Kyrgyzstan’s relations with Russia have noticeably intensified after the March 24, 2005, Tulip Revolution. Today, bilateral ties are at the peak of cooperation, with Kyrgyzstan and Russia collaborating in the political, economic, and military spheres. The slogan “Kyrgyzstan and Russia — Eternal Friends” is seen on posters across the main streets of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. The posters show Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Fradkov, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
The core of Kyrgyz-Russian cooperation is rooted in the military and economic spheres. The military contingent at the Russian military base in Kant will probably be increased in the coming months. Russia may receive a stake in Kyrgyzstan’s energy sector, and the Russian gas giant Gazprom is anticipated to set up a joint venture to produce natural gas. Two Russian mobile phone companies are stepping into the Kyrgyz market. Luzhkov’s recent visit to Bishkek marked yet another new wave of Russian investment into Kyrgyzstan’s tourism industry and medium-sized businesses. Luzhkov promised to invest hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars into Kyrgyzstan’s tourist infrastructure at the Lake Issyk-Kul resort area. New airports and roads are slated for construction in the coming years to facilitate the travel of tourists from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Part of the reason why Bakiyev increasingly relies on the Russian partnership is his rapidly diminishing popularity at home. The majority of the recent bilateral economic agreements are being developed exclusively at the governmental level. Kyrgyz government representatives and members of parliament are interested in boosting Kyrgyz-Russian cooperation. According to Kyrgyz analysts, informal connections between Russian investors and Kyrgyz political figures or businessmen with political ties are the key reason behind the intensified economic exchange in the post-March 24 period. Indeed, increased economic cooperation with Russia might help the Kyrgyz government to decrease unemployment and cope with poverty. However, systemic corruption within the Kyrgyz government and public officials’ engagement in the business sector raise suspicions about whether increased Russian investment in the Kyrgyz economy would actually benefit society at large.
Bakiyev came into power with the help of Kyrgyz NGOs that were largely supported by Western donors, but as president he has turned increasingly critical of their activities. This spring, the largest NGOs organized several anti-government corruption rallies, demonstrating Kyrgyz civil society’s awareness about the government’s involvement in corruption and ties with organized criminal groups (see EDM, June 6). In response, some public officials and pro-government mass media outlets have attempted to indirectly pressure leaders of the largest NGOs or publicly condemn their activities. Bishkek’s expulsion of two U.S. diplomats last week (see EDM, July 13) was interpreted by major Kyrgyz NGOs as the government’s attempt to bully civil society.
Inside Kyrgyzstan only a few citizens regard Russia as an undemocratic country. Some analytical mass media outlets, such as the 24.kg information agency, routinely compare political processes in Bishkek with how a corresponding situation could “ideally” be in Russia. In one recent online survey conducted by 24.kg, 40% of readers responded that Kyrgyzstan would benefit from cooperating with Russia (July 14). Kazakhstan received roughly 22%, while China and the United States polled 8% each.
In general, the Kyrgyz public takes a dim view of foreign financial assistance to local civil society organizations. NGOs that receive foreign help are branded “mercenaries” and considered to be easily controllable by Western lobbyists. By contrast, establishing business relations through state venues is regarded by many as a genuine and mutually beneficial form of interstate partnership. Some Bishkek residents are experiencing fatigue from the constant riots and demonstrations at the city’s main square and blame “Western donors” for causing destabilization through local NGOs.
Kyrgyz migrant workers are another important factor in the Kyrgyz government’s desire to sustain friendly relations with Russia. According to various estimates, 500,000 Kyrgyz live in or travel to Russia and Kazakhstan for work. Annually, migrant remittances make up $200-500 million (Fergana.ru, June 19). The importance of these migrant remittances is especially felt at the village level. This year several Kyrgyz officials have traveled to various parts of Russia to negotiate job placement for Kyrgyz guest workers.
Kyrgyzstan’s intensified political and economic cooperation with Russia has also affected the Kyrgyz government’s relations with the United States Although to date Russia’s economic and military engagement had indirectly overlapped with the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz government’s efforts to press Washington on the status of the U.S. military base at Manas has been interpreted as being made at Moscow’s request (see EDM, July 17, June 5). Kyrgyzstan’s relations with other neighbors, such as Kazakhstan and China, remain stable.