One question hovers over political developments in Kyrgyzstan these days: Where does Russia stand? So it comes as no surprise that experts and pundits in Bishkek are busy sifting clues as to who the Kremlin is backing in the Central Asian nation’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
Provisional leaders in Bishkek have expressed hope that the October 10 elections will pave the way for the creation of the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, a region that over the past decade has drifted steadily in an authoritarian direction. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The Kremlin is clearly opposed to seeing Kyrgyzstan move in such a direction, apparently because Russian officials see a parliamentary democracy in the current Kyrgyz context as a recipe for instability. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said several times this summer that he cannot see a parliamentary democracy working in Central Asia. Even so, Russia seems to be throwing its support behind several parties vying for seats in the legislature.
When searching for clues as to the Kremlin’s thinking, it is perhaps best to keep an eye on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia’s paramount leader. Putin held a highly visible meeting in early September with the head of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), Almazbek Atambayev, during which the Russian leader promised $10 million in emergency aid. That pledge led analysts in Kyrgyzstan to conclude that Atambayev enjoys Moscow’s support. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“Russia had taken a wait-and-see position,” Turat Akimov, editor of the newspaper Dengi & Vlast (“Money & Power”), told EurasiaNet.org shortly after the meeting. “Now it is clear that the SDPK party is Russia’s choice.”
“But, there is still space [for maneuvering], and the degree to which this or that Kyrgyz party can display loyalty to Russia can play a decisive role in whether the party receives support during and after the elections,” Akimov added.
Some in Bishkek expect a “Ukraine scenario” to develop in Kyrgyzstan, under which the Kremlin backs more than one party to ensure loyalty from various factions in the future system. Moscow “does not bet on one [candidate] but makes an agreement with everyone,” a September 13 commentary distributed by the AKIpress news agency suggested.
Another Kyrgyz political figure with clear support from Moscow is Felix Kulov, a former prime minister who proposed a Kyrgyz-Russian confederation in 2007. On September 22, Kulov took a widely publicized trip to Moscow, where he signed a joint declaration with Putin’s United Russia Party on behalf of his own Ar-Namys Party. Though the declaration has no legal status, it reinforced the perception at home that Kulov enjoys Moscow’s favor. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
After former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April, in events widely seen to have been set in motion by Moscow, most leading Kyrgyz politicians are trying to court Moscow’s support. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Bakiyev may be one of the top names on Putin’s ‘enemies’ list, but that hasn’t stopped some of the former Kyrgyz’s leader’s associates from trying to get the Kremlin’s attention. Ata-Jurt, considered one of the strongest parties in southern Kyrgyzstan and comprised of many former Bakiyev supporters, is eager to please. Addressing one of the most sensitive issues for Moscow in Kyrgyzstan -- the American military presence at the Manas Airport outside of Bishkek -- party leader Kamchybek Tashiev told Ferghana.ru on September 16 that he would seek the base’s closure. Tashiev also emphasized that a Russian-operated base in Kant would continue to be welcomed. “The US base should not be on the territory of our country,” he said. “We cannot live without Russia, as a man can not live without air.” [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“I am a politician who knows his worth and knows our society. I am convinced that we should be with Russia. We have no other way,” Tashiev continued.
Kyrgyz and Russian officials have held meetings in recent weeks discussing the future status of Russian military facilities in Kyrgyzstan. On September 13, the two countries’ defense ministers met to discuss a 49-year agreement on the Russian troop presence in Kyrgyzstan and to unite existing military facilities into a Russian mega-base, local media reported. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Bishkek knows it has no choice but to keep Moscow happy, a prominent economist says, noting the country’s economic dependence on Russia.
“Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependant on labor migrants’ remittances from Russia due to a strong decline in the [domestic] business and investment environment after the April and June events,” said Kuban Ashyrkulov, the executive director of the Bishkek-based International Business Council (IBC). “It is not an exaggeration with a half a million Kyrgyz labor migrants making a living in Russia and feeding their landlocked home with regular remittances.”
According to the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan, last year remittances sent from Russia comprised 19 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. That makes Russia, if nothing else, a campaign topic.
“Truly, all Kyrgyz parties in the run for office recognize the role of Russia in Central Asia and namely in Kyrgyzstan,” Ishenbay Abdrazakov, a former state secretary under ex-president Askar Akayev and currently a professor at the Bishkek Humanitarian University, told EurasiaNet.org. Politicians “attempt to attract support from the Russian government since any support from Moscow can immediately increase a party’s rating and earn votes.”
Ulan Temirov is the pseudonym for a journalist based in Bishkek.