By Timur Toktonaliev
An unusually bitter border spat between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan is hampering previously warm relations between the neighbouring states.
Although analysts believe that this level of tension between the region’s two closest allies cannot last long, the moves have surprised observers in both countries.
Kazakstan massively tightened border controls after Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambaev made a series of harsh comments about Kazak leader Nursultan Nazarbayev and his alleged interference in Kygyzstan’s recent elections.
For the last two weeks, there have been huge delays with lorries queuing for many kilometres ahead of heightened customs checks on the Kazak side.
Kazakstan is Kyrgyzstan’s largest trading partner and also the main destination for exports of food and agricultural products, as well as the key transit country for trade with Russia and eastern Europe.
Kyrgyz exporters have already complained about losses due to breach of contract and the deterioration of goods.
The Kazak moves came after Atambaev alleged that Nazarbayev had meddled meddling in domestic Kyrgyz affairs after he held a high-profile meeting with one of the front-runners, Omurbek Babanov, during the presidential race in mid-September.
Rival candidate Sooronbai Zheenbekov, seen as Atambaev’s chosen successor, went on to win the election.
The Kyrgyz president also appeared to hint that Nazarbayev, in power for 28 years, had been in his post for too long, and that Kazak citizens were not benefiting from the country’s abundant natural resources.
Addressing Kyrgyz teachers on October 7, he said that “the wealth of Kazakstan is being embezzled. It doesn’t reach the people of Kazakstan”.
He also criticised the Kazak pension system.
“In Kazakhstan, GDP is more than in Kyrgyzstan, [by] 20 times. Why then are pensions in Kazakhstan only 1.5 times higher, and tariffs five times higher?” Atambaev asked, before answering his own question. “Because they embezzle riches in Kazakhstan.”
Zhaksylyk Sabitov, an expert at the Kazak Institute of World Economics and Politics, argued that Atambaev had attacked Nazarbaev and the Kazak so as to gain additional votes for his preferred candidate.
“If you remember, before the election Atambaev said that his candidate [Zheenbekov] had 40 per cent, and this confrontation with Kazakhstan brought [an extra] 12-15 per cent, which allowed him to win in the first round,” he said. “It was clearly a thought-out action. ”
But on October 10, five days ahead of the Kyrgyz elections, Kazakstan began intensive checks of all traffic from Kyrgyzstan, with only a few vehicles allowed to pass each hour.
The Kazakh border service said that the checks were needed in the event of destabilisation due to the elections, and to identify illegal migrants and smuggled products.
On October 18, Kyrgyz prime minister Sapar Isakov and a large government delegation travelled to Astana to meet his counterpart Bakytzhan Sagintayev.
After the meeting between the two premiers, a task force was set up to resolve the border problems and part of the Kyrgyz delegation stayed in Astana to continue talks.
Border guards began to allow ordinary citizens and private cars to cross freely, but continued the tightened checks on commercial vehicles.
Both countries are members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) alongside Belarus and Armenia, and Kazakh foreign minister Kairat Abdarakhanov said that these controls were “objective processes” intended simply to comply with EEU norms.
Kyrgyzstan became a full EEU member in 2015, but accession has been complicated, particularly because of trade relations with Kazakstan. The end of phytosanitary controls on Kyrgz exports was supposed to be one of the benefits, but Kazakstan has continued to monitor Kyrgyz agricultural products.
Following the election, Atambaev apologised to his Kazak counterpart, while continuing to criticise his government.
“I guess I was wrong when I spoke emotionally about President Nazarbayev,” he told a public event on October 18, going on to condemn the “oligarchs” surrounding him for attempting to preserve their power at all costs.
“As we see, the actions of Kazakhstan in the last few years have been aimed at the collapse of the Eurasian Economic Union,” he continued.
Atambaev spoke to Russian president Vladimir Putin on October 19, and experts said that they are sure the Kyrgyz-Kazakh crisis was also on the agenda.
“Moscow, as far as I can judge, does not like this situation at all. It is clear that Moscow wants Astana and Bishkek to get out of this awkward situation as soon as possible,” said Andrei Grozin, an expert on Central Asia at the Russia-based Institute for Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“On the other hand, it’s really hard to say first how much goodwill the countries have to end the conflict, and secondly, how much they are really able to take such a step,” he continued.
Atambaev’s comments garnered a great deal of public attention in Kazakstan, said Zhumabek Sarabekov, an expert at the Kazakh Institute of World Economy and Politics.
“Atambaev’s statements have drawn a response because in many respects they have been completely unexpected; just a year ago the Kyrgyz president spoke differently,” he said, adding that Astana was still willing to show goodwill.
“In this situation the Kazakh side shows that we are ready to continue working despite Atambaev’s recent negative steps”.
Matters have not been helped by another surprise announcement on October 20, when it emerged that the government had proposed cancelling an agreement that would have seen it receive 100 million US dollars from Kazakstan.
This was part of Kyrgyzstan’s EEU accession deal to re-equip its border controls and meet the union’s trade standards.
The agreement was signed in December 2016, and in August it was decided to allocate the first tranche of 41 million USD.
But Atambaev insisted that “we do not need such help” and parliament adopted the proposal on October 25. It remains unclear where these extra resources will now come from.
At a meeting of EEU prime ministers in the Armenian capital Yerevan also on October 25, Kazak prime minister Bakytzhan Sagintaev complained about the smuggling of Chinese goods across the Kyrgyz border into Kazakhstan.
“We have been talking about it for a long time,” Sagintaev said, adding that it was now clear that violations were common.
“According to the statistics of foreign trade of China, export from China to Kyrgyzstan in 2015 was 4.3 billion USD, while Kyrgyz imports from this country were one billion,” he continued. “The deviation is 3.3 billion USD. In 2016, according to China, exports were already 5.6 billion USD, but according to Kyrgyzstan imports were 1.5 billion. The deviation, as you see, is 4.1 billion USD.”
Kyrgyz economics minister Artyom Novikov told journalists that “such problems exist in all EEU countries”.
“If we look at Kazakhstan, there’s the same picture. For instance, China shows that the volume of its exports to Kazakhstan in 2015 was 8.5 billion USD, but Kazakhstan showed imports in 2015 of about five billion USD. In 2016 Chinese exports were 8.2 billion USD; Kazakhstan showed 3.5 billion USD dollars. Novikov said.
Kyrgyz economist Iskender Sharsheev, said that the problem was that “Kyrgyz entrepreneurs were given little time to prepare and to ensure that certification of goods meets the necessary standards” at border crossings.
Sharsheev added that while large and medium-sized enterprises were ready to meet EEU requirements, problems remained with small-scale food producers and exporters of fruits and vegetables.
Grozin said that substantial progress to end the détente was unlikely until Atambaev steps down in December.
“Both parties are now waiting for steps from each other … Unless and until [president elect] Zheenbekov becomes a full-fledged leader of the country, we should not expect any changes,” he said, adding, “Everyone is waiting for Atambaev to leave.”
Sabitov also predicted that the situation would improve under the incoming Kyrgyz president.
“There are no friends in politics, only interests. It is in Zheenbekov’s interests to start becoming a more independent political figure. Secondly, it is in his interest to improve relations with Kazakhstan. And thirdly, it is in his interest to distance himself from Atambaev’s legacy [over Kazakstan] because it’s better to start afresh than to carry baggage.”
This article was published at IWPR’s RCA 823