Kazakhstan’s dual role in Kyrgyzstan’s politics

By Erica Marat

Kyrgyzstan’s borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have remained closed since the April 7 unrest, forcing local businesses to slow down their activity. Despite Kazakhstan’s initial support of Kyrgyzstan’s provisional government, Astana remains reluctant to reopen borders with Kyrgyzstan. The border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is vital for economic exchange. Local businessmen claim millions of dollars in losses due to the sealed border. The provisional government’s temporary ban on certain business transactions to prevent illegal deals further hurt the country’s economy.

Astana’s strict border policy shows how Kyrgyzstan today deals with two versions of Kazakhstan: one, as Chair of OSCE and another, as a neighbor on whom it depends economically. It is possible that Kazakhstan’s decision to continue to block the border is made in its role as an influential neighbor. The Kazakh government claims that the situation still needs to normalize before the border is opened again. Despite numerous pleas by Kyrgyz politicians, Astana gave no specific indication about what it considers to be a normalized situation to have the border unsealed.

In the meantime, helping the provisional government to expel deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev to ensure stability in the country was done by the Kazakhstan-OSCE Chair. It was the OSCE Chair who sent military aircraft to Jalalabad to transport Bakiyev and his family from their hometown to Kazakh territory, and who later sent the fallen leader further to Belarus.

What role Kazakhstan will choose in the coming months, when Kyrgyzstan is to hold referendum and parliamentary elections, remains to be seen. As the OSCE Chair, Kazakhstan is to voice the final judgment as to whether the elections were a regional breakthrough or signified another failure for Kyrgyzstan’s attempt to change. Not having had its own experience in holding free and fair elections before, Kazakhstan might leave unnoticed some of the irregularities in the course of elections. As Central Asia’s biggest state, however, Kazakhstan is determined to be the one to set a political and economic example in the region.

Overall, none of the Central Asian leaders are interested in seeing positive change in Kyrgyzstan where presidents are ousted under the pressure of angry crowds. Although Bakiyev was despised by his regional counterparts, seeing removal of his regime turning into a success story in Bishkek is not in their best interest.

If Kyrgyzstan indeed succeeds holding free and fair elections, it will set an important precedent for the region and invigorate political opposition and the NGO community. However, a weak Kyrgyzstan, where the rulers are dependent on bigger neighbors, is a convenient subject of mockery for leaders like Islam Karimov and Emomali Rakhnom. Both are determined to prevent similar unrest at home.

Against this background, none of the members of the provisional government have to date offered viable economic policies. While the provisional government is concerned with gaining legitimacy, the economic decline will be the next important challenge before and after October elections.