By Arslan Sabyrbekov (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan has expressed her concern over the country’s ability to maintain and follow the democratic trajectory in light of increasing ties with the Kremlin.
“Kyrgyzstan’s growing cooperation with Russia is a challenge to our efforts to support Kyrgyzstan’s democracy,” Ambassador Pamela Spratlen wrote in an article published on the website of the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this week. “Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership would welcome a partnership with the United States, but places a priority on its relationship with Russia, which often comes at our expense. It remains an unanswered question how Kyrgyzstan can maintain its democratic trajectory while pursuing this partnership,” Spratlen wrote. The Ambassador did not elaborate on how exactly Kyrgyzstan’s democracy was under threat, but she did note that, as a result of pressure from the Kremlin, Bishkek was forced to evict the U.S. Military airbase at Manas, is set to join the Russia-led Customs Union and has largely accepted the Russian narrative of what is happening in Ukraine due to the massive presence of Russian media sources in the country.
The statement of Washington’s envoy drew heated discussions in the local political and expert circles. According to Kyrgyzstan’s former General Prosecutor Kubatbek Baibolov, the Ambassador’s concerns are not groundless. “It is not a secret that over the course of only one year, Kyrgyzstan has taken a big step back in its democratic development and reforms. Look at how law enforcement bodies are now treating peaceful protesters and civil society groups protesting the decision of the authorities to enter the Russia-led Customs Union,” noted Baibolov.
Indeed, signs abound that Central Asia’s only democracy is increasingly unable or unwilling to maintain its democratic trajectory. The country has recently adopted initiatives that speak against the fundamental principles of democracy. Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament outlawed the promotion of positive attitudes towards non-traditional sexual relations. Many observers detect the hand of the Kremlin, which passed a similar law banning “gay propaganda” last year. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek issued a statement condemning the legislation, saying that it violates fundamental human rights principles, Kyrgyzstan’s democratic gains and constitutional guarantees. The parliament’s press office shot back, stating that the U.S. was interfering in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs.
In addition to this law, discussions are ongoing regarding the adoption of a law similar to that in Russia, requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents.” The law presents a real threat to Kyrgyzstan’s relatively vibrant civil society and aims to limit their activities. These initiatives are not coincidental and indicate Moscow’s efforts to impose undemocratic views on its allies. As New York Times columnist Masha Gessen put it, “the promotion of Russian style legislation and ideology is a stealthy expansionist project.”
As ambassador Spratlen also noted, all these worrying developments seem to demonstrate that Kyrgyzstan’s increasing cooperation with Moscow might be coming at the expense of the country’s democratic achievements. A common view among local political analysts is that due to the country’s heavy economic dependency on Moscow, Bishkek has no other option but to join the Kremlin’s integration projects. According to the ex-speaker of the Kyrgyz Parliament Zainidin Kurmanov, from the economic standpoint, neither the European Union, nor the U.S. have much to offer Central Asia’s only democracy, facing serious socio-economic challenges and risks. In his words, “further cooperation with the EU and the U.S. can take place in the framework of the democratic governance agenda.”
During her recent visit to Bishkek, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar reiterated Washington’s readiness to further support democracy in Kyrgyzstan and called on the country to stay open and strengthen its relatively active civil society. Commenting on ambassador Spratlen’s article, Sumar replied that it contained nothing that the State Department hadn’t stated before.
In the meantime, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved Spratlen’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to neighboring Uzbekistan. If confirmed for the post by the full Senate, it will be Spratlen’s second ambassadorial post, in a country that is far less democratic and is considered by many to be reemerging as Washington’s main regional partner.
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.