Since Kyrgyzstan is a part of Central Asia, events in this country affect both ongoing and planned projects and agreements throughout the region. The political crisis in the country, related to the third revolutionary change of power resulting from mass protests, led to a range of consequences, including those in its foreign policy.
Major international organisations were quite alarmed about the country’s political crisis in its early days. For instance, the UN and the OSCE called for the peaceful settlement of the situation. In a similar vein, the SCO and CSTO also expressed their concerns.
The events of October 2020 revealed that Kyrgyzstan, the “isle of democracy,” has yet to successfully build a robust institutional and constitutional mechanism of the transfer of power to enable guaranteed legitimacy, social justice, and the representation of the interests of the main political groups.
This article raises the question about the consequences of yet another political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, and the article also sheds light on what can be predicted about the country’s foreign policy in this context.
The rule of law as a recipe for overcoming the crisis
Internal contradictions, weak state institutions, and the inability of the authorities to pursue policies within the legal framework have cooled the western direction of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy.
Kyrgyzstan could have built exemplary relationships with the EU, a unique player advancing its normative issues. For many years, Brussels has supported Bishkek, and in 2016, Kyrgyzstan received trade preferences from the EU via the GSP+ system. However, currently, Bishkek risks losing these preferences amidst the lack of progress in the rule of law and human rights. Recently, the EU decided to postpone the €6 mln aid package to Kyrgyzstan until after the next year’s parliamentary elections, which implies that the new authorities lack legitimacy. This is confirmed by the Helsinki Commission’s statement, which stipulates that “for the country to move forward, the authorities have to seriously combat the widespread corruption, protect private businesses and foreign investment.”
Principles of the rule of law and transparent elections, promoted by the West, could provide a recipe for overcoming the crisis. However, the interim authorities intend to carry out constitutional reform amidst the weak institutions, such as the main legislative body, extending its mandate on its own, the acting president, and the acting prime minister.
Thus, one can observe, the interim authorities have turned a deaf ear to the calls of the local civil society, the Western partners, and international organisations to return to the law-based system.
Russia and China are also important partners for Kyrgyzstan. Since October, Moscow has suspended the provision of financial support to Kyrgyzstan until the stabilization of the political situation in the country and until the restoration of the functioning of the authorities. Additionally, the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development (EFSD) has already suspended the transfer of $100 mln. – money intended to counter the impact of the COVID-19 on economic, financial, and social sectors. Paradoxically, the cross-cutting 2020 has marked significant, but perhaps, temporary cooling of the relationships between Russia and Kyrgyzstan. The last time, in 2019, Moscow unconditionally donated $30 mln. to Bishkek in support of the state budget.
As a result of such a “pause” from Moscow, the new administration in Kyrgyzstan still has to resolve the issue of the budget deficit, which according to the latest data, comprises 35.6 bln. soms (around $434 mln. at the exchange rate of 1 USD = 82 soms). The strange measures of the new government, aimed at replenishing the state budget, propose an economic amnesty, offering corrupt officials to voluntarily return unlawfully acquired funds to the state.
The role and significance of China for Kyrgyzstan can hardly be overestimated. Beijing is the major trading partner and the main investor. According to 2019 data, China accounts for the largest share in the volume of incoming foreign direct investment – that is, 34.3% of the total volume. By 2019, China has provided Kyrgyzstan with loans of around $1.69 billion for transportation-related projects.
However, the numerous attacks on Chinese enterprises, such as those in the Naryn region in 2019, have added a fly in the ointment to bilateral relations. In February of 2020, the protests of the local population once again disrupted the project of the building of the trade and logistics center, where the Chinese companies planned to invest up to $280 mln.
Following the social unrest and the change of power in the country, Chinese Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic Du Dewen, drew attention to the security of the Chinese companies and enterprises during the meeting with Sadyr Japarov. It seems that the audit of bilateral relations with China has already begun. For example, the Chinese authorities might use the management of the border regime with Kyrgyzstan as a bargaining chip. Particularly, in response to Kyrgyzstan’s request to increase the cargo traffic at the Torugart checkpoint, besides the other technical requirements, the Chinese side voiced the necessity to ensure the safety of the Chinese companies.
With Kyrgyzstan focused on internal struggles, concentrating on confrontation between the different political forces, as well as on the issues of holding parliamentary and presidential elections, the “isle of democracy” has been rapidly losing its position in the international arena. Funding is being frozen, agreements are being postponed, whereas the new projects are suspended. While it might be sufficient to hold elections and obtain the official mandate to legalize power, maintaining legitimacy (the recognition by population and international partners) requires constant work. Such work entails improving socio-economic indicators, a genuine, rather than declarative fight against corruption, guarantees for agreements, and transparency.
Each socio-political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan leads international organisations and actors to revise the credit of trust towards the country. Under the current conditions, the field for Bishkek’s foreign policy maneuver will be narrowing and further leading towards Moscow or Beijing. Objectively, none of the internal forces can challenge the status-quo in Kyrgyzstan, the economy of which is too dependent on Russia, where most of the migrants work, and on China, with its loans and infrastructure projects.
The political crisis in Kyrgyzstan will play an ambivalent role for the other neighboring countries. Its “negative” role involves the justification of the authoritarian measures to supposedly strengthen stability, while the “positive” one entails showing the other authoritarian leaders that the voices of the youth and the opposition’s requirements at least have to be heard. Meanwhile, one may also predict that international organisations will strengthen their attention to the issues of “color revolutions” and the mobilization of the protesting potential.
PhD in Political Science