On April 24 Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a decree ceding 620 hectares of Kyrgyzstan’s northeastern territory to Kazakhstan. The process has been unfolding gradually since 2001, but Bakiyev was only recently able to pass the decree in parliament. What began as a deal between former president Askar Akayev and Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev in Karkyra region as a partially clandestine deal, could lead to additional domestic turbulence. Akayev’s ceding of territory to China in 2001 demonstrated that yielding land raises wide public anger, mostly based on patriotic and nationalist feelings. At that time, crowds gathered in Aksy village, and five people were shot dead by the police.
A few days after Bakiyev signed the decree, hundreds of Issyk-Kul residents marched toward the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek in protest against relinquishing territory in Karkyra. They were joined by several opposition members, including Omurbek Tekebayev, Bolot Sherniyazov and Azimbek Beknazarov. These politicians are all very popular in their local districts. Beknazarov’s imprisonment in 2002 for his criticism of Akayev’s territorial concession politics was the central reason for mass protests among his supporters in Aksy. The crowds marching from Issyk-Kul were stopped by the police on April 26. They were also beaten by a group of organized provocateurs, allegedly organized by the regime.
Bakiyev’s territorial concessions to Kazakhstan, despite outcries among political circles and the public, point to several developments taking place in Kyrgyzstan today. First, Bakiyev was able to pass the decree on Karkyra territories only with the current parliament, which is comprised mostly of Ak-Zhol representatives, a pro-regime political party. The previous parliament, which included a wide range of influential politicians, would not allow Bakiyev to give away land to Kazakhstan. The decree was passed in the absence of parliamentary and public discussions. In a similar fashion, Bakiyev was able to pass a decree on the privatization of the energy sector and other strategic economic sites in the country. It is likely that the privatized hydropower sites will be sold mostly to Russian and Kazakh investors.
Second, Bakiyev’s regime is becoming accustomed to suppressing protestors in Bishkek and other parts of the country. Today, the Kyrgyz interior forces outnumber the Kyrgyz army and border control troops together. This suggests that the regime is more concerned with retaining domestic stability than protecting the borders. Unlike few months ago, protestors are now aware that they may be violently dispersed either by the police or with shrewder methods such as organized provocateurs.
Third, Bakiyev shows his weakness in foreign policy. He has been succumbing to the demands of the country’s bigger neighbors without retaining balance between the different forces. Bakiyev has been bowing to Russian and Kazakh requirements in the economic sector. According to most Kyrgyz experts, political and business elites from both countries have pushed the president to privatize the energy sector. As one well-known political analyst in Bishkek told Jamestown, whoever privatizes Kyrgyzstan’s energy sector could potentially increase political leverage over the downstream countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In effect, border concessions to Kazakhstan and other neighbors and the privatization projects are a result of corrupt deals among high-ranking politicians, and they have been supported by the loyal parliament. Another example of such a deal is a mosque to be built by foreign construction companies near Mount Suleiman in the city of Osh. The mosque will reportedly be a grand construction and the largest in the country. Several political leaders in Kyrgyzstan together with local NGOs were trying to convince UNESCO to put Mount Suleiman on the World Heritage List. The new construction will disqualify the mount from being considered by UNESCO.
Fourth, Bakiyev’s ceding of Karkyra territory and privatization of the energy sector show the overall weakness of a regime that is guided by short-term goals. “There isn’t political life in Kyrgyzstan today, only business deals among high-ranking officials,” said Aron Brudny, a professor at the American University, Central Asia. “Kyrgyzstan’s territory is being sold bit by bit,” one NGO activist in Bishkek commented.
There are still at least six territorial disputes between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors. Disputed territories between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are in the Talas oblast and near the town of Tokmak; with Tajikistan they are in Lailyak and Batken regions; and with Uzbekistan in Batken and Osh oblasts. Disputes over Kyrgyzstan’s borders are sure to intensify as water resources become scarcer in the region. Karkyra region is known for its river with drinking water (www.akipress.kg, Delo Nomer, www.fergana.ru, March 26 – April 28).