A Tale of Two Presidents: Astana Fears the Spread of the “Kyrgyz Virus”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 102

Kazakhstan’s official attitude towards the provisional government in Bishkek is growing more contradictory. President Nursultan Nazarbayev never tires of talking about Kazakhstan’s commitments as the Chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to contribute to normalizing the political situation in Kyrgyzstan and rendering economic assistance. Recently, the Kazakh government announced the delivery of 3,500 tons of diesel to Kyrgyz farmers facing a dramatic shortage of fuel during the sowing season.

However, despite multiple requests voiced by Kyrgyz government officials, the Kazakh authorities proved reluctant to re-open the border between the two countries, closed after the events in Bishkek on April 7. Intensive talks between the border authorities of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have resulted in little progress. Re-opening the border, according to Kyrgyz State Border Service sources, scheduled on May 11, did not occur. Hundreds of vehicles on the Kyrgyz side of the border waited in vain for several hours to gain entry into Kazakhstan. On that same day, Ilyas Omarov, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, told journalists that Astana had not reached a final decision concerning the re-opening of the border (Kazakhstan TV, May 11).

Cholponbek Turusbekov, the Deputy-Chief of Kyrgyzstan’s State Border Service, complained that daily talks with the Kazakh border authorities were fruitless. At a press conference in Bishkek, Sergey Ponomarev, Chairman of the Kyrgyz Business and Trade Association, said the closure of the border dealt a serious blow to the already fragile economy in his country. He told journalists that within one month the trade volume in Kyrgyzstan was reduced by 55 percent, and in some businesses production had plummeted to 20 percent, the worst hit being the textile industry. “Roughly 150,000 textile workers were forced to take leave,” Pomomarev explained (Delovaya Nedelia, May 14).

Observers within Kazakhstan, as well as some regional experts, speculated about the implications of the prolonged closure of the border with Kyrgyzstan. It seems that by closing it for an indefinite period, Astana tried to covertly exert pressure on the new government in Bishkek to further its own economic interests in Kyrgyzstan, particularly on energy issues. Yet, a more plausible explanation for the restrained attitude of Astana towards the provisional government in Bishkek apparently lies in its political implications. On May 8, at a meeting of the heads of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), members actually distanced themselves from Bishkek, limiting their statements to vaguely phrased “economic assistance” and readiness to cooperate with the successors of the ousted President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Rules of conduct set by the Russian-dominated CSTO apparently prevented Astana from pursuing an independent policy towards the provisional government of Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, as Anrey Ivanov, an expert in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations asserts, “neighboring states fear the spread of the Kyrgyz virus beyond the borders.” Unnamed sources in Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (KNB) disclosed to the Delovaya Nedelia weekly that they fear a renewed upsurge of violence on the streets of Bishkek (Delovaya Nedelia, May14).

In this alarming context, many in Kazakhstan have questioned the sustainability of Nazarbayev’s authoritarian regime. Addressing the recent Eurasian Media-Forum in Astana, Nazarbayev said that the uprising in Bishkek was not a revolution; it was an act of banditry. This assessment added fuel to protests not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in Kazakhstan. In his latest publication, the leader of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan demanded the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev from his post (DAT, May 12).

Some even believe that he might share Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s plight, while Nazarbayev is making desperate attempts to perpetuate his power using every means available, including hand-picking members of parliament. Recently, both the lower and upper houses of Parliament (Senate and Majilis) hastily adopted a draft law declaring Nazarbayev as “leader of the nation.” If the bill is signed into law by Nazarbayev, he will receive immunity from persecution for crimes and violations of law committed during his presidency after leaving office. The draft law also includes the persecution of opponents of the president for acts damaging his image, distorting facts about him or preventing the execution of his presidential duties. Any attempt on the president’s life will be regarded as an act of terrorism. According to the proposed bill, all the properties of the president and his family members remain intact even after he leaves office.

Since gaining the presidency, Nursultan Nazarbayev has done much to consolidate his power. In 2007, the compliant parliament consisting of the pro-presidential Nur Otan party adopted amendments to the Constitution of Kazakhstan granting Nursultan Nazarbayev a de facto unlimited term of presidency and the right to run for president as many times as he wishes.

Officially, Nazarbayev’s term of office ends in 2012. He already wields enormous legal power to strengthen his position. However, internal struggles in his inner circle, growing public discontent over his authoritarian rule, the lawlessness of his family clan and most notably events in Kyrgyzstan, are making him feel increasingly insecure. Ironically, the adoption of the bill making Nazarbayev a lifetime president came almost simultaneously as the Kyrgyz parliament’s decision to strip Kurmanbek Bakiyev of his immunities and attempt to bring him to justice for “usurpation of power.”