The United States walks a new tightrope as it aims to deepen its relationship with Kyrgyzstan. The White House’s 2019-2025 Strategy for Central Asia promotes U.S. investment in, and development of, the former Soviet Central Asian republics; however, the recent immigration restrictions have caused Kyrgyz officials and some friends of Kyrgyzstan to question the validity of Washington’s commitment to cooperate, and say the move has “greatly damaged” relations.
The Trump administration expanded its visa restrictions to include Kyrgyzstan in January 2020. The rationale behind the decision includes the lack of an electronic biometric passport, failure to report lost and stolen passports, the number of counterfeit Kyrgyzstani passports, and inadequate information sharing on suspected terrorists. The new ban prohibits Kyrgyz citizens from receiving migrant visas as of February 22.
A Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry official claimed to have been caught off-guard by the choice, telling the BBC that the Foreign Ministry learned about the decision from a Politico article published 10 days prior. The unnamed Foreign Ministry source said they were confident the decision was made due to the U.S. domestic political agenda, rather than its policy toward Kyrgyzstan – calling the ban “shortsighted.” The ministry asserted that the U.S. actions were not in line with Washington’s commitment to step up cooperation.
Contrary to these public claims, the ban is neither unprecedented, nor should it be seen as a sign of hostility. The United States has engaged countries around the world on steps to take to maintain the integrity of travel documents and to prevent them from being misused by criminal groups or others. The possibility of Kyrgyzstan’s addition to the U.S. ban was discussed prior to the final decision. In January 2020, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Chyngyz Aidarbekov held talks on the matter with U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Donald Lu. Aidarbekov later acknowledged that Kyrgyzstan does not use biometric passports, something that would disallow citizens from entering the United States.
Indeed, Kyrgyzstan’s high-level officials have recognized the shortcomings of their safety measures in recent years. The Kyrgyz government launched a number of investigations into illegal issuance of Kyrgyz passports from 2015-2017, and the number of fake Kyrgyz passports around the world. The Kyrgyz Ministry of Interior even acknowledged shortcomings, finding that the State Registration Service illegally issued 36 passports in 2019. Former Kyrgyz Ambassador to the United States Kadyr Toktogulov also confirmed in January 2020 that Kygyz passport-holders hold a relatively high visa-rejection rate when applying to visit the United States.
Concerns about the integrity of Kyrgyzstan passports and the need for adequate information exchanges are important – notably in light of efforts to combat terrorism as well as international criminal groups and other threats. The ban is not meant to be permanent, and it is important for all sides that the United States and Kyrgyzstan engage to resolve the problems with the integrity of Kyrgyzstan’s passports and improve the level of information exchange and cooperation on related security matters. In tandem with its new Central Asia strategy, the United States is in a unique position to provide the developing country with collaborative options to assist Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to overhaul the way it produces and issues passports, including addressing the local claims and counterclaims of corruption. The time for serious progress is now, and the sides can use this situation to boost communications and cooperation as well as to boost international security.
Kristen Cheriegate is currently the managing director of Caspian Affairs, a magazine produced by the Caspian Policy Center. She also works in Denver, Colorado as the communications and policy advisor to the majority leader in the State Senate.