Shairbek Dzhuraev, University of St Andrews
Kyrgyzstan’s relations with the Western countries and international organizations took an interesting twist since the latest regime change in 2010. The country cancelled the major bilateral cooperation treaty with the USA and downgraded its cooperation with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It has become a routine for top leaders of the country to ostracize critical civic activists and media for serving Western interests. This is surprising for a country often called an “island of democracy” in Central Asia and for a country leadership much hailed as less authoritarian than the preceding ones.
The paper argues that the observed turn in relations with the West does not reflect ideological views of the state leaders. Instead, it points to the priorities of the ruling regime in ensuring its own security, in this case, through becoming the primary nationalist force in the country. The large-scale ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 and resulting emergence of popular nationalist politicians caused major concern for the new country leaders. The government acted swiftly to undermine those politicians while cementing a nationalist interpretation of the June events into a state priority. The foreign governments and international organizations challenging nationalist interpretations and calling for impartial justice became primary targets of the policy.
Yet, beyond the matters of June 2010, Kyrgyzstan’s leadership remains mostly agnostic to any version of nationalism as well as political ideologies. Based on that, the paper treats the foreign policy twists of Kyrgyzstan as a “necessary nationalism” serving the regime security concerns more than anything else. Yet, implications of such nationalism and its foreign policy outcomes may negatively affect prospects for democracy and development that should be noted by Kyrgyzstan’s international partners.
Kyrgyzstan’s relations with the Western countries and international organizations took a twist since April 2010 regime change. The Kyrgyz-US relations, already dwindling after the removal of the Manas Transit Centre in 2014, further strained a year later, when Kyrgyzstan unilaterally cancelled the 1993 agreement regulating the US assistance to Kyrgyzstan. Not long after, President Almazbek Atambayev publicly accused Azattyk radio of serving the anti-Kyrgyzstan interests of its funder, the US State Department. In September 2016 the Kyrgyz authorities announced plans to downgrade the status of the field mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). On 1 May 2017 the OSCE Centre in Bishkek, one of the bigger and better-funded OSCE field missions, became a “programme office”, losing a degree of freedom to the hosting government.
Kyrgyzstan’s down-scaling of its relations with the USA and the OSCE came a surprise. Much praised as “an island of democracy” in Central Asia, the country long maintained good relations with Western partners, not least importantly, resulting in regular aid flows. So, how shall we contextualize and understand the recent non-cooperative trends in Kyrgyzstan’s relations with Western countries and multilateral organizations? This policy brief argues that the roots of Bishkek’s unconventional foreign policy actions lie in domestic politics, as the ruling regime found nationalism to be a necessity for political purposes. Such argument will be relevant to domestic and international actors seeking to decipher Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy and understand its broader implications.
A conventional way to interpret a small state’s foreign policy is through international power politics. As the Ukraine crisis escalated international confrontation, the space for multi-vector maneuvering had apparently shrunk for smaller post-Soviet states. Having called Yanukovych an illegitimate president and his statements “inadequate” on 11 March 2014, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) publicly accepted the Crimea referendum two weeks later, following talks with Russian diplomats. Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union further cemented its alliance with its northern neighbors in the context of deepening confrontation of Russia with the USA and Europe.
That said, the geopolitical shifts do not explain most of Kyrgyzstan’s anti-Western foreign policy actions. The cancellation of the US-Kyrgyzstan cooperation agreement, for instance, was hardly a necessity imposed by geopolitics given that it would only impact Kyrgyzstan. Same could be said of a statement informing the OSCE of Kyrgyzstan’s plans to renegotiate the Organization’s field mission. Thus, while major military-related issues such as the Manas airbase might be accounted for geopolitical rivalries, much of the rest of foreign policy decisions seem to have roots in domestic politics.
Analysts already pointed to linkages between domestic politics and foreign policy. Eric McGlinchey argued the democratic legitimacy that the Kyrgyz president enjoys was what allowed him freedom not to support “foreign policy interests of Western democracies”. The unusual boldness of the Kyrgyz foreign policy might also reflect the country leadership’s view of the world “from the perspective of revolutionary righteousness and legitimacy”, given that the current regime came to power on the back of a mass uprising and violent regime change.
Thus, while geopolitics may designate the broader boundaries of what is possible for Kyrgyz foreign policy, an examination of domestic politics appears important for a fuller contextualization of the country’s decisions internationally.
Domestic politics: regime security and nationalism
So, how do the post-2010 political developments relate to discussed foreign policy trends in Kyrgyzstan? This paper contends that the regime politics is indeed the key here. However, rather than “democratic” or “revolutionary” legitimacy that emboldens the country’s leadership, the ruling regime’s sense of insecurity is of key importance for foreign policy. Electoral support in this part of the world is hardly sufficient for political stability. Instead, as Taylor Fravel put it, in authoritarian or new democracies the key political threats to the ruling regimes come from “internal political challenges such as rebellions and coups”. Acutely aware of previous regime changes, the country leaders realized they need to remain popular while “controlling” the potentially destabilizing external influence. In post-2010 circumstances, this has pushed the state to monopolize the reputation of the nationalist force in the country and develop very special relations with Russia.
Acting nationalist came as a hard necessity for the ruling regime rather than a reflection of its political ideology. The first political defeat that the ruling regime suffered since coming to power was the very first parliamentary elections in 2010. Ata Jurt, a party with no role in the April revolution but with aggressive nationalist rhetoric won plurality in the legislative, outscoring the “revolutionary” Social Democratic Party or Ata Meken. The Interim Government in Bishkek had also failed in its repeated attempts to remove the mayor of Osh city, Melis Myrzakmatov, another belligerent nationalist of those days, leading some analysts to speak of “Afghanisation” of Kyrgyz politics. Myrzakmatov, known for tough managing style and ethno-nationalist rhetoric, gained unprecedented popularity in the south during and after the inter-ethnic violence in June 2010. The images of helpless central government and international community suspected of siding with Uzbeks helped. Illustrative were Myrzakmatov-inspired protests in Osh against the proposed OSCE police mission in southern Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the June violence. Such proposal had been initially endorsed by the national authorities but scrapped later for Bishkek’s lack of effective control in the country’s south.
Ever since, the country leadership took it seriously to reserve the niche of Kyrgyz nationalism for itself. In June 2011, the statue of liberty in central Bishkek, a symbol of democracy, was replaced by the monument of Manas, the epic national hero. More importantly, the regime developed an utter intolerance to any criticism of its role in June 2010 that happened to be coming mainly from the West. Kimmo Kiljunen, a Finnish politician who chaired the international Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission (KIC), was banned from entry to the country, following the publication of the Commission’s findings. The UN Human Rights Committee, which pointed to breaches in treatment and trial of Azimjan Askarov and called for impartial judicial review of the case, was accused by the Kyrgyz president of encroaching on the country’s sovereignty. The cancellation of a Kyrgyzstan-USA cooperation agreement came days after the US State Department announced Askarov would get its annual Human Rights Defender award. The Kyrgyz MFA stated that” the award to Askarov is considered a deliberate action against the strengthening of interethnic peace and harmony in our country” that “seriously damages” the bilateral relations. More recently, the appearance of Kadyrzhan Batyrov in the OSCE ODIHR meeting caused another outrage in Bishkek. An official memo from the MFA on downgrading the OSCE’s field mission in the country came shortly after. These dynamics suggest that while affording policy U-turns elsewhere, the Kyrgyz government has grown consistent in defending its actions during and after the June 2010.
Thus, the above “necessary nationalism” became a key aspect of political regime’s security. Nurturing closer relations with Russia became another aspect, particularly considering Moscow’s growing willingness to influence domestic politics in its “near abroad”. While “necessary nationalism” at home and special relations with Russia could live without each other, they happen to converge in shaping Bishkek’s combative rhetoric toward the West.
The above argument leads to three concluding points.
First, neither nationalism nor the “anti-Western” rhetoric in Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy have consistent ideological foundations. President Atambayev takes it seriously to leave a legacy of the most democratic leader who would have overseen institutionalization of competitive elections, strengthened the parliament and prevented the re-emergence of corrupt “family rule”. No one in his inner circle is known for consistent ethno-nationalist views. Mira Karybayeva who oversees matters of ethnic relations in the president’s office comes from social science industry with very positive reputation among colleagues. The same could be said of the regime’s foreign policy views. While Atambayev had little personal exposure to the West, he enjoyed very positive relations with many Western diplomats and academics during his years in opposition. He often admits the European way of doing politics is closer to him and called Kyrgyz “absolute Europeans” in their tolerance and respect for justice. None of the key foreign policy officials, both within the president’s office and the MFA, are known for particularly anti-Western feelings or views beyond the policy episodes discussed above.
Second, such “instrumental” explanation of Bishkek’s policies can yet have serious implications for domestic politics. The government’s oscillation between enforcing some elements of democratic institutions and playing tough against critical voices, or between civic and ethnic versions of nationalism erode, not promote, the prospects for self-confident civil society, accountable government and justice based on the rule of law. The President is undermining political pluralism by defining critical voices, most of whom have worked closely with him before 2010 – as outcasts working for bosses in the West. The multi-party parliament in Kyrgyzstan has failed to produce a credible political opposition, and the few who speak up against the president routinely become subjects of criminal investigations.
International partners of Kyrgyzstan should take note of both the roots of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy fluctuations and its likely implications for the country’s political system. Political leaders come and go, whether through elections or not. Understandably, their main concern once in power, just like in any democracy or autocracy, becomes the prolongation, as possible, of their stay in power. Those private-political aspects of politics should not be allowed, however, to hamper the societal development, including institutionalization of freedom of speech and press, vibrant and critical civil society, and just and impartial judicial system. International partners of Kyrgyzstan may often depend on a good will of the government for cooperation, but this should not lead to compromising value-based and long-term cooperation. Instead, efforts must focus on nurturing relations with both the governments and wider societal actors, helping all develop sustainable democratic and development-oriented political system
 Radio Azattyk is the Kyrgyz service of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, with offices in Prague and Bishkek.
 McGlinchey, Eric. 2012. “Foreign Policy and Aging Central Asian Autocrats.” Demokratizatsiya 20 (3): 262–67.
 Dzhuraev, Emil. 2015. “Kyrgyzstan’s Walkout: Emotions, Geopolitics, or Conspiracy?” Central Asian Analytical Network. August 10. http://caa-network.org/archives/4772.
 Fravel, M. Taylor. 2005. “Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation.” International Security 30 (2): 51.
 Azimjan Askarov is a human rights activist in southern Kyrgyzstan who was accused and found guilty of organizing mass disorder and committing a murder during the June events in 2010. He was sentenced for life amid widespread criticism of the biased trial, leading Amnesty International to call Askarov prisoner of conscience.
 One of the leaders of Uzbek community in southern Kyrgyzstan, who found refuge in Sweden after being accused of playing a role in the June events.
The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of CASPIAN or the universities affiliated to the project.