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US-Kyrgyzstan Ties: Mending Fences or Fresh Start?

Washington looks for areas for pragmatic cooperation despite Bishkek’s alignment with Moscow. Although the United States’ once-close relationship with Kyrgyzstan has faded as Russia reasserts its dominance in Central Asia, the Americans still seem keen to forge a new working relationship.

After the end of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan quickly became the most open of the Central Asia states and welcomed the influx of Western aid and grants to support both government projects and the flourishing non-government sector.

In recent years, however, Kyrgyzstan has been backing away from Western influences as Moscow re-engages with regional states in the economic, security and political spheres.

In 2014, President Almazbek Atambaev kept an earlier promise not to renew the US military’s lease of the Manas airbase, used to resupply NATO forces in Afghanistan since 2001. Moscow got to retain its own military airbase at Kant. Atambaev has also signed major defence and financial assistance agreements with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

This year, Kyrgyzstan bound itself even closer to Russia by joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Like other members, the country has yet to experience the economic upturn it expected from joining the free-trade bloc, and has instead suffered multiple shocks from Russia’s economic downturn. (See Bumpy Start to Kyrgyzstan’s Eurasian Membership.)

However, Kyrgyzstan continues to access funding from Moscow – a 250 million US dollar grant late this year with another 500 million expected by May next year, according to the Vesti.kg news agency. And although jobs in Russia are thinner on the ground, accession to the Eurasian union means that migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan benefit from easier immigration rules and hiring procedures than their counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

If Central Asia is viewed solely as a location for US-Russian rivalry on security matters, then Moscow seems to have won.

Azhdar Kurtov of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies believes that Kyrgyzstan has made a definitive choice.

“At the end of the day, the Americans are far away, they abandon [past] partners, and alternatives to the American security system exist, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation,” Kurtov told IWPR.

He argues that in economic terms, too, Washington “does not have anything serious to offer regional states”.

In July, US-Kyrgyz relations suffered a setback when the Central Asian state cancelled tax exemptions for American assistance fund and withdraw diplomatic immunity from aid programme staff. (See Kyrgyzstan Bares Teeth at Washington.) The move was direct retaliation for a US human rights prize awarded to jailed activist Azimjon Askarov, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of inciting mass ethnic violence in June 2010. Rights groups said the real reason for Askarov’s arrest was that he filmed and circulated footage apparently showing Kyrgyz security forces assisting rather than stopping attacks on ethnic Uzbeks.

The US government expressed regret at the Kyrgyz decision, pointing out that the assistance agreement signed in 1993 had allowed two billion dollars in aid to support areas including healthcare, education, farming, banking and border security.

When US Secretary of State John Kerry stopped off in Kyrgyzstan in late October at the start of a tour of all five Central Asian states, his arrival was seen by local analysts as an attempt to repair the damage done by the row over Askarov.

Kerry spent much of his time in Bishkek opening new premises for the US embassy and American University of Central Asia. No bilateral agreements were signed during the Kyrgyz leg of his tour.

In Uzbekistan, Kerry met the foreign ministers of all five states as part of Washington’s “new format for dialogue” called C5+1. The main idea behind it seems to be find new ways for Washington to continuing working with regional states despite growing Russian influence. The talks officially focused on trade, economics, the environment and education; there was little mention of US interest in boosting security to counter threats from Afghanistan and Islamic State.

The Americans also have a regional initiative called the New Silk Road Initiative, designed to promote trade, investment and energy linkages between Central and South Asia.

Medet Tiulegenov, a politics lecturer at the American University of Central Asia, says the modest scope of Kerry’s discussions with the Central Asian foreign ministers reflect a realism about what the US can achieve at the moment.

“I’m guessing discussion and educational programmes were selected based on an evaluation of the situation,” he said. “The US and the West generally are losing the… battle not only for the views of leaders – which is certainly important – but also for ideas and opinions inside peoples’ heads.”

Tiulegenov sees the New Silk Road Initiative as a way of helping Central Asia wean itself off its dependence on Russia, and find new energy markets in South Asia.

Focusing on Kyrgyzstan in particular, Tiulegenov notes the current political leadership’s close links with Moscow. He predicts that whoever succeeds Atambaev as president in 2017 will maintain the same course, although the vigour with which the pro-Moscow line is pursued will depend on how good a deal the Eurasian union turns out to be for Kyrgyzstan.

It also depends on who succeeds Atambaev. “If someone else comes along, then maybe things will be different. But it’s clear that the Eurasian links that have already been put in place won’t be broken,” Tiulegenov said.

One area where Russia is busily expanding its influence is the media sector.

In September, media chief and pro-Kremlin TV commentator Dmitry Kiselyov visited Kyrgyzstan to launch a local branch of the Rossiya Segodnya news corporation which he runs. He used his visit to call on Kyrgyzstan to follow Moscow’s line on issues like Ukraine and distance itself from the West, as part of the broader Eurasian union project.

Grigory Mikhailov, editor-in-chief of the Russian news agency Regnum’s Kyrgyzstan office, told IWPR, that Moscow’s media influence in Kyrgyzstan had been significant over the last five years, but largely through “inertia”.

“I wouldn’t say it has increased. It would be more accurate to say that it’s become more focused. Media products have appeared that target Kyrgyzstan specifically, rather than the amorphous post-Soviet space,” he said. “There’s a view among some senior Russian officials that the post-Soviet countries are a priori supportive of initiatives from Russia, and are grateful in advance for everything it offers.”

Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR’s editor in Kyrgyzstan. Anna Yalovkina, an IWPR-trained journalist, contributed additional reporting.

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