Once considered an island of democracy in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan – here its presidential office, the White House – hosted the last Central Asia summit in July 2022. (Source: Chatrina Schumacher, July 2022)
Russia’s predominant role in Central Asia is set to decline following its war in Ukraine. This creates both an urgency as well as an opportunity for the Central Asian states to diversify their external ties. Many potential partners seem keen to fill some of the void, but their actual engagement remains limited. The region’s relative stability has priority, which favors the ruling elites’ authoritarianism. Conversely, this may foster instability in the long run.
For a long time, the five Central Asian republics have presented a puzzle to researchers and policymakers regarding regional cooperation. They have a range of historical, linguistic, religious and political aspects in common: they were all part of the same bloc, the Soviet Union; they have Russian as a lingua franca, while most national languages are part of the Turkic linguistic family and largely mutually intelligible; Sunni Islam is the region’s predominant religion; and they exhibit similar political systems. Furthermore, Central Asian states share the fate of being situated in a largely neglected, landlocked region surrounded by more populous, powerful neighbours, namely Russia and China.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is having a profoundly unsettling effect on authoritarian-minded governments in Central Asia. On the one hand, they are keen to keep the forces unleashed by the Euromaidan movement at bay; on the other, they appear unnerved by the Kremlin’s power play.
State-controlled media outlets in Central Asian states are reticent when it comes to covering developments in Kyiv, Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. The parallels between the ousted and allegedly corrupt president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and leading members of Central Asian elites are obvious to many in the region, so it’s not surprising that the Euromaidan Revolution has received little play in Central Asia’s press.
China is financing the construction of Kyrgyzstan’s first major oil refinery, and excitement is building in Bishkek that the facility could enable the Central Asian nation to break Russia’s fuel-supply monopoly. At the same time, some observers express concern that the project may stoke local resentment, or become enmeshed in political infighting.
The refinery in Kara-Balta, about two hours west of Bishkek, is expected to produce 600,000 tons of fuel annually, enough to end Kyrgyzstan’s dependency on Russian imports, currently pegged at 1,150,000 tons a year, according to the State Statistics Committee. Slated to receive crude piped from Chinese-run fields in Kazakhstan, the project, operated by a smallish Chinese state-run entity called Junda, has already witnessed regular environmental protests and labor disputes, which one lawmaker claims are backed by opposition politicians bent on using the facility as a weapon in a political struggle against the government.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 20 visit to Kyrgyzstan ended with half a dozen bilateral agreements and some anachronistic-sounding rhetoric about Moscow’s benevolent role in Central Asia. On the face of it, Russia won an extension of military basing rights for another generation, while Kyrgyzstan got millions of dollars in debt forgiveness and promises of investment in the construction of two major hydropower projects. But all the deals have yet to be finalized and some won’t kick in for years, with multiple strings attached.
The visit was Putin’s first to Kyrgyzstan since an April 2010 uprising toppled the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had angered the Kremlin by effectively misappropriating a $300 million Russian loan and backtracking on some of his promises. Moscow has been slow to warm to the post-Bakiyev leadership, expressing frustration earlier this year, for example, with Bishkek’s constant
attempts to get aid while maintaining a so-called multi-vector foreign policy.
Publicly, Putin’s host, President Almazbek Atambayev, did everything he could to assure the Russian president that Kyrgyzstan is a firm friend. At a cheerful midday press conference, Atambayev suggested the two had stayed up together until 5 a.m. – Putin had arrived in Bishkek late September 19 – and expressed wishes for everlasting friendship. “Russia is our main strategic partner. With Russia, we share a common history and a common destiny. […] Our future will be in partnership with the great Russia,” Atambayev said in comments broadcast by local media.