The United States ambassador to Kyrgyzstan has said that the country’s increasing ties with Russia are threatening its democracy, an unusually blunt statement that drew criticism in the country’s pro-Russian media.
Kyrgyzstan’s “growing partnership with Russia … [is] a challenge to our efforts to support Kyrgyzstan’s democracy,” the ambassador, Pamela Spratlen, wrote in an article for an association publication for American diplomats. Spratlen did not elaborate on the claim about the threat to Kyrgyzstan’s democracy, but she did note that as a result of Russian pressure and influence, Kyrgyzstan evicted a U.S. military base, is set to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union, and has largely accepted the Russian narrative of what is happening in Ukraine.
“Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership would welcome a partnership with the United States, but places a priority on its relationship with Russia, which often comes at our expense. It remains an unanswered question how Kyrgyzstan can maintain its democratic trajectory while pursuing this partnership. President [Almazbek] Atambayev’s decision to enter the protectionist Customs Union by the beginning of 2015 exemplifies this challenge,” Spratlen wrote. “Confronted with a sea of internal and external challenges, President Atambayev has forged a strong partnership with Russian President Putin, seeing Russia as one of his few options for much needed assistance. This partnership has had its impact on our efforts, leading to the closure of the United States military presence at the Transit Center at Manas International Airport, while Russia retains its Kant Air Base outside of Bishkek.”
The statements highlighted Kyrgyzstan’s role as the most overt U.S.-Russian battleground over influence in Central Asia, and were a rare U.S. public acknowledgment of that competition. They recalled then-U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s public claim in 2012 that Russia “bribed” Kyrgyzstan to remove the U.S. military base (a phrasing for which he was forced to apologize).
And given what Spratlen correctly identified as a heavy Russian influence over local media, the response to her statement was predictable. “It’s not at all a coincidence that the anti-Atambayev and anti-Russian demarche of the U.S. ambassador was made ahead of Kyrgyzstan’s entrance into the Customs Union and illustrates the poorly hidden intention to interfere in the process of Kyrgyzstan’s integration into the vitally important economic space with its strategic and regional partners,” wrote the Congress of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, a nationalist group. “Kyrgyzstanis are well aware of these American ‘efforts’ to support democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria and how these countries were plunged into chaos and the abyss of civil war and then called for ‘independence’ in Ukraine.”
“From Pamela Spratlen’s article it’s clear that Kyrgyzstan is strategically important for the U.S. After all, normally diplomats don’t speak that openly,” said Mars Sariyev, a local pundit. That she wrote it, he added, demonstrates that “U.S. policy in Kyrgyzstan has failed.
And when one of the U.S.’s most senior diplomats dealing with Central Asia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar, visited Bishkek this week and spoke to a group of young diplomats, she was asked about Spratlen’s piece. (Sumar replied that it contained nothing that the State Department hadn’t said before, but appears to have sidestepped the remarks about Russia.)
It was left to the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to find a pundit supporting the ambassador, in an article titled “What is Pamela Spratlen Upset About?” “Look how law enforcement organs treat the right to peaceful protests or nongovernmental organizations, that is the first sign of a democracy. Yes, in general there has been a change in the situation with human rights in the country. Taking that into account it’s possible to see how developments in society are leading away from democracy,” said local analyst Kuratbek Baybolov.
It should be noted that America’s record on promoting democracy in Kyrgyzstan is nothing to brag about, either. The U.S. enriched the families of two successive corrupt presidential administrations via murky fuel contracts for the air base, and Wikileaked diplomatic cables revealed discussions about offering former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev a “heavy infusion of cash” (via additional payments for the base) that he could use for a re-election campaign. What Kyrgyzstan’s recent turn to Russia might mean for the country’s democratic progress remains, as Spratlen said, to be seen.