One of the most striking shifts in the dynamics within Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in recent weeks has been the increased economic and diplomatic cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. Improved bilateral relations between the two countries were confirmed on June 26, 2015, when Belarus’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Mikhnevich enthusiastically supported Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the EEU and welcomed prospects for a deeper Belarus-Kyrgyzstan trade partnership. The Belarusian National Assembly Chair subsequently expressed his regret to the Kyrgyz ambassador that trade links had declined in recent years even though both countries have advocated deeper EU-style Eurasian economic integration.
Belarus’s conciliatory rhetoric towards Kyrgyzstan constitutes a dramatic policy shift, as diplomatic relations between the countries – suspended in the wake of the 2010 Kyrgyz coup – were only fully restored in March 2015. Belarus’s condemnation of the 2010 regime turnover reflected President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian solidarity ambitions and fear of the spread of pro-democracy sentiments to Minsk in an election year. Nevertheless, the stark contrast in reaction between Belarus and Putin’s Russia over Kyrgyzstan in 2010 (Putin covertly supported the collapse of the Bakiyev regime) is a rare example of a serious foreign policy divergence between both countries. Minsk’s granting of Bakiyev Belarusian citizenship illustrated to the world that Lukashenko possesses significant autonomy.
When Kyrgyz crime boss Almanbet Anapiyaev was found dead on February 18, 2015 in Minsk, Kyrgyz regime officials were swift to blame Bakiyev and his coterie of allies for the murder, accusations that threatened to reheat latent Belarus-Kyrgyzstan tensions. At the time, Belarus’s lack of substantive economic or political ties to Kyrgyzstan was cited as an obstacle to a successful resolution of the dispute between the two countries. Therefore, Belarus’s recent change of heart towards Kyrgyzstan represents a sudden break in its foreign policy. This break can be explained by two overarching factors: the anti-Western normative convergence between both countries manifested by a marked deterioration of civil liberties in Kyrgyzstan, and the desire of the countries to extricate themselves from the stagnation associated with dependence on a sanctions-crippled Russian economy.
Kyrgyzstan’s tilt towards Russian-style anti-Western authoritarianism has been attributed to the Kyrgyz regime recognizing the benefits of economic cooperation with Russia in the EEU framework and the importance Kyrgyzstan places on coordinating with Russia to combat the internal security threat posed by ISIS. Kyrgyzstan’s closer alignment with Belarus reflects its acceptance of Russian social conservative and anti-democratic norms. The first piece of evidence for this shift is the Kyrgyz foreign agents law ratified by parliament on June 4, 2015, which requires NGOs reliant on foreign funding to register as foreign agents.
Kyrgyzstan’s imposition of this law, which gives the Ministry of Justice free reign to engage in political coercion, represents a 180-degree pivot on the part of President Almazbek Atambayev. Atambayev in 2013 rejected calls from his own party to institute legislation emulating Putin’s foreign agents law in Russia. A by-product of this ratification has been increased normative alignment with Belarus. Belarus’s crusade against foreign agents and Western involvement in its domestic affairs began in 1998, when Lukashenko expelled ambassadors from the Drazdy complex in Minsk and blamed the West for the collapse of the Belarusian ruble.
Despite a U.S. and EU travel ban imposed in 1998, and EU sanctions against Belarus, Lukashenko has frequently depicted opposition activists and rival presidential candidates as foreign agents. The July 2013 arrest of a Belarusian pensioner accused of receiving foreign aid to fund a regime change is perhaps the most extreme example of the anti-Western xenophobia propagated by the Lukashenko regime. Kyrgyzstan’s cancellation of a cooperation treaty with the United States a month after the ratification of this foreign agents law, signifies that Kyrgyzstan is following the Belarusian model, to the great benefit of bilateral relations between both countries.
The second example of Kyrgyzstan’s normative alignment with Belarus was the successful passage by a 90-2 margin of hardline anti-gay rights legislation on June 24, 2015. Kyrgyzstan’s legislation is arguably more repressive than Putin’s 2013 homosexual propaganda law and mandates up to a year in prison for people with a “positive attitude towards nontraditional sexual relations.” The West’s acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life is often cited by the Kremlin as proof of Western decadence and moral corruption, opinions shared by many prominent Kyrgyz media figures and voiced by Bishkek’s conservative political activists. Lukashenko’s similar crackdowns on homosexual expression in Belarus – summed up emphatically by his infamous statement: “its better to be a dictator than gay” – signifies common ground and the emergence of a socially conservative Russia-Belarus-Kyrgyzstan axis in the CIS region. More broadly, this legislation represents yet another incidence of democratic backsliding for Kyrgyzstan, the most pluralistic Central Asian republic, and a further blow to the liberal optimism fomented by regime turnovers in 2005 and 2010.
In addition to the opportune normative convergence between Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, economic cooperation reflects both countries’ paucity of trade options and poor competitive position exacerbated by Western economic sanctions against Russia. Belarus’s attempts to restrict the appreciation of its currency against the Russian ruble, which would make its exports uncompetitive, and to simultaneously prevent a devaluation relative to the U.S. dollar that would trigger inflationary pressures at home have constituted an immensely difficult balancing act.
Kyrgyzstan has meanwhile suffered GDP growth declines as a result of the economic slowdown in Russia. (Projected growth is now just 1.7 percent, with double-digit inflation expected.) This grim economic outlook has left Atambayev desperate for new trade partnerships and foreign investment. Turkey’s extensive bilateral trade linkages with Kyrgyzstan, including its $25 million mosque construction project in Bishkek, and China’s recent expansion of investment ties with Belarus have ameliorated the economic plights of the two countries somewhat. Nevertheless, intra-regional trade is still the main source of revenue for both countries, as Belarus has historically been dependent on Russian gas subsidies and Kyrgyzstan on remittances from migrant workers in Russia.
Remittance diplomacy with Russia is becoming increasingly volatile as a long-term guarantor of economic security for Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, so turning to trade linkages fostered by the Eurasian customs union is a natural next step. The Kyrgyz speaker of the House of Representatives, in his calls for deeper trade integration with Belarus, emphasized the fact that 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports are destined for EEU states.
The construction industry could be an especially lucrative source of trade ties between Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. The establishment of a plant that assembles Minsk tractors in Kyrgyzstan could be the starting point for a rapid expansion of this sector as both countries pool investment from more capital-rich countries like China or Turkey for shared benefit. The loosening of protectionist walls for technology sharing through the Belarus Cooperation Council’s trade fairs and forums will also expedite joint-development efforts and could provide a model for other countries like Armenia, which have also been economically damaged by Western sanctions on Russia.
Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the EEU, shared economic pressures of balancing between export competitiveness and currency supporting initiatives at home, and convergence towards the acceptance of Russian-style socially conservative values have the potential to herald a new era of cooperation between Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. Provided that past grievances stemming from the 2010 Kyrgyz regime turnover do not raise their ugly head, deeper economic integration between Kyrgyzstan and Belarus could provide a viable model for other EEU countries struggling economically under Moscow’s geopolitical orbit.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford in Russian and East European Studies. He is also a journalist who is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post Politics and World Post verticals, and recently to the Kyiv Post.