Who will be more popular in Kyrgyzstan come New Year’s Day: newly appointed Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev or his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin?
During his maiden trip to Moscow as premier, Atambayev secured a beautiful deal: Putin promised to drop, as of January 1, the punitive oil export tariffs he had instituted several days before Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown last April. At the time, it seemed Putin was punishing Bakiyev for reneging on a promise to evict the Americans from their airbase at Manas.
The move could result in a 25 percent reduction of gasoline prices at the pump, and trickle down support throughout the ailing Kyrgyz economy.
In addition, Putin may have offered a $200 million loan to help Kyrgyzstan out of its crisis, Atambayev suggested.
What Atambayev promised in return is unclear, but he sought Russian investment in the country’s struggling energy sector, noting that Kyrgyzstan has “unbreakable bonds with Russia.” Moscow sees influence upstream as a lever over prickly Uzbekistan.
During his visit, the Russian press trumpeted Atambayev’s stated desire to join the new Moscow-led Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. “Once we were parts of the same great country, and no one is preventing us from being part of the common economic space and the Customs Union," he said in comments carried by RIA Novosti. Independent trade experts, however, say Kyrgyzstan will not be welcome in the Moscow-led trade body until Bishkek agrees on (and secures) its borders with insurgency-afflicted Tajikistan and that regional spoiler, Uzbekistan. If Moscow is indeed interested in embracing the Kyrgyz, its officials are surely sizing up those troublesome Ferghana borders.