By Arslan Sabyrbekov (08/14/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Recent court decisions in Kyrgyzstan to release and cancel the charges against a number of key political figures have turned into a major topic of dispute. Some Kyrgyz observers perceive these decisions to constitute a sign of weakness and a significant step backward in the fight against corruption. Others have continuously underlined the political nature of the anticorruption campaign and the judicial system’s full dependency on the President, government and the parliament, despite a decade of judiciary reform.

On August 1, Bishkek’s Pervomaisky District Court released former Speaker of Parliament Akhmatbek Keldibekov and allowed him to travel to Germany to obtain medical treatment. The Prosecutor General’s Office opened the criminal case against Keldibekov on November 20, 2013. The outspoken opposition figure and member of the nationalist Ata-Jurt party, the single largest party in parliament, was arrested on charges of misappropriating public funds when he was the Chairman of the Social Fund in 2002-2005 and of the Central Tax Service Agency in 2008-2009. Keldibekov has continuously denied all the charges against him and described them as politically motivated.

From the early days of Keldibekov’s arrest, his supporters, mostly based in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions, have organized a number of large-scale demonstrations calling for his immediate release. Around 200 people have tried to storm the regional government building, throwing stones and bottles against police officers and blocking central roads connecting the country’s regions. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Aalybek Akunov, it was the persistent protests in the south of the country that brought about Keldibekov’s release, demonstrating that the central authorities in Bishkek will continue to encounter problems in extending their influence across the entire country. Akunov also believes that “the protests have turned into an essential bargaining tool with the central authorities in reaching this or that agreement.”

Other political commentators describe this decision as the result of an informal consensus between the power holders and the opposition. According to them, Keldibekov was purposefully freed to obtain medical treatment abroad, so that he will simply stay there and not return to the Kyrgyzstan. This is especially favorable to the country’s political elite in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections. It should also be noted that the Ata-Jurt party was earlier heavily weakened by the arrests of its other three prominent leaders, charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government. All of them have been freed, but lost their seats in the parliament in accordance with the country’s legislation.

Another Bishkek district court has passed a decision to cancel all charges against former Bishkek mayor Isa Omurkulov, who was earlier convicted for abuse of power and illegal approval of the boundaries of the “Victory” park. Omurkulov is a member of the pro-presidential ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan and many believe that the case against him was simply opened to cool off the allegations that the fight against corruption is being carried out selectively and targeted only against prominent members of the opposition forces. Along with Omurkulov, charges were also dropped against four key members of his staff since, as the judge stated, “there was no basis for charging them with crimes.”

In addition to the aforementioned cases, the Court has also freed the son of MP Turatbek Madylbekov, who was earlier charged with illegally selling state owned assets. A top manager in former President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s team, Uchkun Tashbaev, has also been freed despite heavy charges that he exceeded his authority while heading the country’s Agency for Geology and Mineral Resources. In the words of the opposition and independent MP Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, “all those decisions demonstrate that Kyrgyzstan is losing its battle against corruption. Individuals charged with heavy crimes are being freed. The fight has been declared just to fool the population and did not bring any substantive results.” At this stage, Nariman Tuleev, mayor of Bishkek during Bakiev’s regime, remains the only prominent political figure serving his full sentence in one of the country’s prisons. 

Published in Field Reports
Tuesday, 05 August 2014 08:57

Shootout at the Kyrgyz-Tajik Border

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (08/05/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On July 10, an exchange of fire on a disputed section of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border reportedly left at least seven border guards from both sides injured. One Tajik citizen died of gunshot wounds at the scene of the incident. The foreign Ministries of the neighboring countries, which generally enjoy good relations, exchanged official notes of protest accusing one another of breaching international law and asking for clarification of the circumstances.

The shootout took place on the outskirts of the Vorukh, an exclave of Tajik territory entirely enclosed within Kyrgyzstan’s southern region of Batken. The Vorukh enclave is a densely populated area with a population of 40,000 residents, mainly of Tajik ethnicity. Kyrgyz residents living around Vorukh have to drive through it to get to different parts of the Batken region.

To avoid this difficulty and the occasional frictions it causes, the Kyrgyz government last January decided to build a new road to bypass the enclave completely. Tajik authorities issued a statement demanding an immediate end to the construction works, saying that the road is being built on a contested territory and complaining that it would allow the Kyrgyz to blockade the Tajik enclave. At that time, the arguments over the road construction led to a one-hour shootout between the sides, leaving two Tajik and five Kyrgyz border guards heavily injured. After the shootout, Bishkek closed its border for almost two months and recalled its ambassador from Dushanbe for consultations.

The July 10 shootout at the border coincided with the upcoming talks between the heads of Border Services of the two countries. According to Kyrgyz official sources, the residents of the Vorukh enclave have purposefully taken unlawful actions to stop the negotiations over the construction of the aforementioned road. The Kyrgyz Border Service made an official statement claiming that around 30 Tajik citizens have tried to build a water pipeline from the territory of Kyrgyzstan (river Karavshin) to the Tajik village of Bedak, in Vorukh enclave. Kyrgyz border guards approached the scene, demanding a halt to the illegal actions after which local Tajiks threw stones at them. The situation escalated further and eventually led to a firefight between the sides.

In its official protest to Bishkek, Dushanbe gave a different description of the situation, claiming that their citizens were installing a water pipeline on the territory of the Vorukh cooperative at around 11.30 on July 10, when Kyrgyz border guards approached them and demanded to stop construction works in an aggressive and insulting manner. Tajik border guards, who were nearby, tried to stop the actions of their Kyrgyz counterparts, who opened fire with automatic firearms, injuring several and killing one civilian.

Indeed, the sides are throwing accusations at one another for starting the conflict, instead of demonstrating political will to resolve the pressing problem. The July 10 shooting is unlikely to be the last and the death of a local Vorukh enclave resident could further exacerbate nationalist feelings.

To prevent further escalation of the conflict between the relatively friendly countries, political analyst at Moskovskiye Novosti Arkady Dubnov suggested that mediation by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) could positively contribute to a peaceful development. In his words “Mr. Bordyuzha, Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is not a representative of the Russian Federation, but heads an international organization, with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as its members, and is in a position to talk to both sides and positively contribute to border conflict resolution.”

The proposal seems timely, since the issue of drawing a border cannot easily be resolved by two conflicting sides. Despite the creation of a Joint Border Drawing Commission, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have since 2006 not delimited a single kilometer of their contested border, which currently amounts to 460 kilometers. Negotiations are deadlocked for the simple reason that the Kyrgyz side refers to maps from the 1950s and the Tajik side to maps from the 1920s. Thus, continued negotiations along these lines are simply unproductive.

Additionally, with Kyrgyzstan joining the Russia-led Customs Union, drawing concrete state borders with its neighbors is one of the many priority tasks for Bishkek to address.

The author wrote this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the organization for which the author works.

Published in Field Reports

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (07/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In response to Uzbekistan’s decision to stop supplying gas to southern Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek considers blocking the water coming to the Grand Namangan Canal under the guise of making long awaited reparations. This, according to many experts, is not a constructive decision and will simply further worsen bilateral relations. But Bishkek’s efforts to establish contacts with Uzbek colleagues did not bring any results. Silence from Tashkent is generating speculations and a spread of rumors from both sides about the deterioration of relations between the two neighbors.

On April 14, 2014, Uzbekistan stopped supplying gas to southern Kyrgyzstan. In Osh city, over 60,000 people remain without gas. The reason for the plight of Osh residents is the fact that in early April 2014, the Kyrgyz government reached an agreement with Russia’s state company Gazprom to sell its 100 percent share of Kyrgyzgaz Company, in exchange for investments and an uninterrupted supply of gas. Formally, Tashkent did not violate the terms of its contract with the Kyrgyz side, according to which the Uzbek gas monopoly has the right to terminate the supply of natural gas to Kyrgyzstan in case of a Company ownership change. This, according to Kyrgyz economist Dzhumakadyr Akeneyev, “should have been foreseen by the Kyrgyz authorities during the long negotiation process with the Russian side over the transfer of Kyrgyzgaz ownership to them.”

According to Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev, Bishkek’s efforts to establish contact with Uzbek authorities did not bring any results. His letter to his Uzbek counterpart to resume gas supply to Kyrgyzstan’s southern residents did not bring any reaction. “Gazprom took upon itself obligations to uninterruptedly supply gas to Kyrgyzstan, and is currently holding talks with Tashkent,” stated Otorbaev. Gazprom, which is often considered as an instrument of Russia’s foreign policy, is also active in Uzbekistan, but mainly in its western part, close to the Aral Sea. Theoretically, Gazprom’s operation in Uzbekistan could sell Uzbek gas to a Gazprom subsidiary in Kyrgyzstan, and according to experts, the price would be cheaper. For Uzbekistan, this seems to be a bad deal since its gas will be sold to its former customer at a relatively lower price. But to deliver Uzbek gas to Kyrgyzstan, Gazprom still needs to use the pipelines of Uztransgas, the company in charge of transporting gas and liquid hydrocarbons produced in Uzbekistan to domestic consumers and for export. Building a pipeline across southern Kazakhstan is not an option since it will take many years and is too costly. Thus, negotiations will be intense and their outcome remains unclear.

From the very first days when Uzbekistan stopped supplying natural gas to southern Kyrgyzstan, heavy discussions have taken place in Bishkek over conducting reparation works in the Grand Namangan Canal, located in the country’s southern Jalal-Abad region. Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy Prime Minister Abdrakhman Mamataliev stated, “Since the Canal’s construction in 1957, reparation works took place only twice, and we might have to close it temporarily and carry out all the needed works.” Indeed, no one questions that the Grand Namangan Canal must be repaired, but taking into account the fact that it is summer and the water is crucial for Uzbekistan’s harvest, the decision is not constructive and will massively damage ordinary Uzbek citizens working in agricultural sector. Fortunately, not all key figures in the Kyrgyz government support this idea.

Kyrgyzstan’s First Vice-Prime Minister Tayirbek Sarpashev said that Kyrgyzstan should not take such a step and revert to provocations. In his words, “Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are brotherly nations, with cultural, economic and political ties. Ups and downs are common between neighbors and it is simply wrong to intimidate someone.”

­In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan’s opposition leaders were quick to use the situation to criticize the authorities. According to them, this demonstrates the government’s inability to carry out its functions, despite its assurances to the population of uninterrupted gas supply. The government is also being criticized for its inability to conduct an independent foreign policy, i.e. to establish direct contact with the authorities of the neighboring state and involving Gazprom in the negotiations is only further complicating the state of bilateral relations.   

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 13:22

Kyrgyzstan's President Visits Ankara

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On June 2, upon the invitation of his Turkish counterpart, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev paid a visit to Ankara to participate in a meeting of the Supreme Kyrgyz-Turkish Interstate Council. The Council was formed after the April 2010 events in Kyrgyzstan and determines the strategy of bilateral relations in a wide range of areas, including in the economic, agriculture and cultural spheres. As part of his Turkey visit, the Kyrgyz President also took part in the fourth meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States along with the presidents of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Since its establishment in 2010, a number of meetings of the Supreme Kyrgyz-Turkish Interstate Council have taken place, where parties reached a joint agreement to increase the trade volume between their countries up to one billion dollars. To reach this goal, Turkey has continuously expressed its readiness to more actively engage its businesses in Kyrgyzstan and invest in the hydropower, tourism, transport and communication sectors. But despite these statements, the volume of bilateral trade remains low at slightly over a quarter billion US$. For comparison, trade between Turkey and Tajikistan has recently reached US$ 600 million, and with Kazakhstan the amount is close to US$ 4 billion.

Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Russia-led Customs Union was also discussed during the President Atambayev’s meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The head of the Turkish government described Kyrgyzstan’s intention to join the Union as “a positive step that opens up great opportunities for the Kyrgyz Republic.” Kyrgyzstan’s former Minister of Economy Akylbek Dzhaparov described Erdogan’s statement as a symbolic gesture of diplomacy and believes that Ankara is preoccupied with finding ways to maintain its influence in the region despite Russia’s intention to create a larger Eurasian Union. Regarding the volume of bilateral trade, an expert noted that it will decline after Bishkek enters the Customs Union. According to him “because of the law tariffs, goods from Turkey and China arrive first to Kyrgyzstan and are then exported to other countries. The Customs Union will lead to the same rates and therefore it is logical that the goods from these countries will be delivered directly to Russia through seaports.” To further discuss Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Union and escape the possible negative consequences for Kyrgyz-Turkish economic relations, the Turkish Minister of Economy will visit Bishkek on June 20. 

Atambayev’s visit to Ankara immediately received various comments from local experts. According to political analyst Mars Sariev, Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Russia-led Customs Union will have a negative impact on Kyrgyz-Turkish relations and on the country’s foreign policymaking in general. In his words, “the Customs Union is foremost Moscow’s geopolitical project and smaller countries that are heavily dependent on Russia, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, will feel pressured and will not be in a position to carry out a multi-vector foreign policy, unlike Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. In that geopolitical situation, Kyrgyzstan will not have any other option but to cooperate and seek agreement on its foreign policy actions from Moscow.”

In Ankara, the fate of Manas International Airport was also discussed. Turkey once again expressed its plans to participate in the transformation of the airport into a civilian hub. In turn, President Atambayev stated that “American soldiers have almost left Manas and soon it will be a truly civilian airport. Which country will come to the airport, we do not know, but we would welcome the participation of investors from our partners and work out joint projects.” Russian media has also featured speculation that Turkey will purchase the Kyrgyz airport assets and then rent it to the United States. In light of those developments, the Russian state owned company Rosneft reached a preliminary agreement with the Kyrgyz authorities to purchase shares in the airport, but Kyrgyzstan has refused to continue the talks due to its internal political instability and demonstrations by the National Opposition Movement. Thus, the airport’s fate after the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops remains unclear.

During his visit to Turkey, along with his other counterparts, President Atambayev also participated in the fourth meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States. As a result of the summit, the participating states adopted the “Bodrum Declaration,” calling for more cooperation in developing the tourism sector.

The author wrote this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which the author works.

Published in Field Reports

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On May 12, after many rounds of negotiations, the Kyrgyz government has approved the road map to join the Russia-led Customs Union. According to Kyrgyzstan’s Minster for Economy, Temir Sariev, the document was submitted to the parliament to be thoroughly reviewed and debated by its committee on international affairs and fiscal policies. In the meantime, the Kyrgyz public is still engaged in heavy discussions with some approving the decision and others disapproving it.

Indeed, over the past couple of years, there has been a fierce debate on Kyrgyzstan joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with which Kyrgyzstan conducts more than 40 percent of its external trade. The terms of the country’s accession to the Union was negotiated at numerous occasions and none of the road maps presented earlier satisfied Bishkek’s preferences. This time, the sides have managed to reach an agreement and the Kyrgyz government approved the presented terms of entry into the Union.

According to state officials, the approval of the road map does not mean that Kyrgyzstan is already a member of the Customs Union. The recently nominated Kyrgyz Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev stated that “the road map forms a legal basis for harmonizing the country’s legislation in accordance with the terms of the Customs Union. Within its framework, parliamentarians should adopt around 100 new legislative acts and only then a special treaty indicating concrete terms of entry with all the preferences will be developed.”  The Kyrgyz Prime Minister did not exclude the possibility of asking for extra time for preparations before assuming full membership in the Union. According to local analyst Azamat Akeleev, Moscow might support this request, “due to its heavy geopolitical interest in expanding the Customs Union but might not find full support among its other members.” In one of his interviews, Kazakh Vice-Prime Minister Bakytjan Sagyntaev stated that Bishkek is asking for too many preferences, which according to him “are not in the competency of the Customs Union” and suggested that Kyrgyzstan should instead join the Eurasian Economic Union directly.

On May 29, upon the invitation of his Kazakh colleague, President Atambayev took part in the Astana meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council. The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have signed an agreement on forming the Eurasian Economic Union. The Russian side expressed its readiness to assist the Kyrgyz Republic in carrying out all the preparatory procedures necessary to join the Customs Union and later the EEU as well. For these purposes, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Russia reached an agreement to form a joint “Development Fund,” with a capital of US$ 1 billion. Additionally, Russia has promised to transfer US$ 200 million on a grant basis. This money, according to Minister for Economy Sariev, will be used “to implement the recently approved road map.”

After the approval of the road map, heavy discussions started in the parliament, with its factions making varying remarks. The Social Democrats welcomed the government’s decision to approve the road map and prepare to join the Customs Union, which they consider to be in line with the country’s economic as well as geopolitical interests. According to them, Kyrgyzstan cannot abstain from integration processes taking place among its geopolitical and strategic partners. Yet opponents of the Customs Union, the independent MPs Ravshan Jeenbekov and Omurbek Abdrakhmanov have once again warned the government of the negative consequences of this decision, naming high inflation rates, price increases for many commodities, as well as the loss of sovereignty for Kyrgyzstan. The MPs described the government’s decision as “unconstitutional,” meaning that discussions in the country’s legislature is taking place only after the road map was approved, in conflict with the principles that “underlines the very core of the parliamentarian republic.”

In the meantime, civil activists and prominent members of the Supervisory Councils under a number of ministries have issued a joint statement criticizing the government’s failure to launch a wide public discussion on the matter. Activists called on the country’s authorities to adhere to democratic principles, carry out public dialogue, and to undertake a thorough analysis of the presented road map and its concrete impact on various sectors of Kyrgyzstan’s socio-economic life.

Indeed, the question of joining the Russia-led Customs Union has divided the Kyrgyz public. Lacking detailed information on the consequences of joining the Customs Union, people have come to perceive the matter as a question of being pro or anti-Russia. The Kyrgyz public TV channels tend to feature experts delivering one-sided pro-Customs Union views. Thus, at this stage, the call from civil society activists is justified and the government should do a better job at explaining to the public of what awaits them in the future. 

Published in Field Reports

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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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