On Wednesday, as Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sapar Isakov headed for Astana to try and work through the country’s border issue, Bishkek sent off a communique to the World Trade Organization (WTO), alerting the body to the trouble on the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border. On Monday, Kyrgyzstan had notified the Eurasian Economic Commission of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) about the situation on the border.
For more than a week, Kazakhstan has imposed increased security and customs checks at the Kyrgyz border (reciprocated by the Kyrgyz side). Videos from the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border show long lines of trucks on the side of the road, and Kyrgyz media has reported on farmers whose wares are rotting while they wait for the border impasse to be cleared.
While Kazakhstan says infected fruit is the issue, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s comments on October 7 are the root of the present problem and may very well hand his chosen successor and victor in the recent presidential election, Soornbai Jeenbekov, a bilateral headache that could have easily been avoided.
On October 7, as Eurasianet reported, Atamabayev went on a tirade. He said Kazakh authorities were trying to force “their candidate” on Kyrgyzstan because they loved former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev (overthrown in the 2010 revolution). Atambayev also trotted out a few dubious comparisons, saying that while Kazakhstan’s GDP is eight times larger than Kyrgyzstan’s its pensions are only 1.5 times larger. The allegation was that Astana is cheating its pensioners.
Atambayev made Kazakhstan an election issue after Omurbek Babanov, Jeenbekov’s main challenger, visited with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on September 19 in Almaty. The visit prompted a nasty note from the Kyrgyz foreign ministry, which said “The Kyrgyz side considers the statements [made during the meeting] and the wide coverage of the meeting by the Kazakh side as an attempt to influence the choice of Kyrgyzstan’s people and an interference into Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs.”
Outside influencing is a serious charge in Central Asia, though usually reserved for the United States or Russia.
Atambayev, and by extension the Kyrgyz government, doubled down on the accusation all the way up to election day, painting Babanov as a Kazakh puppet. On October 10, Astana seemed to have had enough and the border became mired in the quicksand pouring from Atambayev’s mouth.
The Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border is supposed to be open to trade, as both nations are members of the Eurasian Economic Union. The whole point of a customs union is to simplify customs at the borders of the member states for easier trade between them. Trouble implementing the Kyrgyz accession to the EEU is not new — there were issues early on regarding veterinary controls and late last year, after Kyrgyzstan pitched a fit at a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, refusing at first to sign the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union Customs Code, Kazakhstan promised $100 million in technical aid.
Nevertheless, the situation has worsened dramatically.
As Reuters reports, Kyrgyzstan has not launched a formal trade dispute against Kazakhstan. Not yet. But it has alerted the WTO dispute settlement body that Kazakhstan has imposed unilateral trade restrictions without notice, leading to a sharp reduction of trade across the border. Kyrgyzstan alleges this is may be a violation of Kazakhstan’s WTO commitments. Kazakhstan has been a member of WTO since 2015, Kyrgyzstan since 1998.
The border troubles may be impacting Kyrgyz farmers, traders and truckers and sparked a flurry of diplomatic maneuvers and messages, but they haven’t had an impact on lame duck President Atambayev’s comments.
On Wednesday, according to 24.kg, Atambayev pushed back against those who have said all of Kyrgyzstan’s trade routes run through Kazakhstan. “It is not true. We have other neighbors,” he said, going on to point out improved relations with Uzbekistan and ties to China and Tajikistan.
“Nazarbayev’s environment is oligarchs who do not think about Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev, but about their future: their accounts are in Western banks,” Atambayev said.
Atambayev also said he may be too emotional in speaking but “the leopard cannot change his spots.”
In September, Ian Bremmer interviewed Atambayev for Time while he was in New York for the UN General Assembly. The soft-ball interview was published on October 9 (the day before border traffic ground to a halt) and contained a not-so-discrete jab at Nazarbayev:
Of course, some countries in the region don’t approve of our chosen path of parliamentary democracy. They don’t like it that the President of Kyrgyzstan has decided to be in office for only a single term. Some leaders think we are giving a bad example for their people.
Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan since before independence and following the death of Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov last year, remains the only true Soviet-era leader left standing.