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Role of the great powers in Kyrgyzstan’s unrest

24 Dec 2020 - 10:29

Some regional countries and major powers with considerable influence in Kyrgyzstan sought to monitor the developments and intervene in the crisis management. Although the main sources of the protests were some domestic issues and the rift between the north and south of the country, the role of these foreign actors cannot be neglected. Although there is no clue about the involvement of foreign countries, there are clear signs of their involvement in shaping the crisis, guiding it towards the pre-determined goals, and playing with different options. In this essay, we will take a brief look at the level and type of the roles Russia, the United States, and China have played in Kyrgyzstan’s recent developments.

By: Omid Rahimi

Following the announcement of the final results of Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections, popular protests swept the country. These protests turned into extensive riots in the capital, and at the same time, the protesters' demands were changed. While at first, the pro-western opposition parties as well as the Social Democratic party were present in Ala Too Square with serious demands to cancel the final results of the parliamentary elections and repeat the election process, it was Sadyr Japarov and his supporters who managed to take the pulse of the protests. The demand for resignation of the president and formation of an interim government after the annulment of the election results was also raised for the first time by Japarov's supporters in Ala Too Square. Simultaneously, some regional countries and major powers with considerable influence in Kyrgyzstan sought to monitor the developments and intervene in the crisis management. Although the main sources of the protests were some domestic issues and the rift between the north and south of the country, the role of these foreign actors cannot be neglected. Although there is no clue about the involvement of foreign countries, there are clear signs of their involvement in shaping the crisis, guiding it towards the pre-determined goals, and playing with different options. In this essay, we will take a brief look at the level and type of the roles Russia, the United States, and China have played in Kyrgyzstan’s recent developments.
The Russian Federation: From passivity to activism
Moscow was one of the actors who began to closely monitor and act from the first hours of the protests. Russia was the first country to confirm the results of the parliamentary elections. Following the protests, Moscow repeatedly stated that it is closely monitoring the movements and developments in Bishkek. Later, in several statements, the Russian embassy in Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed their concern over the developments and called for the return of stability and calm to the country. In the first days of the protests, there was a lot of news in the media about Sooronbay Jeenbekov's daily contacts with the Kremlin, which, however, was immediately denied by him. Besides the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the issue of Kyrgyzstan has been a major focus of the Russian TV channels since the beginning of the unrest. Russia's state-run TV channels, such as Channel One, called the unrest a provocation by the West to influence Russia's allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. It also called for a serious and tough intervention by Russia in this crisis. Some TV channels also attributed the crisis to the Kremlin's "soft approach" towards Bishkek. Meanwhile, in an interview on Bishkek, Vladimir Putin said: "We hope that the Bishkek issue will be resolved through normal and democratic political processes." He also confirmed the accuracy of the results of the parliamentary elections and said that as soon as stability returns to the country, Moscow will resume its plans with Bishkek.
However, shortly afterwards, it became clear that the Kremlin, despite its apparent passivity, has been politically engaged in negotiations with the government and some political groups. Jeenbekov's daily phone calls with the Kremlin were later confirmed by Sputnik. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said in a statement that Kyrgyzstan was in turmoil and that Moscow should act to prevent the disintegration of Kyrgyzstan in accordance with the bilateral commitments under the security pact with Bishkek. The Russian security officials also had close ties with their Kyrgyz counterparts during this period. The Head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov was in close contact with the Kyrgyz officials from the beginning and was among the first persons to consult with the new head of the Security Council of Kyrgyzstan. The press office of the Kyrgyz president later confirmed that Moscow had repeatedly made proposals to Kyrgyz officials to normalize the situation in Kyrgyzstan and return stability to Bishkek.
The first speculation about Moscow's serious involvement in the Bishkek developments was made after declaration of state of emergency in this city and holding an extraordinary meeting in an unknown location (possibly the president's residence). The night before the extraordinary meeting, military equipment was first seen on the streets of Bishkek, with some sources citing Kant airbase, which was owned by Russia, as its origin. During the same period, Russia sent some new surveillance equipment, such as Orlan-10 drones, to the base and put it on standby. Meanwhile, some unofficial sources reported that the Russian Special Forces were involved in protecting the Kyrgyz president and the venue of the extraordinary parliamentary session.
Nevertheless, a serious turning point in Moscow's management of the developments in Kyrgyzstan can be seen in the visit of Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation Dmitry Kozak to Bishkek, which many believe that was ordered by Vladimir Putin. On October 13, Kozak held a meeting with President Jeenbekov and elected Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov. Although the content of the meeting was never released, there were speculations that the three parties would agree to maintain the status quo. A statement from the president's press office later stated that Kozak has emphasized Jeenbekov's role in the country's stability. After the meeting, Jeenbekov extended the state of emergency in Bishkek, appointed some of the security officials, and reinstated Japarov as prime minister due to the lack of quorum in parliament, all of which enhanced Jeenbekov’s confidence significantly.
However, for unknown reasons, the situation changed after the approval of Prime Minister Japarov in a formal session of the parliament. Japarov's first demand was the resignation of the president again. So, Japarov's supporters put a lot of pressure on Kanatbek Isaev, new chairman of the parliament. At the same time, many domestic actors, including Roza Otunbayeva and Kanatbek Isaev, as well as international actors such as the European Union, the United Nations, the Turkish Council (Turkpa), Britain, Kazakhstan, and even the United States, insisted on Jeenbekov's reinstatement. However, Jeenbekov resigned as president shortly afterwards, and Japarov became president of Kyrgyzstan after Isaev (chairman of parliament) refused to accept the interim presidency.
This was not accepted by the Kremlin at all and Sputnik called it "a measure against the previous agreements." Sputnik's statement somehow confirmed the agreement over Jeenbekov’s reinstatement in the joint meeting with Kozak. In response, on October 15, just hours before the official announcement of Jeenbekov's resignation, a Russian Finance Ministry official told RBC that Russia would suspend its financial aid to Kyrgyzstan until stability returned to the country. The "Sputnik Live" program also stated that the reason for this measure was the violation of the agreement signed between Russia and Kyrgyzstan a few days ago. Meanwhile, Russian media outlets, such as Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, published numerous reports about the impacts of this measure and the possibility of further suspension of Moscow's supports. Stanislav Pritchin, a Russian political expert, by referring to other issues such as the declining remittances by workers, the coronavirus crisis, non-approval of the next year's budget, and even the looming maturity of repayment of the loans to China, called the lack of bond as the main reason behind the Kremlin’s suspension of the financial aid and said that it would cause further chaos. Meanwhile, Andrey Grozin, the head of the TASS news agency's Central Asia department, described Jeenbekov's resignation as an act which could ignite the flames of the civil war and called it against the normalization of situation in Kyrgyzstan.
Another trouble in Bishkek-Moscow relations occurred on October 16, exactly one day after Jeenbekov's resignation. On this day, the state-run newspaper Erkin Too reported that Jeenbekov had ousted Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Russia, Alikbek Jeshenkulov, on October 14 (the day before his resignation). The reason for the dismissal was described by the government as "lack of trust." However, on the same day, Jeshenkulov stated in an interview that he was not aware of the president's decision and that he was only informed through social media. He also noted that there has been no sign of distrust so far. Following the ruling, some media outlets reported Moscow's outrage over Jeenbekov's move. Meanwhile, some sources attributed the ruling to some disagreements between Jeenbekov and the Kremlin. In this view, the execution of some secret agreements with Japarov that could limit Jeenebekov's power in the future, has been the main reason behind the president’s resignation. At the same time, some other media outlets mentioned Jeshenkulov’s refusal to accept Jeenbekov’s offer to be the next prime minister (possibly on Moscow's recommendation) as the main reason for this ruling. Moreover, some other sources referred to Chingiz Aidarbekov, the foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan, as a person who has persuaded Jeenbekov to take such a decision. In any case, what is certain is that Moscow was dissatisfied with this move. The Kyrgyz diaspora in Russia also wrote a letter to Japarov to demand reinstatement of Jeshenkulov. At home, also, it seemed that some political groups have a consensus over this issue. So, it is imaginable to see Jeshenkulov at more significant positions in Japarov's government. Jeshenkulov had previously served as foreign minister in the Bakiyev’s government from 2005 to 2007.
Another important point that was stressed by the analysts was Moscow's role in changing the direction of the protests with reliance on Japarov's role and influence. Japarov lived abroad in Belarus for many years. He is said to have been involved in mobilizing immigrant forces over these years, and have had secret contacts with the Bakiyev family (who also lived in Belarus) as well as some political and security circles in Moscow. It is very difficult to accept that he has managed to organize this volume of supporters without receiving foreign aid. Although the spotlight was initially on western countries, his remarks that "Russia would remain a strategic partner of Kyrgyzstan and no revision will be made about Kant's base" shifted the attentions towards Moscow. Moreover, the first meeting of Japarov's foreign minister Ruslan Kazakbayev, was with the Russian ambassador to Bishkek. At the same time, some analysts, such as Arzimatova, believe that Japarov is a temporary option for Moscow. Regarding the US opposition to Jeenbekov's resignation, he said, Japarov is a transfer option for Moscow to bring a new generation of leaders to power. Talatbek Masadykov is one of the options that has been proposed so far.
United States of America: From activism to passivity
Prior to the election, there were many speculations about the possible role of the United States in the impending instabilities. In October 2018, when Donald Lu became the head of the US embassy in Bishkek, these speculations began to emerge. Lu was a close figure to the Soros Foundation and was a US embassy diplomat in Bishkek during the 2005 Tulip Revolution. His re-emergence, which even provoked anger among some Republicans, aroused everyone’s suspicion about Washington’s role in an impending unrest.
Then, in February 2020, the world witnessed the second sign. At that time, some Russian media outlets claimed that a large consignment of cash had been transferred to the US embassy via Manas airport. Some images were also released showing a heavy presence of the security forces and the diplomatic staff of the US embassy in the airport. The Russian sources claimed that the money was transferred to Bishkek to destabilize not only Kyrgyzstan, but also several countries in Eurasia. In June 2020, as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) distributed significant sums of money among the election observers, the allocation of more than $2 million to an anonymous NGO sparked controversy and even led to lawsuits from eight other NGOs. This NGO, dubbed as "Common Cause," eventually released a report on widespread electoral irregularities at the beginning of the protests.
Another notable issue is the tensions between Bishkek and Washington in the months leading up to the parliamentary elections. In late January 2020, the United States began to press the Kyrgyz government over issuing a life sentence for Azimzhan Askarov and his eventual death in prison due to illness in June. The US government imposed new visa restrictions on Kyrgyzstan which were considered a kind of sanction. Meanwhile, the revision of cash and non-cash assistance facilitation agreements which had become challenging since 2016, has also failed and so led to a significant reduction in USAID activity in Kyrgyzstan. This was even mentioned in Jeenbekov's congratulatory message to Donald Trump in March 2019. After failing to amend the agreement, the Kyrgyz parliament instead tried to restrict the activities of NGO’s via an amendment law, which could severely block the US means of influence as well as the ways it was using to inject money into the NGOs. The move prompted the United States to retaliate in some other ways, including putting pressure on the Jeenbekov’s government through the NGOs. The process of reviewing the draft law began in parliament in May 2020, but has not yet been concluded. It was expected that after the parliamentary elections, the process would continue until the draft turns into a law.
With the beginning of the unrest, we first witnessed a serious presence of the United States but then this activism declined. Following the beginning of protests by losing parties, the US embassy in Bishkek issued its first statement on October 5 and somehow began to lead the protesters. In the statement, the US embassy cautiously claimed that based on the reports provided by the observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe as well as the Common Cause (which received $ 2 million in cash assistance from USAID), serious violations have occurred, including the existence of more than 496,000 cases of bought votes (out of about 2.5 million votes). This somehow confirmed the legitimacy of the losing parties’ protests. Interestingly, hours after the statement was issued, protest rallies became more widespread and protesters entered the building of the presidential palace and the parliament. Although there is still no reliable data on how the protesters entered these places as well as on the identities of the demonstrators and their possible connections with the foreign sources, the experience of the developments in 2005 makes it possible to some extent.
The second statement by the US embassy in Bishkek was issued two days later on October 7. The statement went on to say that the United States would support the Kyrgyz people’s views about the arrangement of the new government and the repeat of the parliamentary elections (due to the annulment of the results on October 6). The statement also called the protests a sign of "internal political dynamism" rather than the existence of "external interventions", in order to exonerate the US from any accusation. The statement finally issues an implicit warning to Russia, saying that "we urge all of Kyrgyzstan's neighbors and partners to refrain from violating the sovereignty of the country at this critical juncture."
However, the third statement by the US embassy was issued six days later, on October 13, with an almost different tone, indicating a kind of passivity. In this statement "the United States hails the efforts by Soranbay Jeenbekov, political leaders, and civil society to restore stability and prevent the organized crimes." Unlike the two previous statements that supported the protesters' confrontation with the government, the new statement somehow confronted with the protesters demands, specifically those who were close to Sadir Japarov, and in turn support for Ömürbek Babanov, the representative of four parties.
China: passivity and stagnation
One of the most striking issues during the unrest was the tangible passivity and silence of China compared to other actors. It is while the previous speculations about China's possible role and influence in Kyrgyzstan was greatly exaggerated, and the country was considered equal to Russia. At the same time, it should be noted that Beijing was neither struggling with the coronavirus like Russia and the US (especially given Trump's COVID-19 illness and the escalation of the second wave in Russia), nor was involved in issues such as elections (the US), unrest (related to Alexei Navalny poisoning) or conflict (Nagorno-Karabakh or Belarus). These factors created a good condition for Beijing to actively participate in managing the Kyrgyzstan’s crisis. But, at the end we saw that Beijing decided to remain passive and silent. At the same time, it should be noted that the unrest in Kyrgyzstan is threatening China's interests more than Russia and the US, both in terms of economy (given the large volume of investments and Bishkek's debt to Beijing) and security (given the experience of the 2016 embassy bombing and Kyrgyzstan’s proximity to China’s Uyghur regions).
The Chinese embassy in Bishkek did not make any statement during the riots. There were also no reports about a phone call from China or any assistance for Jeenbekov. China's only notable position can be seen in a response by the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman to a reporter's question on October 5. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying merely expressed concern over the unrest and in a very brief statement called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis and non-interference of the foreign actors. Following the formation of the new government of Sadir Japarov and the appointment of Ruslan Kazakbayev as the new foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese ambassador was one of the last foreign diplomats who held a meeting with Kazakbayev on the evening of October 16. This comes as the new minister’s meetings with the ambassadors of Russia, Kazakhstan and some other countries were held in the evening of October 15 and in the morning of October 16. Perhaps this approach of China can be interpreted in line with China’s general policy of Peaceful Uprising and non-interference. In fact, this behavior should be evaluated in a wider context rather than in the context of ​​Beijing-Bishkek bilateral relations.

Even if we can ignore the role of foreign actors at the beginning of the protests in Kyrgyzstan, their role must undoubtedly be taken seriously in leading and ending the instability. Preliminary evidence suggests that Moscow has initially suffered a relative defeat. While Russia was one of the first observers to confirm the results of the parliamentary elections, the annulment of the results a day after the announcement was a defeat for the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the formation of widespread protests and the subsequent demands of the protesters who were outside the control of the Jeenbekov’s government as well as the forces close to Russia, was another sign of this defeat. However, in the aftermath, Moscow managed to get back to the scene and change the course of the protests by implementing an alternative scenario. Although this scenario was not entirely successful due to Jeenbekov's resignation and Jeshenkulov’s ouster, it seems that Moscow managed to return to its decisive role.
On the other hand, the United States which initially managed to shape and strengthen instability at a controlled level and quickly achieve its predetermined goals - including the annulment of the election results - sank into passivity after the emergence of Japarov and the ouster of pro-western forces. Supporting Jeenbekov's government and his subsequent resignation can be seen as a clear sign of this role-playing.
Finally, China's approach toward Kyrgyzstan should be seen as an end for the speculations about Beijing's political influence in Central Asia. Although China had the most means of influence and suffered more than any other foreign actor from the Bishkek riots, it preferred not to break its silence. This would also confirm the hypothesis that Beijing is trying to follow Moscow in the face of ​​political and security issues of the region.

Omid Rahimi, is Researcher at the Institute for East Strategic Studies

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