By Ryskeldi Satke*
The deterioration of Turkish-Russian relations over the shooting down of Russian jet Su-24 on Turkey’s border with Syria last month triggered Russia’s “soft power” machine to unleash waves of anti-Turkey propaganda in Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan. It has been known for years that the Kremlin uses information as a tool for political purposes in the post-Soviet world. Russia’s propaganda effect has been well observed in Ukraine and it is still waging a “news war” against the Ukrainian government. However, since the date of the incident of the downing of the Russian military plane by a Turkish aircraft, a barrage of anti-Turkish propaganda has been filling TV channels and airwaves in the Kyrgyz Republic and elsewhere in the region. This news “frenzy”, as Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has put it, and rightly so, has become a concern in the country.
The Kyrgyz leader has also suggested that Turkey “should apologize for downing Russian jet”, criticizing Ankara for making a “wrong” decision. Almazbek Atambayev’s statement comes after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where the Kremlin-led security organization CSTO has convened for a summit. Nonetheless, the Turkish government has repeatedly stated that no apologies will be issued for shooting down the Su-24 after the Russian aircraft’s violation of Turkish airspace. In light of the dramatic developments between Turkey and Russia, the Turkic nation of Kazakhstan urged both Ankara and Moscow to investigate the incident, punish those responsible and restore ties.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has clearly indicated that the Turkey-Russia conflict can be resolved only by joint efforts from Moscow and Ankara. Aksakal Nursultan Nazarbayev, as the Kazakh leader was called by Turkish leadership in 2009, restrained himself from taking sides in the dispute, as Russia has continued its retaliatory action against Turkey. As a result, Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Idrissov told Reuters in Vienna earlier this month that “it is for Russia and Turkey to come to terms”, adding that Kazakhstan would offer its assistance to alleviate the conflict upon request.
Alas, the Kyrgyz President showed less wisdom in his support of Vladimir Putin in this case, citing the Kyrgyz Republic’s experience with foreign aircraft incursions into the country’s airspace. Almazbek Atambayev didn’t specify as to which experience he was referring, but by all means the Kyrgyz President’s reference to Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet for violating Turkish airspace cannot be compared with Almazbek Atambayev’s reasoning, due to repeated violations of Turkey’s airspace by Russia on multiple occasions.
The Turkish government has warned the Kremlin previously that further incursions by Russian aircraft into Turkish territory wouldn’t be tolerated. Despite Turkey’s objections, Russia has conducted itself in a “business as usual” manner, leaving Ankara no choice but to use its sovereign right to defend Turkish territory. In the case regarding the Kyrgyz leader’s suggestion, the rationale behind the Kyrgyz President’s call for Turkey to apologize to Russia is unclear. There is little known about the timing of Almazbek Atambayev’s improper statement, and it simply was not helpful in finding ways to resolve the conflict between Moscow and Ankara, diplomatically speaking.
It is true that Central Asian states have found themselves in a difficult political environment after the incident. Turkey is a brother nation and trading partner to Turkic republics while Russia has historically been a dominating political and economic power in Central Asia. Notwithstanding, Kazakhstan was able to continue its course for multi-vector foreign policy after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and further invasion of Ukraine, which boosted the Kazakh government’s cooperation on a global level. Regretfully, that is not the case with the Kyrgyz Republic. Under President Almazbek Atambayev, Kyrgyzstan has made a series of missteps that have dramatically effected the country’s political and economic situation. The stagnant economy consistently forces hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Kyrgyz Republic to travel abroad for work, whereas rampant corruption of the state institutions is sliding the country of six million to greater uncertainty.
By the end of 2015, President Almazbek Atambayev’s promotion of Russia’s Eurasian Union project had produced less economic relief for the poverty stricken nation, further degrading living conditions for many working families in the country. Another blow has come from the Kremlin this month regarding Russia’s grand hydro projects, which were promised by Vladimir Putin to the Kyrgyz Republic in 2012. Almazbek Atambayev announced that Russia is unable to complete the projects due to financial difficulties after oil prices slumped and western sanctions were imposed over Ukraine.
And yet, the Kyrgyz President is commenting on Turkey’s “wrong” motives to shoot down the Russian jet while nearly two million of the Kyrgyz Republic’s population, or 30,6 percent, is living below the national poverty lines, according to the World Bank’s report in 2014. Piling social and economic issues in the Kyrgyz Republic is going to test the leadership of President Atambayev next year. The right move for the Kyrgyz President in this economic crisis is to execute badly needed political and economic reforms in the country. What Kyrgyzstan doesn’t need is Almazbek Atambayev’s counterproductive position, as in the case when he criticized Turkey and suggested that Ankara apologize to Vladimir Putin.
Turkey’s efforts to promote closer cultural, economic and political ties with Central Asian states were welcomed by the majority of the Turkic nations in the 1990s. Today, these relations are certainly appreciated in the Kyrgyz Republic, where Turkish sponsored schools and Manas University in the capital Bishkek have been providing opportunities to the country’s young generations. Over the years, Turkey has been committed to its neutral approach in Kyrgyzstan, avoiding engagement in domestic politics by promoting educational programs.
Turkey’s trade and investments in Kyrgyzstan are insignificant, as opposed to China’s spending spree on infrastructure projects. So, as Russia’s influence is gradually fading away in greater Central Asia after the Kremlin’s blunder in Ukraine, and now in Syria, Turkey may have more opportunities to play a positive role in the region, which applies to the Kyrgyz Republic as well in spite of the negatives.
*Ryskeldi Satke is a writer-researcher with news organizations and research institutions in Central and East Asia, Turkey, the EU and the US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at gmail.com