The little-known mountainous nation of Kyrgyzstan canceled a cooperation treaty with the U.S. last week after a diplomatic row with Washington over the granting of a human rights award to imprisoned activist Azimjon Askarov. The Kyrgyz move wouldn’t have come without an obvious push from the Kremlin. Ethnic Uzbek human rights defender Askarov’s name has been in the headlines worldwide since his arrest in 2010, and eventual imprisonment on fabricated criminal charges. Since his incarceration, the activist has received a number of international awards from renowned watchdog organizations in the U.S. and EU. In 2011, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay criticized Kyrgyz authorities for mishandling the jailed activist’s case. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has stayed in close contact with the Kyrgyz government regarding the status of Askarov’s proceedings. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan is no newcomer to widespread condemnation from abroad.
However, the award to Askarov, which was received by his son in Washington last week, is widely seen as the trigger for the sudden downturn in U.S.-Kyrgyzstan relations. Coincidentally, the cancellation of the treaty follows Kyrgyzstan’s recent accession to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). A year earlier, the U.S. vacated the Manas airbase on the outskirts of Bishkek, a move that can be linked to the Kremlin’s obsession with the presence of its traditional foe in Russia’s backyard. Of all the states in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is the most obviously dependent on Russia’s economic and political support. The Kyrgyz economy relies heavily on migrant remittances from Russia and financial aid from Moscow. With the accession of the Kyrgyz Republic to the EEU, Russia announced economic aid amounting to $1 billion, with $500 million to be allocated from Russia’s federal budget. It should come as no surprise, then, that cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan decided to scrap the U.S.-Kyrgyzstan treaty in the face of Russian hostility toward the U.S. over the Ukraine crisis.
Russia’s tight grip on Kyrgyz government affairs was demonstrated last year when Vladimir Putin and the Uzbek President Islam Karimov sealed a gas deal in Tashkent without input from Kyrgyzstan. By contrast, the remaining republics in post-Soviet Central Asia maintain a political balance in their relations with Russia and the U.S. For instance, its successful “multi-vector” foreign policy has brought Kazakhstan considerable positive attention in the international arena in recent years, despite harsh criticism from rights groups in the West. Nor does the fact that Uzbekistan has the worst human rights record in the region seem to be an obstacle for bilateral relations with Washington. Formerly called an “island of democracy” in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has a better record on freedoms, but it also remains the weakest link in the region due to its unstable domestic politics. Ultimately, Russia is using its influence in Kyrgyzstan to remind Washington that the military action in Ukraine notwithstanding, the Kremlin is still in charge of Central Asian regional affairs.