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Chris Weed: Kyrgyzstan largely influences Kazakhstan’s politics rather than the other way around

“Since 2010 when KG began it’s experiment with parliamentary democracy, which basically codified and legitimized the preexisting patronal politics and structures, KZ has been on edge and is keenly aware of the risk that a successful multi-party state could pose to its one-man rule”, – expert in Central Asian affairs from Prague, Chris Weed, reveals the underwater stones of the relationship between the Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

cabar.asia: How do you assess the Kyrgyz-Kazakh relations within the framework of the EEU and at the level of bilateral relations? Can becoming Kyrgyzstan as a part of EEU in the context of Kazakhstan’s interests be viewed as a partner or as a rival?

Chris Weed: Compared to other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan enjoy the warmest and most productive bilateral relations by far.  KZ is the 3rd largest contributor of FDI in Kyrgyzstan, which shows that the countries have substantial cooperative financial endeavors.  Also, a nascent move to increase freedom of movement for the other country’s citizens (making registration required after 30 days instead of 5) demonstrates long-term thinking and consideration that is largely absent from other countries’ dealings in the region.  The largest number of foreign workers in Kazakhstan hails from Kyrgyzstan.  While occasional issues do arise, primarily from unannounced border requirements and kneejerk commentary from politicians, both countries tend to enjoy fairly productive relations, which are a boon for each other.

In regards to their membership in the EEU, Kazakhstan is the overwhelming beneficiary as Kyrgyzstan was forced to join out of simple economic survival.  It is interesting to note that N. Nazarbayev protracted Kyrgyzstan’s ascension to the EEU for some time despite Russia’s overbearing push for quick Kyrgyzstani membership. This was due in part to Kazakhstani fears of border compliance issues and to relinquishing an amount of leverage over Kyrgyzstani exports and migrations flows.  Even today, ad hoc border closings, impromptu phytosanitary rule changes, and other issues still crop up even though EEU membership should have deregulated and streamlined the border crossing/trade process.  As most goods and people are travelling from south to north, this means that KZ still retains a disproportionate influence over KG in the EEU as well as bilaterally.

cabar.asia: Recently, media published materials, that either artificially or objectively raised the mutual rhetoric of the two Presidents in a bad light. Was it a purposeful PR campaign to discredit the relationship or reflect the current situation?

Chris Weed: The tendency for ministers and even presidents on both sides to speak without thinking is a matter of daily habit.  Last year, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture and Sports, Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, began the latest spate of tit-for-tat when he ineptly lamented about the plight of KG foreign workers in Russia.  Since then both nations’ presidents have stepped into the ring to trade barbs.  While fortunately these exchanges are largely superficial though petty, it highlights the sometimes amateurish nature of supposed professionals even among close partners.  Calls by the public and parliamentarians to blacklist or “go after” those who offer even the slightest critique or misstep only exacerbates the situation.

cabar.asia: What are the impressions of Kazakh political power on the events and processes in the Kyrgyz Republic and what are they in society? Do they coincide, when N. Nazarbayev in his speeches either with caution or arrogantly talks about mass meetings (in his opinion)?

Chris Weed: I would actually argue that the relationship is reversed in this respect with KG have an inordinate influence on KZ foreign and domestic policy.  Since 2010 when KG began it’s experiment with parliamentary democracy, which basically codified and legitimized the preexisting patronal politics and structures, KZ has been on edge and is keenly aware of the risk that a successful multi-party state could pose to its one-man rule.  After the interim government assumed power on April 7, 2010, KZ maintained a closed border for over two months, which effectively meant an economic embargo and further depressed an already weakened KG.  Also, KZ prefers to continue dealing with Atambayev and the presidential administration despite the Prime Minister being the head of state.  Kazakhstan’s continued adoption of more stringent rules regarding freedom of assembly, personal expression, and political participation reflects realities in its own public but are also adopted due to Kyrgyzstan’s influence and propensity for political change.

cabar.asia: If we talk about cultural ties between Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, their nomadic roots, then in theory, bilateral relations should be exemplary. However, in practice, we see a very different picture. Why is this happening?

Chris Weed: While the ethnic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs enjoy a long history together and essentially come from the same stock, the countries that these groups have given their names to are far more diverse.  Unlike Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan (countries that are largely ethnically and linguistically homogenous), Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are much more heterogeneous and polyglot.  Ethnic minorities comprise 33% of KZ’s population compared to 25% in KG.  Since both countries have a much more complicated and dynamic populace, foreign relations are far less able to rely on common tongue or a shared history between the dominant ethnic groups.  This policy could be pursued but only at the peril of domestic marginalization and potential destabilization.

However, examples of successful incorporation are evident.  Nazarbayev’s policy of “Eurasianism” not only coalesced an ethnically diverse populace but also became a considerable foreign policy tool that has allowed it to successfully maintain a multi-vectored foreign policy.  Kyrgyzstan though continues to struggle with a state sponsored identity that is rooted in one tangible aspect such as language, ethnicity, or region.  Instead, I would propose that Kyrgyzstan simply “be” what it already is: an ethnically and linguistically diverse state with a political system to match.  Embracing this would considerably enhance its ability to conduct better statecraft in international relations as well as markedly improve the domestic consciousness.

cabar.asia: After the official announcement of the President of Kazakhstan on the transition to the Latin alphabet, in Bishkek in Jogorku Kenesh and in expert circles, they talked about the advisability of entering the Latin alphabet in Kyrgyzstan. What do you think about it?

Chris Weed: Experimenting with the Latin alphabet is nothing new in Central Asia as Soviet policy performed the same in the 20’s and 30’s.  Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan notably adopted the new alphabet shortly after independence from the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, the Latin alphabet is better suited to Turkic languages than the Russian so it makes practical sense in that regard.  Already aspects of this can be seen in Kazakhstan today where modified Latin letters are part of the alphabet in order to fill in gaps where Russian letters are insufficient. Nonetheless, while this might be beneficial for speakers of those languages, it raises other questions that are much more poignant.  How do you teach adults who are not in the education system? How much will it cost?  Will this alienate the ethnic speakers further or make them more inclusive both domestically and internationally?

While Kazakhstan largely has the resources and organization to accomplish such a transition, the picture is definitely not the same for Kyrgyzstan.  Even now the state is unable to meet its basic requirements to have proper Kyrgyz language instruction beginning from the 3rd grade.  This is in part due to a dearth of qualified teachers as well as insufficient pay for educators.  If it is unable to even meet it’s basic needs at the moment, how will the country manage to initiate such a broad and sweeping change?  Also, this would effectively obliterate years of work to make the Kyrgyz language digitally accessible, which is evidenced by the Kyrgyz language now being found on Google platforms.

cabar.asia: Is there any mutual influence of the political processes of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the Kyrgyz Republic and vice versa? If they are significant, then why did it happen? What useful things can we learn from the RK and on what mistakes, bad practice should be paid attention, so that we should do not to repeat it again?

Chris Weed: As stated before, I see evidence that Kyrgyzstan largely influences Kazakhstan’s politics rather than the other way around.  This stems from Kyrgyzstan’s propensity for political instability and unpredictability since independence.  Meanwhile, “lessons learned” are an important evaluation tool that are necessary for any productive growth and advancement in relations.  While this does not impact relations directly, one thing Kyrgyzstan can learn from Kazakhstan is how to deal and not deal with labor issues.  On the one hand, Kazakhstan has successfully grown productive partnerships with Chinese, Russian, and American corporations in oil & gas extraction and refining, uranium mining, and transportation infrastructure in large part due to its patient and educated technocratic entities.  Juxtapose this with Kyrgyzstan’s running battles with Kumtor and Chinese construction firms.   Kazakhstan has the same fears of Chinese encroachment and overt influence as Kyrgyzstan does yet it is able to maintain and develop multinational projects that are beneficial for both.  The manner and atmosphere in which these dealings are conducted would be valuable for their Kyrgyzstani counterparts.

On the other hand, the Kazakhstani state has responded to several labor protests with brute force, most notably Zhanaozen.  Kyrgyzstan on the other hand is far more diplomatic when labor disputes arise and tend to resort to force as an extremely desperate option.  This can be attributed to the cavernous difference in effectiveness between state authorities but also to the nature and capacity of the institutions as well.  Kyrgyzstan can’t afford to run roughshod over every disgruntled worker or organization so it has learned to implement effective dialogue procedures at least for the short-term.

cabar.asia: What is the role of history and its interpretation in contemporary conflicts in Central Asia? Can historical wars give a trigger for current problems and misunderstandings in international relations?

Chris Weed: History is still a relative minefield in Central Asia and many subjects are being reanalyzed for the better or worst.  This is predominantly due to the Soviet legacy where regional or ethnic histories were paved over or displaced because of forced population movements.  The reevaluation of history in this case raises the issue discussed earlier: how to develop and construct a common identity when a shared history is largely lacking or too new to have grown roots?

Luckily, no interstate wars have broken out in Central Asia and they seem highly unlikely to do so, especially between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  Both countries host confidence-building measures between their border guards and regularly participate in and host CSTO exercises.  Also, most nations in the region have a difficult enough time trying to maintain domestic stability so it is extremely unlikely that they would be able to coalesce an effective push for war against a neighbor.  The Central Asian states largely seem to be “winging it” when it comes to historical analysis and mainly only to legitimize the state’s existence.  Most notable was Kazakhstan in 2015 when it celebrated 550 years of statehood.  This was in direct response to Putin’s comments that the “ethnic Kazakhs had never enjoyed statehood before 1991”.

cabar.asia: What are the prospects for the development of relations between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan? Is it possible to group the most “close” countries in terms of interests and the most “distant” ones in the region?

Chris Weed: Relations between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan will largely continue as they are in my opinion.  This means that they will be essentially pragmatic and productive though there will be occasional grievances and disparagement stemming from issues with border movements and political tongue wagging.  With Kazakhstan being the overwhelming superior, economically speaking, Kyrgyzstan will be forced to follow its lead regarding trade and labor migration.  However, if the EEU does eventually become a proper and effective trade bloc, this would allow Kyrgyzstan to mitigate and lessen Kazakhstan’s economic predominance and leverage.

If we were to group Central Asian countries based on their bilateral relations, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would easily be grouped in the “close” section whereas all other relationships would be a tentative “distant”.  This is because of Uzbekistani-Kazakhstani competition for regional leadership and recurring issues with enclaves and borders between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Turkmenistan largely enjoys freedom from these issues as it happily keeps to itself.  Overall, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are the best-poised countries to benefit from bilateral relations in the region.

Christopher M. Weed is currently a Master’s Fellow at Charles University’s Balkan, Eurasian, and Central European Studies program specializing in Central Asian affairs.  Originally from Alabama, USA, his academic interests stem from his five years in Kyrgyzstan where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer and then worked for various humanitarian organizations.  He was also a Visiting Scholar at AUCA’s Central Asian Studies Institute.  Areas of particular interest are international relations on the intra-regional level, as well as formal and informal politics

 The interview was prepared by Nargiza Muratalieva, editor of cabar.asia 

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