At a ceremony held in Washington, Askarov’s son Sherzod accepted the Human Rights Defender award on behalf of his father from the Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who has described Askarov as a “tireless defender of human rights, who even behind bars continues to inspire and unite the entire human rights community in Kyrgyzstan, bringing together leaders of all ethnicities and backgrounds to help move their country forward.” As an immediate reaction, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered a note of protest to the U.S. charge d’affaires in Bishkek Richard Miles, threatening to abandon the treaty forming the fundamental basis of bilateral relations. The U.S. Embassy commented that Bishkek’s move can “jeopardize aid programs that benefit the citizens of Kyrgyzstan, including programs on combating violent extremism, increasing economic growth and creating jobs, improving the education system, as well as programs to support Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development.” The exchange of notes then moved to a new stage, where the Kyrgyz government unilaterally denounced the agreement. According to local media, the denouncement will enter into effect on August 20.
In a press conference held on July 27, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev stated that he fully supports the government’s decision to break the agreement with Washington. “This unfriendly gesture from Washington shall be perceived as an effort of instilling into the minds of our Uzbek compatriots that they have no good living conditions in our country and are always discriminated. This obviously paves the way for separatist sentiments,” stated Atambayev, adding that the international community can form a special commission to re-investigate the case if needed. “For now, Askarov is serving his sentence based on the court’s decision and despite claims of the opposite, I have no influence over his destiny,” Atambayev added. The president has ironically stated that Western democracies always push for an independent judiciary system but have approached him personally on numerous occasions to free Askarov.
Local political analysts are also divided in their opinion over the consequences of this denunciation. Some claim that Bishkek is practicing an immature foreign policy and has nothing to win from this action, referring to neighboring Kazakhstan that despite numerous awards given to its opposition members has never taken unilateral action to downgrade relations with any of the Western countries. For others, Bishkek’s action is yet another effort to please the Kremlin. In the words of renowned Russian political commentator Arkady Dubnov, “To obtain the political support of Moscow, officials in Bishkek are even ready to put into jeopardy all the good humanitarian projects supported by the State Department, an action which is obviously not in line with the interests of ordinary people.”
Others state that Bishkek’s action constitutes an effort to pursue national interests. According to political scientist Mars Sariev, “First, it is no coincidence that Washington gave this award to a controversial human rights defender right before the parliamentary elections. Washington has now placed Bishkek on its list of unfriendly countries and can punish it through various international channels for pursuing a pro-Russian foreign policy.”
The real consequences of Bishkek’s unilateral decision to break the agreement with the U.S. have not yet been thoroughly analyzed from a technical perspective. President Atambayev will visit the U.S. this September to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, a visit that might present an opportunity for further bilateral talks and negotiations. In the meantime, Azimjan Askarov continues to serve his controversial life sentence, despite his deteriorating health condition.
Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons