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Russia, China Cautiously Watch Kyrgyzstan’s Lingering Political Turmoil

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Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Russia, China Cautiously Watch Kyrgyzstan’s Lingering Political Turmoil

Treading carefully, both Moscow and Beijing have engaged the new Japarov government but with a markedly light touch.

Russia, China Cautiously Watch Kyrgyzstan’s Lingering Political Turmoil
Credit: Kyrgyzstan Presidency Press Office

After each of Kyrgyzstan’s first two revolutions, the country’s main partners — like Russia — were rather quick to recognize the new leadership and establish a continuity of relations. For the country’s third go-around of political upheaval, recognition was slower to materialize and there’s evident disdain for the process by which now Prime Minister and Acting President Sadyr Japarov came to power.

Yesterday, RFE/RL’s Bruce Pannier outlined the cold reception in Moscow for Japarov’s foreign affairs adviser Chingiz Aidarbekov, recently foreign minister, in late October. Aidarbekov reportedly arrived in Moscow unannounced seeking a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and was disappointed. As Pannier recounted:

The chief editor of Kyrgyzstan’s information website, Asel Otorbaeva, wrote on her Facebook page the same day that Aidarbekov “wanted meetings in the Kremlin” with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, members of the Russian government, and State Duma leaders but was “rejected by absolutely everyone.”

Russia has not entirely snubbed Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership, but its unease at the continuing political chaos in Kyrgyzstan has been made clear.

Kyrgyzstan’s October 2020 revolution was sparked by a mangled parliamentary election that touched off protests and jail breaks, ultimately leading to the annulment of the October 4 election results and the resignations of Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov, the Speaker of Parliament Dastan Jumabekov (both on October 6), and President Sooronbay Jeenbekov (October 15)

Amid the turmoil, Russia tried to gauge the direction of Kyrgyzstan’s political winds.

On October 13, Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of Putin’s administration, met with Jeenbekov — still president at the time. In the coverage of the meeting, it was noted that Kozak had stressed the “key role” of Jeenbekov in ensuring stable development of the country. Two days later, after Japarov became prime minister, officially, and Jeenbekov resigned, the Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told media that Russia would suspend foreign aid to Kyrgyzstan until the situation stabilized. “A certain pause makes sense,” he said.

On October 15, Kyrgyzstan’s new foreign minister, Ruslan Kazakbaev, met with Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Nikolai Udovichenko; on October 20, Udovichenko met with Japarov.

Then on October 22, Putin finally made a public comment on a call with an international group of foreign policy experts: “I think current developments are a disaster for Kyrgyzstan and its people,” Putin said. “Every time they have an election, they practically have a coup. This isn’t even funny.”

But while there is room for change at the margins of Kyrgyz-Russian relations, the relationship remains critical to Kyrgyzstan and Russia’s gravity is inescapable. Beyond reasons of history, there’s the economics to consider. Russia remains one of Kyrgyzstan’s top trade partners. In 2019, Kyrgyz exports to Russia amounted to $281.25 million (falling behind the U.K. and Kazakhstan) and imports from Russia to Kyrgyzstan amounted to $1.40 billion (only behind China). Russia is far more economically important to Kyrgyzstan than Kyrgyzstan is to Russia — an imbalance that bleeds into the relationship dynamics.

The freezing of aid could be disastrous for Kyrgyzstan. Like most countries, Kyrgyzstan’s economy has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, adding to its preexisting economic weaknesses. According to the Moscow Times, citing an October 14 RBC report:

 Moscow last year allocated $30 million in financial grants to Bishkek, which RBC reported amount to $250 million since 2012. Russia and Kyrgyzstan also signed $6 billion worth of trade and investment deals in 2019.

Russia also controls most capital in the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development (EFSD), which RBC reports granted a $100 million loan to Kyrgyzstan in August.

More clarity came when Kazakbaev arrived in Moscow on October 23 for meetings with Lavrov. But the meetings did not go as Bishkek had likely hoped. “Lavrov indicated the new Kyrgyz government would not receive the $100 million in assistance that had been pledged to the previous government under Jeenbekov anytime soon,” Pannier wrote in his piece yesterday.

But what about Central Asia’s other big international player, China? Like Russia, Chinese officials have taken a slow and measured road to dealing with the new Kyrgyz government. Unlike Russia, China doesn’t have much of a past playbook for dealing with Kyrgyz revolutions. As Gavin Helf noted in a commentary for the U.S. Institute of Peace in early October, “Back in 2010, China was still a minor player, but today has more interests and investments in Kyrgyzstan.”

In a commentary for Eurasianet published on October 14, Srdjan Uljevic, a senior lecturer at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, wrote that China had been silent regarding the turmoil in Kyrgyzstan. China, he noted, was Kyrgyzstan’s largest creditor and had established a “strategic partnership” with the country in 2013, but its political chaos had elicited only “anodyne” statements. Uljevic pointed to China’s core foreign policy principle of non-interference, while also noting that that core pillar was under strain as China acted as an active superpower elsewhere in the world. “China is today is a global power and has started behaving accordingly. That includes interfering in others’ domestic affairs.”

Not, it seems, in Kyrgyzstan — Belt and Road investments aside. 

But on October 14 a more dynamic Chinese response began to emerge, only to be quickly overtaken by events like the rest of us. In response to a question about Kyrgyzstan during a regular press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian lauded Jeenbekov’s efforts to maintain order. “As the legitimate president, Mr. Jeenbekov is entitled to play a more active role in stabilizing the situation,” he said. 

The next day, Jeenebkov resigned rather than instigate bloodshed to cling to power. Zhao has not taken a question on Kyrgyzstan since in the ministry’s regular press conferences. 

By late October, there was more engagement. On October 30, Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Du Dewen met with Japarov. CGTN, an English-language TV channel owned by the Chinese state broadcaster, characterized the meeting in amicable terms, stating that in the meeting that Japarov said Kyrgyzstan “prioritizes developing friendly cooperation with China.” Du congratulated Japarov on his becoming prime minister and the embassy’s readout of the meeting referenced the usual Silk Road imagery to root the bilateral relationship.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the meeting was the pictures. In the photographs, Du is wearing what looks to be a KN95 mask and plastic gloves; Japarov is gloveless and maskless. 

Hesitation appears to be the track both Russia and China are trodding, unsure that the third Kyrgyz revolution is done. As for the United States, beyond warning of criminals seizing the government on October 13, and welcoming the arrest of Kamchybek Kolbaev, the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan has kept to issuing alert updates about ongoing unrest. The embassy has reported on its website no meetings between top U.S. and Kyrgyz officials and its October 5 congratulations on the conducting of the election reads now as having been quite premature.