In the face of widespread hopes of a last-minute change of heart, Kyrgyzstan’s government has torn up a foundational treaty in the Central Asian nation’s ties with the United States.
By signing off on the cancellation of the 1993 treaty on July 21, Prime Minister Temir Sariev stands to endanger the millions of dollars worth of assistance that Washington provides to Kyrgyzstan every year.
Bishkek has adopted the measure in response to the U.S. State Department bestowing the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year. Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. award enraged Bishkek, which has described the recognition of Askarov as an attempt to destabilize the country and sow interethnic tension.
The 1993 treaty provides for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of U.S. aid programs. It also exempts non-Kyrgyz employees of U.S. government or private aid programs from income and social security taxes.
It seems unlikely that the risk-averse U.S. government will entertain the prospect of being majorly exposed to tax checks in a country where such inspections are regularly conducted by officials seeking bribes, as investors have had cause to learn to their detriment. The change, which comes into effect on Aug. 20, will also require a cumbersome layer of bureaucratic wrangling that could in any event stand to hamstring programs for an indefinite period.
U.S. government assistance to Kyrgyzstan since the early 1990s stands at around $1 billion.
According to the most recent full-year figure provided on the USAID website, U.S. government assistance in 2013 alone totaled $49 million. The largest recipient sectors were economic growth, agriculture and energy, which collectively accounted for 29% of that sum.
More than $7 million went to remedying the country’s crumbling health care system. USAID efforts in Kyrgyzstan have focused on training and equipment to improve treatment for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and boost the quality of maternal and child healthcare. Almost all those areas of care have at some point been tainted in Kyrgyzstan by a mortality scandal of some description.
But it is the assistance to civil society and media that appears to grate the most and that has aroused the greatest suspicion. Feverish conspiracy theories about U.S. plots to foment a revolution abound, and are eagerly promoted by Russian television, which is watched by many Kyrgyz viewers.
Bishkek must assume this new state of affairs will help ease its pains, although things are likely to get harder in the near term. For years, thousands of Kyrgyzstanis have survived by re-exporting Chinese goods to other former Soviet republics. Those goods will now face higher import tariffs, and President Almazbek Atambayev has freely admitted Kyrgyzstan’s economy must “restructure in a very short space of time.”
Money is getting tighter for Kyrgyz families as all-important remittances from migrant laborers sink against the backdrop of economic stagnation in Russia. Kamalbek Karymshakov, an expert at the National Institute for Strategic Research, told a press conference on July 21 that remittances could drop by 12.4% this year compared with 2014. That is actually a lower figure than has previously been forecast — a potential small consolation.
All in all, perhaps not the best time to be looking a gift horse in the mouth.