By Timur Toktonaliev*
Kyrgyzstan’s president has defended a decision to cancel tax exemptions for United States assistance and withdraw diplomatic immunity from aid programme staff. The move is direct retaliation for a US human rights prize awarded to jailed activist Azimjon Askarov.
The US government has expressed regret at the Kyrgyz decision, pointing out that the assistance agreement signed in 1993 has allowed two billion dollars in aid to boost areas including healthcare, education, farming, banking and border security.
On July 16, Askarov was given the Human Rights Defender Award by the US State Department. The prize was accepted by Askarov’s son, as he himself is serving a life sentence handed down in autumn 2010 for inciting the ethnic violence that ravaged southern Kyrgyzstan in June that year. Rights groups said that he suffered torture and beatings in custody, and that the real reason for his arrest was that he filmed and circulated footage apparently showing Kyrgyz security forces assisting rather than stopping attacks on ethnic Uzbeks.
Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry said on July 17 the US award was cause for “surprise and deep concern”, and accused Washington of “trying to stir up ethnic hatred” in the country. Four days later, Prime Minister Temir Sariev signed the order terminating the agreement, under which US assistance was not subject to taxation or financial audits, and gave diplomatic immunity to the American nationals implementing aid programmes.
President Almazbek Atambaev repeated the suggestion that US influence was destabilising in July 27 remarks to the press.
He said that while Washington was always preaching the importance of an independent judiciary, “I’ve been pressured to take a decision to change Askarov’s sentence throughout the three years of my presidency.”
He went further than that, implying that Washington was somehow behind Kyrgyzstan’s periodic bouts of political turbulence.
“These attempts to sow division, chaos and destabilisation – managed chaos – can only be cause for indignation,” he said. “We can see who truly wants a peaceful, prosperous, stable Kyrgyzstan, and who wants there always to be something on fire here, something going up in smoke.”
Specifically, Atambaev suggested that the award given to Askarov, who is Uzbek, was part of a plot to promote separatism in the south of the country. “The Uzbek community is being implanted with the idea that things are bad for it in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.
The US government expressed disappointment at the decision, and its embassy in Bishkek issued a statement listing the many areas of assistance that had directly benefited the Kyrgyz government as well as its people over many years.
Kyrgyzstan, it said “receives the highest level of development assistance in Central Asia precisely because it shares the United States’ democratic values, seeking to create economic opportunity for its citizens, and to ensure a healthy and well educated populace”.
The statement said Washington was studying the “technical impact of this decision, which could put assistance programs that benefit the Kyrgyzstani people in jeopardy, including programmes to address violent extremism, increase economic growth and job creation, improve the educational system, and support the continued democratic development of Kyrgyzstan.
“We will continue to engage with and support the people of Kyrgyzstan.”
The Kyrgyz foreign ministry, meanwhile, acknowledged that US aid could be “curtailed or even wound down”, but argued that since cancelling the aid agreement was just retaliation for the “unfriendly” US stance on the Askarov case, the country did not deserve to be the subject of further counter-measures itself.
Since 2010, the authorities in Bishkek have been accused of pandering to a resurgent Kyrgyz nationalism rather than addressing the root causes of the June bloodshed. Human rights groups point out that most of those killed were Uzbeks, yet this one ethnic group was blamed for inciting the violence. The majority of those arrested and jailed afterwards, like Askarov, were Uzbek. (See Unfinished Business in Kyrgyzstan on the limited success of efforts to heal the wounds and ethnic divisions.)
In 2011, the State Department gave its Women of Courage award to Kyrgyzstan’s interim president, Roza Otunbaeva, for the part she played in steering the country through a difficult period which included a revolution as well as ethnic conflict.
Askarov has been the recipient of other awards in the past, but the Kyrgyz government did not respond nearly as fiercely, simply re-stating that he had been tried and found guilty.
Erica Marat, a long-term expert on Central Asian affairs, sees the decision to denounce the agreement as “hasty, risky and short-sighted”.
“The United States is one of Kyrgyzstan’s principal partners on human development and security. Derailing cooperation with [the US] will above all jeopardise the health and welfare of the population,” she told IWPR.
Marat, who is assistant professor in the Department of Regional and Analytical Studies at the National Defence University’s College of International and Security Affairs in Washington, argues that the Kyrgyz “president and foreign ministry are themselves destabilising the ethnic situation by sowing panic that the US is somehow trying to influence domestic affairs in Kyrgyzstan. The question of releasing Askarov has been raised by the US and European countries many times, but Bishkek has now decided to use it for its own purposes.”
MAKING RUSSIA HAPPY?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been a major recipient of Western aid and grants as the only state to develop a democratic system, and the most fertile environment for non-government groups.
For some years, Kyrgyzstan has been gradually backing away from Western influences as Moscow reasserts its dominance in the economic, security and political spheres. In May, Kyrgyzstan joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Last year, Atambaev kept an earlier promise not to renew the US military’s lease of the Manas airbase, used to resupply Western forces in Afghanistan since 2001. He has also signed major defence and financial assistance agreements with President Vladimir Putin.
Marat is among those who suspect that the US aid agreement was annulled out of a desire to please Moscow.
“The Askarov award is just a pretext for Atambaev to win support from the Kremlin ahead of the upcoming election,” Marat said, referring to parliamentary polls scheduled for autumn 2015.
Moscow-based Central Asia watcher Andrei Grozin argues that Kyrgyzstan’s actions will play well in Russia.
“It’s clear this is going down really well in Beijing and Moscow, of course not at official level,” said Grozin, who is head of the Central Asia and Kazakstan Department at the Institute of CIS Countries. “They are all saying ‘you’re great, you’re an independent country and you can put the global hegemonist in its place.”
Furthermore, Grozin argues that the Kyrgyz government is also appealing to a domestic audience.
“What could be better than showing you are tough and independent in dealing with a global superpower ahead of a parliamentary election?” he asked. “The vast majority of the population, the Kyrgyz in particular, see this as an attempt to demonstrate their independence, their political maturity, and their ability to defend their national interests.”
Grozin believes that since the closure of the Manas airbase, the US-Kyrgyz relationship has diminished in importance for both sides, but despite that, neither will let it fall apart.
“Everyone is having their say now, but later on, everything will carry on as usual. Kyrgyzstan is a very small, poor country, but it is important to all the external players, and the US is not going to abandon its partnership with Kyrgyzstan, regardless of how disappointed it is. Because if it takes offence and leaves, its place will be taken by the Russians and Chinese, which we can see happening even now,” he said. “It wouldn’t make sense for Kyrgyzstan to break off ties with the US, because in addition to losing opportunities for dialogue with one of the world’s leading centres of power, it would have less space for political manoeuvring and accessing various kinds of resources….. The Western vector will remain no matter what agreements are concluded or denounced.”
Bishkek-based political analyst Medet Tiulegenov disagrees with this view, arguing that by binding itself to Moscow so tightly, Kyrgyzstan has lost credibility elsewhere.
“This is a signal to our partner [Russia] that we are with you,” he told IWPR. “This situation reflects the growing confrontation between the West and Russia. The decision-makers and some politicians believe think that by doing this, they are on the same track as their geopolitical partner.”
“Politicians are binding the republic to Russia alone in pursuit of their own immediate interests,” he continued. That’s a message to the world that Kyrgyzstan has a unipolar policy, and this makes it weak and dependent in the eyes of these external powers.”
*Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR’s Kyrgyzstan Editor. This article was published at IWPR’s RCA Issue 767