By Arslan Sabyrbekov (05/07/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 29, Kyrgyzstan’s newly nominated Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev paid his first official visit to Moscow. During his two days in the Russian capital, Otorbaev met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, and held talks with Gazprom’s Chief Executive Officer Alexey Miller and the new deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. After his official meetings, Otorbaev held a press conference with representatives of Russian media and met with Russian Central Asia experts to discuss the state of bilateral relations.
Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Russia-led Customs Union was the main subject discussed between the Prime Ministers. In his meeting with Medvedev, Otorbaev stressed that Russia is and will remain Kyrgyzstan's strategic partner and that joining the Customs Union is a right step that will help his country tackle a number of economic and social challenges. Talking to Russian journalists, Otorbaev stated that Kyrgyzstan’s products, except for its gold, are mainly being exported to the Customs Union member states, i.e. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and that it would therefore be wrong to close the borders to those countries. In his turn, the Russian Prime Minister welcomed his Kyrgyz colleague and expressed Moscow’s readiness to be flexible and if necessary, further negotiate Kyrgyzstan’s terms of entry into the Union.
As part of his official visit, Otorbaev met with representatives of the Eurasian Economic Commission to finalize the “road map” for Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Customs Union. As a result of these talks, the new head of Kyrgyzstan’s government stated that the road map is practically completed and expressed his hope that it will be soon approved by the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission. Only afterwards will Bishkek take further actions to finalize the entry into the Union.
At this stage, no one questions Bishkek’s accession to the Russia led Customs Union. Agreements have been reached, the road map is being finalized and Bishkek's preferences are being met. But despite of all these developments, opposition politicians and experts continue to express their concern over Kyrgyzstan’s membership. For them, the Customs Union is primarily a political project and a part of Moscow’s continuous effort to strengthen its influence over the former Soviet Republics or in its zone of “privileged interest,” as Medvedev once described it.
During his Moscow visit, Otorbaev also met with key representatives of the Russian business community and held talks with Gazprom CEO Miller, whose company has recently purchased the KyrgyzGaz Natural Gas Corporation for US$ 1. Miller reconfirmed his Company's full responsibility for the timely supply of gas to Kyrgyzstan. Besides its business activities in the country, Gazprom intends to engage actively in supporting and implementing social programs in all the country’s regions. In turn, Otorbaev expressed his government’s full support for Gazprom and all other international companies willing to invest and do business in Kyrgyzstan.
It should also be mentioned that Russia’s state oil company Rosneft recently refused to purchase a majority stake in Manas International Airport. Shortly before this announcement, Kyrgyzstan’s United Opposition Movement held its first rally and heavily criticized the government's deals with foreign companies to sell the country’s strategically important assets.
In his address to the population, President Atambayev blamed the opposition for damaging Kyrgyzstan’s investment climate and stated that the country has no other choice. “Those screaming that no shares can be given to Rosneft, they in fact want to put an end to the future of Manas,” said Atambayev. Indeed, with the U.S. shortly leaving the Airbase, the Kyrgyz government is preoccupied with replacing the financial loss, which is according to all estimates a substantial share of the country’s budget. Otorbaev’s visit to Moscow is yet another effort to assure that Kyrgyzstan is a safe place for Russian investments.
Kyrgyz experts and analysts express varying opinions of selling the country’s strategic assets to companies owned by a foreign government in return for promises of investment, modernization, and development of natural resources. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Marat Kazakpaev, “to abstain from these developments Kyrgyzstan should improve its investment climate and attract private foreign investors. The fact that both Gazprom and Rosneft are state owned companies and are purchasing our country’s strategic assets gives a political connotation to the situation. This is not business, but politics,” stated Kazakpaev.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (04/23/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On April 10, Kyrgyzstan’s recently created National Opposition Movement conducted its first rally in the capital Bishkek, as well as smaller supporting rallies in the cities of Jalalabad, Osh and Karakol. The number of participants in Bishkek ranged from 1,000 to 1,200 people, including a number of media representatives. In the provinces, the number varied from 200 to 500 demonstrators.
The demonstration took place in Bishkek’s Gorky Park in a relatively peaceful manner, despite the detention of several dozens of demonstrators. According to the chief of Bishkek city Police, Melis Turganbaev, and Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman Bakyt Amanbaev, more than 200 rally participants were detained because they gathered outside of the aforementioned park. They were released several hours later. Also, in an interview to local journalists, Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman criticized state television channels for the biased coverage of the rally by portraying the demonstrators in a negative light. The Ombudsman stated that “all the citizens have inherent rights to peacefully hold rallies and demonstrations, where they can openly declare their opposition to any decisions taken by the country’s authorities and their voices must be heard.”
During the protests, prominent leaders of the National Opposition Movement delivered their speeches to their audience and put forward their demands to the country’s political leadership. The demands ranged from renegotiating the agreement over the Canadian-run Kumtor Gold Mining Company, the president’s resignation and the dissolution of the current Parliament, changing the sentence of the arrested former speaker of parliament Akhmatbek Keldibekov, and several other demands. The movement’s leader, the independent MP Ravshan Jeenbekov, said that “the fundamental objective of the rally is to raise public awareness of the president’s full control of the country and his continuing efforts to establish a fully authoritarian form of government in Kyrgyzstan.” The opposition leader added that the rally was also conducted to call on the president and the country’s top political leadership to stop selling the country’s crucial assets to the Russian Federation. Kyrgyzstan’s government recently reached a preliminary agreement with the Russian state oil company Rosneft to transfer its majority shares in Manas International Airport in exchange for assistance to create an international hub. This, according to the rally participants, heavily undermines the country’s economic as well as political independence.
At exactly the same time as the united opposition was holding its first public rally, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev met with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller. The sides signed a final document according to which the world’s largest extractor of natural gas will take over Kyrgyzstan’s KyrgyzGaz natural-gas corporation for US$ 1. During a press conference, Alexei Miller termed the deal “historic” and stated that “all debts of the Kyrgyz state company will become Gazprom's responsibility, the prices for gas for consumers in Kyrgyzstan will be decreased, and all projects and programs, including social ones, related to the company will be outlined and implemented with the Kyrgyz government’s involvement.”
The first rally of the recently created National Opposition Movement got a mixed reception from the Kyrgyz wider public and the local experts. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Shairbek Juraev, “in a democratic state, every political and social movement has a right to demonstrate, publicly deliver their ideas and there is nothing wrong with it, but there is a firm belief in our society that each demonstration shall lead to a revolution or a complete overthrow of the regime.” Regarding the movement’s demands, Juraev added that all of them are not groundless. Kyrgyzstan is indeed facing a number of socio-economic problems. The issue of the Kumtor Gold Mining Company and Manas International airport should be solved in the best interest of the country by holding public debates and discussions involving all the political forces. It remains a challenging task for the current political leadership to seek that involvement with the opposition forces who demand the immediate resignation of the current political elite.
While the opposition leaders claim that the rally was conducted in a fairly peaceful and democratic manner, the country’s recently nominated Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev stated that the rally inflicted economic damages amounting to at least 100 million Kyrgyz soms. On the day of the rally, local entrepreneurs feared looting and closed their shops and businesses.
By Jamil Payaz (04/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 25, Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev resigned following the dissolution of the parliamentary coalition, which was triggered by the withdrawal of the Ata Meken party on March 18. Ata Meken accused Satybaldiev of, inter alia, corruption issues while he headed a state agency that reconstructed Osh and Jalal-Abad after the ethnic clashes in 2010. Ata Meken’s leader boasted later that his party got rid of the government with which the public was dissatisfied.
There are various speculations as to the motives of Ata-Meken’s decision. Many consider the action as an attempt by the party to resurface on the political scene ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015. The party won the lowest number of seats in parliament in 2011, despite the popularity of its leader Omurbek Tekebaev, who authored the Constitution introducing what is considered the first semi-parliamentary system in Central Asia. Equally important, the party has also been struggling to recover its reputation after its opponents branded it as a party of “marauders,” claiming its members raided the properties of the former president’s family.
Over the last year, Tekebaev has aggressively exploited the issue of the Kumtor gold mine to attack Satybaldiev’s government. Eloquently using populist rhetoric, he contended that Kyrgyzstan should own at least 67 percent of the shares held by the mine’s operator Centerra, claiming that the government took too soft a stance in the negotiations and urged not to be afraid of renouncing the existing agreement. However, Ata Meken was less enthusiastic about supporting Respublica, the party of Tekebaev’s rival former Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, when it tried for several months to gather MP signatures to call for a vote of no confidence in Satybaldiev in relation to largely the same issues.
It is not clear what Ata Meken gained from exiting the coalition in the long run since President Atambaev, through his SDPK party, suggested that Vice Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev be appointed Prime Minister of the future cabinet. Although nominally an Ata Meken member, Otorbaev has abstained from political intrigues and was firmly moving ahead with strategic projects buttressed by the president, including the creation of a Bishkek-based parity enterprise with Centerra, accession to the Russia-led Customs Union, the sale of KyrgyzGaz to Gazprom, and the tentative decision to sell half the shares in Manas International Airport to Russia’s Rosneft. Following his appointment as acting Prime Minister on March 26, Otorbaev reaffirmed his commitment to the deal reached between his predecessor and Centerra, and no deviation is expected from the course President Atambaev has taken. Therefore, it remains to be seen how Tekebaev will react to these controversial issues closer to the elections. They are likely to become politicized further, especially due to increasing fears among the public that the transfer of state assets to Russian companies undermines Kyrgyzstan’s independence.
Former Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov argues that the five factions with a relatively equal number of seats in parliament will produce only a technocratic government, which will be further crippled by the need to respect the views of the coalition faction leaders and the president. Although supported by the President, Satybaldiev had no united team, as the coalition factions have divided among themselves the ministerial posts, as well as state agencies. President Atambaev has called on the factions to stop this practice, which he said leads to “political corruption.”
SDPK has invited all five factions to enter a coalition, but MPs believe that the same factions, SDPK, Ar Namys, and Ata Meken, are likely to form a new coalition. Respublica unequivocally wants to bring back its leader Babanov to the post of Prime Minister, despite the fact that size of the party’s parliamentary faction has shrunk. A dozen of its members have organized into MP groups, with some even revoking their party membership and expressing interest in joining SDPK or other parties outside parliament. Currently, it has 12 seats as opposed to the initial 23.
In fact, all factions except for SDPK have become smaller with the creation of a number of MP groups, such as Onuguu (Progress), Democrats, Bir-Bol (Stay United), and Yntymak (Harmony). The other opposition party, Ata Jurt, is facing internal obstacles to join the coalition, since three of its MPs were stripped of their mandates after spending a year in prison and two have been arrested on charges of corruption. It thus seems that SDPK's attempt to form a broader coalition is not likely to materialize, and the future coalition will not be immune to impulses of faction leaders like Tekebaev at least until the next elections in 2015.
Edil Baisalov, a well-known public activist, argues that this system leaves the government and legislative branches negligent to the actions they take. He says the government should be formed of MPs to ensure their accountability for decisions they make, and cabinet members should return to parliament after their work ends to make sure they are held accountable to their voters.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (04/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 26, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev paid a one day visit to Kazakhstan. The sides used this meeting to discuss ways of further strengthening bilateral relations and ways to cooperate in the framework of integration processes taking place in Eurasia.
The meeting took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest and financially strongest city. The heads of the two states discussed a number of issues of bilateral concern, including trade, investment, water and energy, as well as aspects of cultural and humanitarian cooperation. Both presidents put special emphasis on the activities of the joint Kazakh-Kyrgyz Investment Fund, created in 2011 with the primary objective of assisting Kyrgyzstan in its economic development. Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that the “Kazakh-Kyrgyz Investment Fund plays one of the leading roles in enhancing bilateral economic relations and since its creation, Kazakhstan’s trade with Kyrgyzstan has increased by 41 percent, therefore exceeding one billion dollars.” President Nazarbayev also informed the delegates that over the course of Kyrgyzstan’s independence, Kazakh businessmen invested over one billion dollars into the economy of the neighboring state.
In turn, President Atambayev thanked his Kazakh colleague for his kind invitation, noting that Kazakhstan is a leading country in the region in terms of its impressive socio-economic development and its tremendously important contribution to ensuring regional peace and stability.
Local experts made different assumptions after Atambayev’s visit to Kazakhstan. Some believe that the visit took place on the request of the Russian Federation with the objective of accelerating Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Customs Union and encourage it to fully join Kazakhstan in recognizing the recent referendum in the Crimean peninsula as legitimate.
According to Guljigit Isakov, Director of the Bishkek based NGO Fair Elections, “in terms of its foreign policy towards Kyrgyzstan, Russia delivers its messages through Astana, which for example remains to be the case regarding Bishkek’s entry into the Customs Union under preferable terms.” Isakov added that the meeting might have focused on Bishkek’s two diverging positions on the situation in Ukraine, where it first officially recognized the current Ukrainian political leadership and also recently made a surprising statement that the referendum in Crimea was legal and demonstrates the peoples’ democratic choice, unlike Astana which fully supports Moscow’s position over the Ukrainian crisis. Isakov stated that Bishkek is on its way to losing sovereignty and might turn into a modern type colony.
Alikbek Djekshenkulov, Kyrgyzstan’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and leader of the opposition political party Akyikat, has also strongly condemned Bishkek’s ambivalent position on Ukraine and called on the country’s leadership to pursue a stable and predictable foreign policy. According to Djekshenkulov, “in a globalized world and as a small country, Kyrgyzstan should conduct a multi-vector foreign policy and pursue its national interests.” Djekshenkulov justified Astana’s position on Ukraine as a preventive measure for preserving its territorial integrity and as yet another protection from Russian pressure, which can take place in the future.
Other local experts believe that the situation in Ukraine was not a major subject discussed during the meeting between the two presidents in Almaty. Azamat Akeleev, a Bishkek based civil activist and economist, expressed an unexpected point of view by suggesting that during the meeting President Nazarbayev could have called on his Kyrgyz counterpart to refrain from joining the Russia-led Customs Union. Akeleev believes that “President Nazarbayev wants to find a common position with Kyrgyzstan since the next project of the Russian Federation after the Customs Union is the establishment of a free economic zone. This project is alarming to Kazakhstan since it will severely undermine the country’s economic independence.” According to Akeleev, Astana is looking for options to diminish Moscow’s influence and pressure and has recently discussed Kazakhstan’s accession to the World Trade Organization with President Obama. Kazakhstan’s prospective WTO membership was also raised at the last G20 Summit in Saint Petersburg, where President Nazarbayev personally appealed to the heads of states and governments to support his country’s quick accession into the Organization.
Bishkek has already developed and submitted its terms to entry the Customs Union, which contains around four hundred preferences and is awaiting the next round of discussions.
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.