Interview: Scott Radnitz on Kyrgyzstan


Scott Radnitz is an Associate Professor at the Henry M Jackson School of International Studies, and Director of the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the University of Washington. Radnitz is a leading expert on Central Asia and the Caucasus, focusing on authoritarianism, protests, identity and informal networks. He is also the author of the 2010 book, Weapons of the Wealthy: Predatory Regimes and Elite-Led Protests in Central Asia. Radnitz shared his thoughts on recent political, security and economic developments in Kyrgyzstan on September 10, 2015. A transcript of our interview follows.

Kyrgyzstan recently became a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). There has been a considerable debate on whether Kyrgyzstan is ready for EEU membership, due to its economic malaise and continued border security problems. What are your thoughts on Kyrgyzstan joining the EEU?

The Eurasian Economic Union is a political body, first and foremost. Countries decide to join the EEU primarily for political reasons rather than for economic ones. I don’t think Kyrgyzstan joined after a thorough cost-benefit analysis, or after extensively consulting technocrats on the economic consequences of membership. Its hard to say right now how Kyrgyzstan will adjust to EEU membership, every deal of this kind has winners or losers. The EEU’s economic impact on Kyrgyzstan has its limits as Kyrgyzstan over the past decade has become increasingly integrated with the Chinese economy. As China’s economy slows, traders will likely suffer somewhat. This is a problem because bazaars still have significant economic influence in Kyrgyzstan. I think that Kyrgyzstan will have an uncertain transition period to EEU membership. But over time, people and businesses will adjust their economic behavior, and gravitate towards sectors favored by Kyrgyz membership in the customs union.

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Kyrgyzstan recently decided to cancel its cooperation treaty with the United States. What do you think motivated this decision? Will this decision have large repercussions for the Kyrgyz economy? 

I think Kyrgyzstan’s recent decision to sever ties with the United States is a surprising development. Up to this point, Kyrgyzstan, along with Kazakhstan, had been the Central Asian country with the shrewdest foreign policy. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country dependent on trade and foreign aid, so balancing Russia and the USA, as it has done for most of the post-1991 period is an effective strategy. Now, at least symbolically, Kyrgyzstan is whole-heartedly embracing Russia. Kyrgyzstan’s decision was probably not entirely voluntary. Russia has put a lot of pressure on Kyrgyzstan, so its unclear whether Kyrgyz elites think severing ties with the US is a good idea or because their hand was forced. The idea emanating from Moscow now is that you are with us or you are against us, so Kyrgyzstan was forced to make a clear choice. However, Kyrgyzstan’s long-term future never lay with the US. Kyrgyzstan is not going to join NATO or the EU. Kyrgyzstan loses a lot of military and development aid by cutting off ties to the United States, but the long-term impact of this is limited, as Kyrgyzstan’s future lies with Eurasia.

Closer integration with Russia is on the surface, a counter-intuitive decision, as the Russian economy has been weakened greatly by Western sanctions. How does Kyrgyzstan intend to rectify this economic shortfall? 

This is a major issue, but one that Kyrgyzstan would face with or without becoming an EEU member. Kyrgyzstan has a long-term structural problem because its economy is so closely linked with the Russian economy. Russia’s economic slowdown as a result of low oil prices has been very damaging for the Kyrgyz economy, and would be a problem for Kyrgyzstan even with better US-Russia relations. As remittance levels are falling, the Kyrgyz economy is going to be weakened. Kyrgyzstan lacks the capital to industrialize or invest in, for example, high-tech sectors. Dealing with the problem is outside of Kyrgyzstan’s control. I think Kyrgyzstan’s decision to pivot so strongly towards Russia is a tacit acknowledgement on the part of the Kyrgyz leadership, that Kyrgyzstan has no real alternative.

Corruption was a major contributing factor to the 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan and despite President Almazbek Atambaev’s self-declared “war on corruption,” it continues to be a tremendous problem. Do you think Atambaev has made significant progress in reducing corruption levels since he took power in 2011? 

Corruption in Kyrgyzstan, like in most developing and post-Soviet countries, is extremely difficult to root out. Atambaev lacks Bakiyev’s authoritarian instincts, but he is also constrained by increased parliamentary power in Kyrgyzstan, which has prevented the concentration of power in one individual’s hands. However, that does not mean corruption has meaningfully fallen since Bakiyev’s demise. Decentralized corruption can be just as detrimental. One interesting trend is the improvement in Atambaev’s approval ratings, confirmed by IRI opinion surveys over the past two years. What accounts for this? It’s not economics, as the Kyrgyzstan’s economy has not improved significantly since 2010. It could also be due to Kyrgyzstan not having a revolution since 2010, but continued instabilities in Southern Kyrgyzstan call that into question. So it could be that visible anti-corruption measures could be increasing public confidence in Atambaev without necessarily reducing corruption overall.

As you do not think Kyrgyzstan’s corruption levels have declined appreciably since 2010, how can Atambaev prevent discontent over corruption from causing yet another popular revolution in Kyrgyzstan? How far will he go with his anti-corruption efforts?

As public disdain for corruption was one, but not the only, cause of the 2010 revolution, the Kyrgyz government has moved to decrease corruption perceptions. The government covers corruption crackdowns on state television to show that it is taking action. Atambaev is targeting the forms of corruption that shape public attitudes most. He may focus on cracking down on visible corruption perpetrated by high level officials, much like Putin has done in Russia or Xi Jinping in China, but few believe this represents a fundamental change. I do not believe Kyrgyzstan will implement large-scale anti-corruption reforms, as the Kyrgyz government benefits too much from corruption to tackle it full-heartedly. Atambaev’s strategy is to conceal the high-level corruption, and ensure that Kyrgyz elites get the resources they need in ways that ordinary people cannot find out. This approach mirrors the strategy of most other post-Communist states, with the possible exception of Georgia. But even in Georgia, I think supporters of the revolutionary government bought into the mythmaking about the success of its anti-corruption efforts.

Kyrgyzstan has recently implemented a foreign agents law that closely resembles anti-Western NGO legislation adopted by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Do you think this legislation will negatively impact Kyrgyz democracy?

It is important to distinguish between Kyrgyzstan’s mimicry of Russia on the one hand and authoritarianism on the other hand. Kyrgyzstan is imitating Russian civil society legislation to underscore the strength of its alliance with Russia. Putin is also a much more popular and respected figure amongst Central Asians, than any of their own leaders. Western analysts of Kyrgyzstan’s politics also overestimate the impact of the government’s handling of NGOs on the overall quality of democracy. In Russia, crackdowns on NGOs and civil society were part of a broader trend towards authoritarianism. So it could be a trailing indicator, but I think it is detached from broader political trends. Foreign NGOs do many useful things, but they are a tiny part of Kyrgyzstan’s political system. Kyrgyzstan still has considerable political pluralism, even though it is now treating foreign NGOs badly. The same goes for symbolic legislation like the anti-LGBT rights bill, which is merely appealing to Russia and the population’s support for socially conservative values, but does not necessarily mean there will be a broader clampdown.

When Atambaev first came to power in 2011, he vowed to hold people involved in inflaming the 2010 ethnic riots in Southern Kyrgyzstan accountable. How effective do you think Atambaev has been in incorporating ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan?

I do not think the status of ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan has improved substantially since the 2010 riots. Kyrgyzstan continues to possess a decentralized political system, so Bishkek continues to have limited authority over politics in southern Kyrgyzstan. The prevailing political groups in the south are nationalists and ethno-nationalists, which use the same mobilization strategies as in 2010. They still favor discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks. The security services in southern Kyrgyzstan also exercise a lot of power that is not envisioned by the constitution, and their de facto exercise of power defies the democratic aims Kyrgyzstan agreed to in 2010. Northern Kyrgyz elites and government officials are either unable or unwilling to impose the rule of law on an unwilling South, and the treatment of Uzbeks is still a major blemish on Kyrgyzstan’s progress.

Finally, many observers fear that ISIS might gain a foothold in Kyrgyzstan, and spread to other Central Asian countries. After all, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan continue to uphold and expand draconian anti-Islamist legislation. Do you think ISIS poses a credible threat to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole? 

With regard to ISIS, I see striking continuity with past rhetoric coming from Central Asian governments. In the 1990s, it was the Taliban, the united Tajik opposition and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In the 2000s, it was Al Qaeda and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Now it is ISIS. You can take the political statements of Central Asian leaders, and substitute Al Qaeda and IMU for ISIS, and you will get the same tropes. There have been claims by security officials in the region that ISIS is a serious threat, so the government has to crack down and the West needs to support authoritarian regimes they do not like very much as a lesser evil to an ISIS caliphate. Hard evidence for ISIS’s rise in Central Asia is weak or lacking. The narratives coming from Central Asian security services align with their political interests, so we should always question them.

Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist, whose work has also been featured in the Huffington Post, Washington Post, Kyiv Post and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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