Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyzstan Courting Russia

Growing border problems with neighboring states explain Bishkek's moves to strengthen ties with Moscow.
By Sultan Jumagulov

In the streets of the capital, Bishkek, the signs of Kyrgyzstan's new entente with Moscow are not hard to spot. Enormous billboards carrying advertisements for the Rossiyskaya Gazeta (the Russian Newspaper) plaster the main avenues.

Russian delegations descend continually on the city, including Moscow government officials, heads of pension funds and directors of factories in the Urals.

The president's press service issues a stream of releases concerning meetings with these officials and the new agreements they have signed.

In parliament, deputies are debating whether Kyrgyzstan should sign up to the close alliance forged between Russia and Belarus.

The authorities are even handing out awards to Russian journalists accredited in Bishkek, praising them as "the most honest journalists" of all.

In the meantime, in Kant, 20 km from the capital, preparations are in full swing for a new Russian military airbase. Russian experts are already preparing the base to receive the fighter jets that will shortly be stationed there.

Officially, Bishkek publicly describes these events as no more than the continuation of the policy of cooperation that grew out of the Agreement on Collective Security signed by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakstan and Tajikistan as well as Russia and Kyrgyzstan.

But local observers believe Bishkek, rather than Moscow, is the driving force behind Russia's increasing presence in Kyrgyzstan. They say it reflects growing concern here about the pressure the country is facing from its neighbours.

As one parliamentarian put it, "Fraternal ties with the Kremlin are growing at the same time as our neighbours in Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and recently Tajikistan are stepping up their frontier demands."

Tashpolot Baltabaev says the rapprochement with Moscow is timely, "As our more powerful neighbours present us with territorial ultimatums, we need to find a reliable protector in Russia."

Beken Nazaraliev, editor of the opposition newspaper Kyrgyz Ordo, says Kyrgyzstan's neighbours have always been a source of problems. "It is no secret that it is getting harder for Bishkek to talk either to Tashkent or to Dushanbe while we have dozens of unsolved territorial disputes," he said.

Nazaraliev claims that the Uzbek and Tajik authorities have unilaterally erected border posts in disputed zones to force Kyrgyzstan to acquiesce to their demands in frontier talks.

"So far we have been able to reduce border tension through negotiations," he said. "But confrontation now looks inevitable and the situation is unpredictable, especially now Kyrgyz citizens are becoming victims of mines that the Uzbeks have planted in border districts."

On February 19, Kyrgyz foreign minister Askar Aitmatov summoned Uzbekistan's ambassador Alisher Salahitdinov to demand an explanation for an incident on February 14.

On that day, two Uzbek border guards crossed into Kyrgyz territory, stopped a bus, asked the driver for his identification, and fired into the air when he refused to comply. Fortunately, there were no victims and the Uzbek guards were subsequently ordered by their superior officers to return to home.

Aitmatov reminded Salahitdinov of Kyrgyzstan's earlier proposal to sign a memorandum on confidence-building measures for the area along the two countries'

common border.

To complicate matter further, on February 21, 70 residents from the village Ak Tash on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, staged a protest demanding that the governments of the two countries sign an agreement which will enable them to reach a Kyrgyz enclave, Barak. Currently, when they make the trip they have to endure constant harassment from Uzbek guards at checkpoints along the route.

Relations are less fraught with Kazakstan, which is Kyrgyzstan's closest neighbour in terms of language and culture. But Kyrgyz deputies say ties are far from perfect. According to Alymbay Sultanov, another parliamentary deputy, the Kazaks are tightening regulations against Kyrgyz citizens driving in transit through their country.

Sultanov says passengers taking the road from Kyrgyzstan's Talas region through Kazak territory are subjected to humiliating frontier checks, and that a few days ago Kazak border guards introduced a rule banning cars with Kyrgyz number plates from passing in transit after midnight.

On January 3, a crowd of roughly 200 villagers from the Sogd region of Tajikistan stormed the frontier and smashed Kyrgyz customs posts. In retaliation, Kyrgyz villagers from the Batken region marched into Tajik territory and demolished a recently established border checkpoint.

Although the law enforcement agencies from both sides have managed to restore order on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border immediately after the conflict, the local authorities warned that they could not rule out a repeat of such incidents.

These developments are causing serious anxiety among Kyrgyz politicians and ordinary people. The strongest opponents of President Akaev now support his policy of broadening cooperation with Russia. Even those who once accused him of tilting to Moscow to protect his own domestic position from internal threats have shifted their stance.

Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, leader of the opposition parliamentary group Kyrgyzstan, said, "Recent events have convinced us that neither the US, China nor any state other than Russia can become Kyrgyzstan's strategic partner. A range of historic, economic and other factors means only Russia can protect us from an external threat."

The Kyrgyz leadership began its overtures last year. First it granted Moscow use of its military airbase for Russian fighter jets. Akaev then used the Russian president Vladimir Putin's visit to Bishkek last December to declare that he saw his country as Russia's key military and political partner in Central Asia.

Moscow showed its gratitude to Bishkek by extending repayment terms for Kyrgyzstan's 170 million US dollar debt to Russia. It also promised not to deport Kyrgyz citizens currently working in Russia as migrant labourers.

Not all Kyrgyz politicians support the government's pro-Russian orientation, however. Zainidin Kurmanov, of the liberal Moya Strana party, says Kyrgyzstan's main priority is to establish friendly ties with its immediate neighbours, "Our political and economical growth is impossible unless we establish peace and harmony with Kazakstan and Uzbekistan."

Muratbek Imanaliev, a former foreign minister now working as a professor at the American University in Bishkek, says the government's strategy of trying to solve its economic and border problems with its neighbours through the Kremlin's patronage is short-sighted. "Kyrgyzstan is wrong to ignore the role of the US, and other regional and international organisations," he said.

"We cannot continually seek the protection of big outside powers. Kyrgyzstan must prove its own economic, military and political viability, and build up normal ties to its neighbors, as well as to distant states".

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek