Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Russia Woos Kyrgyz Politicians
Russia is courting politicians across the Kyrgyz political spectrum in a bid to maintain its influence in the country whatever the outcome of the February 27 poll.
Following the defeat of Moscow-backed candidates in the Ukrainian and Georgian elections, Russian leaders have invited both the Kyrgyz opposition and ruling regime loyalists to Moscow in recent weeks. Observers say this is an apparent rethink of Russia’s past strategy of automatically backing ex-Soviet stalwarts like President Askar Akaev.
“Russia has become wiser after getting its comeuppance in Ukraine,” said political commentator Ermek Kozubekov. “In Ukraine, Russia bet on the wrong horse and lost. Now it does not want to repeat the same mistake again.”
Both Akaev and Kyrgyz foreign minister Askar Aitmatov have visited Moscow recently to discuss the situation in Kyrgyzstan on the eve of the elections. More unusual, however, is that opposition leaders have also been invited to the State Duma and the Kremlin, where they spoke with unnamed high-level officials.
Former Kyrgyz premier Kurmanbek Bakiev, who now heads the opposition People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan and is widely expected to run for president later this year, went to Moscow in January, where he met Russian security council chief Igor Ivanov.
Adakhan Madumarov, co-chair of the opposition Atajurt party, visited one month earlier, while Atajurt’s Rosa Otunbaeva and Democratic Development Party leader Mambetjunus Abylov went in mid February.
Otunbaeva and Abylov met with high-profile Russian parliamentarians including Mikhail Margelov, head of the Senate’s international section, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee, and Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the committee for dealing with the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, a post-Soviet grouping of which Kyrgyzstan is a member.
On returning home, Otunbaeva said Moscow had changed its position on the internal politics of CIS countries following popular uprisings around the region.
“Moscow politicians now listen not only to the powers that be but also to the dissenters. They don’t want to take chances again,” Otunbaeva told a press conference.
Abylov said the opposition politicians explained their policies to their Russian hosts, who he said had been misinformed by the Kyrgyz government.
“We found out the Akaev administration had defamed us to Moscow as supporters of Islamic fundamentalism. We succeeded in dispelling those wild accusations,” Abylov told IWPR.
Unlike their Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts, Kyrgyzstan’s opposition politicians have been actively seeking Russian support, stressing they are not simply western-backed, anti-Russian parties as the Bishkek regime suggests in its meetings with Russian leaders.
“They [Russia] know we all have a stake in closer ties with Russia,” said Madumarov.
The two countries have strong political and economic links with up to 500,000 Kyrgyz migrants believed to be working in Russia. Elsewhere, a Russian airbase was recently established near Bishkek as the country’s military outpost in Central Asia.
“Russia is Kyrgyzstan’s geopolitical ally and a strong influence in central Asia. The Russian airbase at Kant is a reminder of that,” said Alexander Kulinsky, an independent Kyrgyz journalist.
“One way or another, we have to listen to what Russia has to say. No wonder both government officials and the opposition have sought Moscow’s advice, in order to make the transition of power more smooth. If Kyrgyzstan were a politically and economically independent state, we would not have to listen to other nations.”
Commentator Elmira Nogoibaeva agrees that both sides of the Kyrgyz political divide must cooperate with Moscow.
“Our multi-faceted politics relies on external support, and Russia is Kyrgyzstan’s key strategic ally. The officials and the opposition both have to plead their case to Moscow because they lack resources of their own. This is a far-sighted policy. Elections come and go, and life goes on. Russia is our priority,” said Nogoibaeva.
To this end, the Akaev administration is also courting Moscow.
Aitmatov ended his visit on February 13 after talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and other top Kremlin decision-makers in which Russia pledged its support for fair and democratic elections. Separately, Russian Security Council chairman Igor Ivanov said his country “would be able to relate to whoever the Kyrgyz people elect”, while Russia’s ambassador to Bishkek, Yevgeny Shmagin, pledged Moscow will not interfere in the elections.
Though both the government and opposition seek Moscow’s support in the upcoming ballot, some analysts think Akaev has a better chance of succeeding.
“Russia prefers to deal with old-school post-Soviet elites. Moscow will certainly back Akaev or his successor,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Central Asia expert with the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
“To Russia, any opposition is assumed to have a western connection following the events in Ukraine. I believe Kyrgyz officials had better luck in Moscow than their opponents.
“Russia will throw its full weight behind Akaev, no doubt about it, but it cannot ignore the opposition either. The Kyrgyz opposition is far more pro-Russian than Ukraine’s was. It is certain to me the new Kyrgyz parliament will not pass anti-Russian laws.”
Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow journalist and Central Asia specialist, told IWPR that following the “failures” of its favoured candidates in places like Ukraine, Russia is no longer the strong player it once was in the post-Soviet world. It is therefore receptive to Akaev’s warnings about a possible “velvet revolution” in Kyrgyzstan.
“Akaev now makes a good case to our politicians, inviting their support in exchange for not letting the same thing happen in Kyrgyzstan,” said Dubnov.
Despite Moscow’s pledges of non-interference in the Kyrgyz elections, commentators are split on what Russia will do next. Some say it will handle the situation with care, simply waiting to see what happens.
“Russia will just sit and wait, without taking any rash action. Russian spin doctors failed miserably in Ukraine,” said Nogoibaeva. “But Russia cannot remain a complete onlooker. If an opportunity arises to squeeze a pro-Russian candidate through, they will do it without hesitation.”
Others like Muratbek Imanaliev, leader of the opposition party Justice and Progress, believe Moscow will take a more active approach. “Russia will not remain aloof to the election process. It has too much at stake in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.
Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC reporter in Bishkek. Gulnura Toralieva is an IWPR reporter in Bishkek.
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