowest possible activation of geopolitics for Kyrgyzstan proceeds from the events in Ukraine and their multi-faceted repercussions for Central Asia. In light of Russia’s isolation on the international arena, on the one hand, and in view of the economic consequences of the sanctions and embargoes on the other, there is some possibility of renewed attempts to influence the situation in Kyrgyzstan on the part of third parties.
But these three possible factors of involving Kyrgyzstan into new geopolitical passions, even if activated, will be qualitatively of a quite different, less acute character than it used to be during the “New Great Game” in the light of the war in Afghanistan.
Membership in the EEU and challenges for the foreign policy of Kyrgyzstan
It can be concluded that the sphere of foreign policy will be only nominal for Kyrgyzstan, and the majority of the country’s relations with the outside world will be dictated by the general principles and mechanisms of the EEU. Such a conclusion may be correct only if the notion of the sovereignty of the country will be reduced to nominal, and the country’s leadership will give the foreign policy initiative to the EEU and to the dominant forces there. This would be unacceptable for an independent country.
Preservation of independence and maintaining productive relationships with a broad range of partners can be quite a challenge to the country’s foreign policy structures. Membership in the EEU, theoretically, is a commercial and economic phenomenon, not touching the security issues, geopolitics and political relations in general. However, in reality, it is extremely difficult to separate all these different planes of relationship. This is also due to the climate all around the relations with Russia at the present time and to close parallels and interrelationship between the EEU and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and to a relatively small weight and the ability of Kyrgyzstan to set the agenda in the EEU.
For these and other reasons, the EEU is not only an economic and trade association. For Russia and for most of the major players for Kyrgyzstan – China, Europe and the United States, the country’s accession to this Union is an unequivocal acceptance by Kyrgyzstan of the fact of priority of Russia in solving all the important questions of foreign relations: whether it is the Ukrainian crisis, the situation in Afghanistan or opportunities for development of complex economic relations with third countries.
In this situation, for the majority of the most important actors, the price of maintaining or increasing the level of relations with Kyrgyzstan may be too high to spend their foreign policy capital for this purpose. For Kyrgyzstan, however, maintaining and strengthening active relationships with third parties is very important.
Much, of course, depends on which direction and at what intensity the EEU will develop. There are many examples where such undertakings gradually acquired a different character from the original. The EEU is a union of five countries, where Russia is a leading country. However, at this stage, one can already observe an active position of Kazakhstan and Belarus on building with some success their independent relationships both with Russia and with countries outside the EEU. Depending on the degree of independence, which relatively larger EEU member countries will be able to adhere to, the entire union, including Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, may follow the way of relatively less close interdependence and solidity. Seeing this opportunity but not counting on it, Kyrgyzstan has to build its participation in the EEU in a constructive way, avoiding excessive loss of sovereignty.
For each country, the pursuit of its national interests is above all else, which has been repeatedly stressed by the leadership of Kyrgyzstan in the framework of the discussion of membership in the EEU. According to this principle, the need for variety of external relations at the moment is dictated by, for example, the critical situation of the economy and foreign policy of Russia itself, the possibility of disagreements among members of the EEU, as it has been seen many times in the Belarusian-Russian and Kazakh-Russian trade relations, and not least of all, by the non-parity share of Kyrgyzstan in the export potential with other countries of the Union, on the one hand, and the country’s close trade ties with China on the other.
In view of all this, it is clear that accession to full membership of the EEU for Kyrgyzstan means the complication of the problem of maintaining and developing relations with third countries, but nevertheless, it is doable, and it should be treated as a key priority equal to the preservation of the sovereignty of the country.
“We choose (or) somebody is choosing us?”
President Almazbek Atambayev has repeated the idea that Kyrgyzstan has no other way but to join the Customs Union (and the EEU). He, of course, wanted to emphasize the fundamental commitment of Kyrgyzstan to the idea of joining the Union, but these words sounded like the recognition of the fact that there is no other choice for the country. In the backroom discussions of experts and government officials at various levels, the second interpretation sounded more often: if the country refuses the entry to the Customs Union, the consequences will be very serious.
This episode raises the question on the role of Kyrgyzstan in the formation of its foreign policy, in the choice of partners. Does the country have the ability to initiate and actively build its own structure of relations with the outside world, or whether as a small, relatively poor country, not having natural resources like oil and gas, it is destined to remain in standby mode until foreign actors show a serious interest in Kyrgyzstan. There is some concern that in terms of membership in the EEU, together with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the CIS and other parallel associations, Kyrgyzstan will accept the passive approach.
However, for the successful promotion of its interests, each country should actively seek out opportunities for cooperation, create conditions of its attractiveness and actively support existing relationships. For Kyrgyzstan, in the special circumstances of this period, as described above, such an active position is dictated by the fact that for the majority of partner countries outside the EEU, the country now is of very limited interest, not worth much effort and cost. Supporting and gradually building and expanding the interest in itself will benefit Kyrgyzstan, and it requires special creativity and activity.
The attractiveness of Kyrgyzstan can be different for different countries: democratization and political and legal reform for the western states, and large economic infrastructure projects for China, trade and cultural ties to Turkey, various kinds of tourism for other countries, and so on. Ensuring that the opportunities for cooperation in these and other areas are attractive is an objective facing Kyrgyzstan. Somebody will choose us if we choose somebody/something.
By the accession to the EEU, Kyrgyzstan has made a final touch to the closure of the “geo-politicized” period of the country, which began with coming of Western coalition forces at the airport “Manas” in late 2001. These years were a period of unprecedented pressure on Kyrgyzstan, temptations and maneuvering in foreign policy. Although being between the three large countries – the US, Russia and to a lesser extent China – was at times painful, such level of attention to Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to happen in the future again.
Being of interest to other major powers is necessary for any country, and for Kyrgyzstan as well. This determines the country’s security and stability, and the ability to attract and support investment. The task of diplomacy in Kyrgyzstan is to make all necessary efforts to maintain independence in foreign relations and prevent the most important players, especially Western countries, from completely forgetting about the country.
It will not be easy, and the accession to the EEU has made this task even more difficult. The “geo-politicized” period has been replaced by the time of the undisputed priority of Russia for Kyrgyzstan. Will Kyrgyzstan remain independent in terms of membership in the EEU or accept the passive and more predictable fate? The question remains open, and this time, the answer depends primarily on Kyrgyzstan itself.
Emil Juraev, PhD, professor at the Department of “International and Comparative Politics” at the American University of Central Asia
The views of the author may not necessarily represent those of CABAR