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.
By Arslan Sabyrbekov (03/19/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 11, Bishkek made its first official statement on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The Kyrgyz Ministry for Foreign Affairs says that the ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych can no longer be considered the country’s legitimate leader, as he continues to claim.
Bishkek reacted to Yanukovych's statement on March 11 that he is still Ukraine’s only legitimate President. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry stated that the current crisis in Ukraine was caused by widespread corruption and wrong decisions taken by the former authorities of that country. “The only source of power in any country is its people, a president who lost his people’s trust, who de facto lost his presidential authority and moreover, who fled his own country, cannot consider himself to be the legitimate leader,” the statement says. Furthermore, Bishkek described the people who died during the violent clashes in Kiev as “innocent people.”
The statement did not directly mention the critical situation in Crimean peninsula. But Kyrgyzstan expressed its concern over the development of the general situation in Ukraine and condemned all activities aimed at destabilizing the situation in the country, without specifying who it considers to be responsible for destabilization. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry also called on the country’s current political leadership and all other actors to use peaceful methods in resolving the crisis and adhere to national and international law, citing specifically the Charter of the United Nations. Thus, the statement implicitly recognizes the new Ukrainian political elite and power holders.
Bishkek's reaction immediately turned into a source of discussion among local political analysts. In the words of the Bishkek based political analyst Marat Kazakpaev, “even though the statement of the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry against Yanukovych seems to contain some sort of political attack on Moscow, it is in fact very tuned and precise.” According to the expert, the statement from the Kyrgyz MFA will not cause a negative reaction from the Russian leadership, especially taken into account its growing economic presence in the Kyrgyz republic, particularly in the form of gas, hydropower, and mining investment projects.
Based on this opinion, the statement seems to be directed primarily to the domestic audience. On the one hand, it neutralizes a constant claim of the opposition that the current leadership is subordinated to Moscow. On the other hand, it would be illogical for the Kyrgyz authorities, who came to power by means of demonstrations and many casualties to express its support for Yanukovych, who has often been compared to ousted ex-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Like Bakiyev, the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych had established a heavily corrupt authoritarian regime, used force against demonstrators, and also settled in a foreign country with continuous statements of his legitimacy. Even in terms of foreign policy, the ousted presidents resemble one another in terms of lacking a clear vision and playing with all the big actors in their efforts of maximizing dividends, which were often personal.
On the contrary, political analyst Mars Sariev believes that "the statement of the Kyrgyz Ministry for Foreign Affairs will negatively impact and cool down the Kyrgyz-Russian relations. As a response to this statement, the Russian Federation can and is in a position to block Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Customs Union under preferable terms and conditions asked by Bishkek." Sariev also recalled that in 2008, Bishkek took another position than that of the Russian Federation over the Ossetia-Abkhazia conflict in Georgia, which at that time did not cause a heavy deterioration but cooled down relations between the two countries.
In turn, the U.S. Embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic issued its own statement commending the Kyrgyz Ministry for Foreign Affairs “for its strong statement recognizing the new Ukrainian government. By condemning all acts that would lead to further destabilization in Crimea and elsewhere, and affirming that the legitimate source of power in any country is the will of its people, the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic has shown respect for the democratic aspirations of both the people of Ukraine and the Kyrgyz Republic.”
While it remains to be seen what this statement will bring, it has turned Kyrgyzstan into the first member of the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States with a view that largely contradicts the Kremlin’s.
By Ebi Spahiu (03/19/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On March 5, an awareness-raising campaign in honor of International Women’s Day, conducted by a group of human rights activists from Bishkek Feminists SQ, a feminist organization based in Bishkek, turned into a violent attack at Osh Bazaar, one of the largest bazaars in Kyrgyzstan’s capital. As the activists were trying to engage with local vendors and bystanders on the history of women’s rights and provide information on domestic violence prevention resources, the crowd became increasingly hostile towards the group. As many mistook the female symbol for the Christian cross, they accused the activists of promoting Christianity and physically attacked them, leaving two of the activists injured.
For the second consecutive year, Bishkek Feminist SQ, a local feminist organization run by a group of young human rights activists, has challenged the grandeur of the March 8 celebrations - a Soviet legacy marking this day - by advocating feminist values and raising awareness on alarming statistics of gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan. Their mission is to end all forms of oppression and violence against women and this year, in honor of International Women’s Day, they decided to hold an awareness-raising campaign at Osh Bazaar, one of largest and most crowded bazaars located on the west side of Bishkek. They had prepared quizzes on the history of women’s rights and informational brochures on violence prevention resources available for women in Bishkek.
The incident took place in the late afternoon of March 5. According to activists’ accounts to local news agency Kloop.kg, a group of 20-30 people, predominantly men, gathered around the event location and started asking insulting and intimidating questions to the young activists while they were trying to conduct their activities. According to Bishkek Feminist SQ's official press statement, most men confused the female gender symbol with that of a Christian cross and began asking verbally aggressive questions to the young activists: “Why do you have crosses at your booth?” “Are you not Muslims?” “You see that kalpak? It makes me Kyrgyz. If you’re Kyrgyz, you must be Muslim!” They also stated that March 8 should not be celebrated because it “is not a Muslim holiday,” says SQ. As verbal confrontation between the two groups escalated, the men grabbed the activists by their collars, spit on them and blew cigarette smoke on their faces.
Despite the activists attempts to appease the situation, some men were forcing the activists to repeat verses from the Quran while publicly shaming them. When the activists were preparing to leave, men in the crowd smashed their stand, followed them as they were trying to move away and kicked them on the ground. The event stand was set on fire while the activists were being beaten, claims Bishkek Feminist SQ. After minutes of physical abuse, two of the activists managed to escape and approach police officers, but their request for protection went to deaf ears. They eventually sought refuge at a local district court building after being chased by an angry crowd following them. Despite their pleas for help from the court’s staff, they were met with hostility by some of the staff who demanded they leave the building. Even though police eventually arrived at the scene and assisted the activists to get out safely, they “failed to provide adequate order among the crowd and did not take immediate actions to arrest the instigators and perpetrators,” writes Bishkek Feminist SQ.
This is not the first time that nationalist and religious rhetoric has been used to instigate violence against human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan. In recent months, especially following the release of a Human Rights Watch report on police abuse of gay and bisexual men in Kyrgyzstan, religious and nationalist groups have repeatedly called for violence against the LGBT community in the country. On January 30, Kyrgyzstan’s then acting grand Mufti issued a Fatwa against same-sex relations, calling on Kyrgyz authorities “to pay special attention to the activities of some public organizations that disseminate social discord while using humanistic ideas.” This move sparked a vocal debate in social media forums where many called for violence against openly gay community members. In addition, a new nationalist movement, Kalys, has staged a series of protests following the report’s release, calling for the adoption for an anti-gay propaganda law. According to Eurasianet.org, Kalys’ leader Jenishbek Moldokmatov “criticized HRW indirectly” and condemned the LGBT community for “screaming” about police abuse. Moldokmatov also burned a photo of Ilya Lukash, an ethnic Ukrainian blogger living in Bishkek, whom he labeled as a “gay activist” and accused him of attempting to foment a “Ukraine-style revolution in the country.”
As many analysts observe the rise of nationalism and discuss the likelihood of increasing Islamic influence in Kyrgyzstan, local human rights defenders are facing a strong nationalist and religious backlash as a result of Kyrgyzstan's aspirations to reclaim its national identity after decades of Soviet rule and respond to a Western push for democratic reforms, where at the center-stage are causes involving women, sexuality and ethnic identity. “These religious entities are influential, but there aren’t just Muslims living here in Kyrgyzstan. These statements can create negative public opinion, they bring violence and cause conflict,” says Dastan, a human rights activist from Bishkek.
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.