Wednesday, 14 June 2006

FOREIGN POLICY RE-ORIENTATION & POLITICAL SYMBOLISM IN KYRGYZSTAN

Published in Analytical Articles

By Yaşar Sarı & Süreyya Yiğit (6/14/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The past couple of months have seen increased activity in Kyrgyz foreign policy. In April, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev visited Moscow on his first official state visit. It was also in April that the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring that the rent paid for the Manas Ganci air base used by the United States needed to be renegotiated.
BACKGROUND: The past couple of months have seen increased activity in Kyrgyz foreign policy. In April, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev visited Moscow on his first official state visit. It was also in April that the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring that the rent paid for the Manas Ganci air base used by the United States needed to be renegotiated. Since the Tulip Revolution of March 2005, high-level U.S. policymakers have made several visits to Bishkek. These have included Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in July and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in October 2005. This was indicative of the support the United States was showing Kyrgyzstan after the Andijan events in neighboring Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz authorities were pleased to host their guests and maximized the opportunities provided by these visits in highlighting the attention that Washington was giving to them. Currently, however, the streets of Bishkek are under the close scrutiny and gaze of Russian policy-makers. One may argue that this is not a new phenomenon but now, in a literal sense, the billboards of the capital are littered with photographs of President Bakiyev shaking hands with President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. They are not highlighting an upcoming election, but rather the April trip made by the President to Russia. The political symbolism of these giant photographs sheds much light onto the Kyrgyz political system. One is aware that a political system is more than a set of laws, institutions, political actors, or procedures. It is also the belief structure of what a society stands for, why it exists, and what it ultimately means – the foundation upon which political power is built and legitimately exercised. The persistent communication and display of symbols and rituals of political meaning is central to the process of both legitimizing and strengthening the hold of President Bakiyev on the Kyrgyz power structure. IMPLICATIONS: The majority of Kyrgyz citizens focus less on abstract feelings and meanings about foreign policy and much more about individual governmental policies, domestic security and unemployment, which remain chronic social problems. In terms of economics, the Kyrgyz political elite is divided over entry into the HIPC initiative advocated by the World Bank and the IMF. In fact, U.S. Ambassador Mary Jovanovich was quoted as saying that “Kyrgyzstan cannot afford not to join the program”. The issue centers around whether the conditional debt relief will indeed benefit Kyrgyzstan and what impact it will have on its foreign relations. In terms of decision-making, the billboards seem intended to transform and personify the abstract notion of the Kyrgyz state, thus extracting love and loyalty from the people for President Bakiyev. In order to maintain a stable and functioning political system and to be able to adapt it when needed requires a regular reproduction of political culture as well as reproduction of the present and creation of new political roles and structures. This function of a political system is performed, correspondingly, through political socialization and political recruitment. The recent public campaign that is being witnessed in Bishkek is a good example of this, whereby the Kyrgyz public is being socialized into regarding Russia as a natural partner and eternal ally. The various photos of President Bakiyev with Russian decision-makers promulgate a new shift in emphasis in foreign policy and the creation of a myth of traditional and historic Russo-Kyrgyz affinity and solidarity. The Kyrgyz government is aiming to develop symbols of community designed to encourage the people to identify themselves with them—and to uphold and defend them as though their very own being and the meaning of life itself were at stake. In July 2005, at the Astana Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and at the insistence of both Russia and China, a decision was taken to ensure United States military forces left Central Asia. This was justified by the war on terror no longer being accepted as a viable reason for this presence. Kyrgyzstan had agreed with this summit statement and its recent actions are an indication of it pursuing a balancing policy in both the economic and military sphere with regard to the great powers. Kyrgyzstan is simultaneously trying to join the HIPC program as well as inviting the Chairman of Gazprom to Bishkek to encourage heavier Russian investment. Militarily, it is also accepting the enlargement of the Russian Kant airbase alongside the functioning of the American Manas Ganci airbase in return for higher rental fees from the latter. This verifies that economic reasons are not negligible. CONCLUSIONS: President Bakiyev was recently quoted as warning Washington that it had until June 1, 2006, and not a day longer to draft and sign a new accord. The rent for the Manas air base sought by the Kyrgyz authorities from the United States is almost half the national budget. Yet this bluff by Bakiyev was called by Washington, as no agreement concerning the base had been signed two weeks past this deadline. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has reiterated that the base will continue to operate as normal. The pressure mounted by domestic opposition towards the Kyrgyz government and the resignations of high ranking ministers and state officials such as State Secretary Dastan Sarygulov have encouraged a strong lurch towards Moscow, especially in the economic and military dimensions. Moreover, recent clashes on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border have demonstrated the Kyrgyz state’s lack of military capacity, and have been a factor influencing the Kyrgyz decision to conduct joint military maneuvers with Russia. It is precisely this new orientation that is being supported and reemphasized by the poster campaigns on the streets of Bishkek. Given the fact that the Moscow visit was in April, the only explanation for these posters still remaining in June is to encourage and demonstrate to the public that it is not the United States, but Russia which is closest to the Kyrgyz nation. AUTHORS’ BIO: Yaşar Sarı & Süreyya Yiğit are Lecturers in International Relations, at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University and the American University of Central Asia, Bishkek.
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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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