Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, constrained in his relations with the West owing to pressures from Russia and China, wants to reshape the perception of Bishkek’s role in Central Asia. Eschewing the perception that his country is becoming the focal point for the conflicting interests of “great powers,” he instead offers a vision of Kyrgyzstan as a strategic bridge through which the United States, Russia, and China can pursue new forms of regional cooperation.
As Bakiyev tries to smooth over the recent diplomatic tensions with Washington caused by mutual diplomatic expulsions, his priority has been to consolidate the resolution of the Manas base issue and move bilateral relations away from grueling interchanges. Simultaneously, faced with the challenge of the presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and hosting the next SCO summit in 2007, Bakiyev is acutely aware that Bishkek’s relations with these potentially competing states are coming under closer scrutiny.
On August 2, reacting to the declaration of two Kyrgyz diplomats in Washington as persona non grata, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry promptly confirmed the government’s aspiration to work through the crisis, but emphasized that bilateral relations must be based on the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs (Kabar, August 2). The Kyrgyz media also alleged that the State Department expelled six more Kyrgyz diplomats who were attending training courses on fighting international terrorism.
Both the tone and content had changed by August 10, when Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov affirmed, “Kyrgyzstan and the USA will continue a political and diplomatic dialogue.” Jekshenkulov’s talks in Bishkek with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher were presented as positive and encouraging. Each side stressed the need to cooperate on combating terrorism and drug trafficking. Boucher was reassured during his visit that Bishkek believes the United States plays a key role in Kyrgyz foreign policy, but he offered little by way of specifics. Bakiyev, on the other hand, told Boucher that he specifically wants an expansion of trade and economic cooperation, with more being done to attract U.S. investment in the Kyrgyz economy, as well as American assistance in democracy building in the country (24. kg, August 11).
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Felix Kulov explained these elements of Bakiyev’s foreign policy to a group of Turkish journalists visiting Bishkek ahead of the president’s state visit to Turkey this fall. “We want to be in good relations with all countries,” he said. He also spoke of issues and concerns on the part of the great powers in their dealings with Bishkek, without elaborating. “We are making efforts so that their interests and attitudes towards us do not become a point of discord. We want Kyrgyzstan to become a bridge between these states and a place where they will be able to reach mutual understanding,” the prime minister said (24. kg, August 9-10).
The official presidential website carried a statement from Bakiyev about the need for Bishkek to use its presidency of the SCO to preserve its core values and aims. He envisages the SCO stepping up its practical joint actions and increasing the effectiveness and activities of the SCO’s permanent bodies — the Secretariat in Beijing and the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure in Tashkent. This commitment to the SCO as a means of raising security at the multilateral level is rooted in the security situation in Afghanistan and the continued threat from international terrorism. “The deterioration of the military and political situation in Afghanistan as military groups linked to the Taliban movement have stepped up their activities as well as the recent events in our country’s south testify to the fact that radical religious terrorist groups are still posing a threat to regional security,” Bakiyev asserted (Kyrgyz Radio 1; Interfax-Kazakhstan, August 11).
Bakiyev evidently seeks greater practical returns on Kyrgyz cooperation commitments. Such an approach is evident at the bilateral and the multilateral levels. On August 10 a package of documents aimed at the improvement of the legal basis for military and economic cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were placed on the agenda of a session of the CSTO military and economic cooperation commission. Kyrgyz Minister of Industry, Trade, and Tourism Medetbek Kerimkulov told the meeting that Bishkek wants military and technical integration within the CSTO, which would have beneficial effects on the military-industrial complex. Moreover, he advocated adopting agreed military standards to facilitate the work of joint forces (Interfax-Kazakhstan, August 11).
Bakiyev is intensifying Kyrgyz interest in the SCO and CSTO, hoping it will yield practical security dividends. Bishkek’s relations with Washington remain essential to its security strategy, but Bakiyev needs more to show for this bilateral relationship, and so he is pushing for increased American investment in the economy. Developing further the general concept of Kyrgyzstan as a strategic bridge promoting cooperation and “mutual understanding” among potentially competing great powers, will necessitate the formulation of detailed proposals for possible areas where this may happen. Washington, meanwhile, can help in this endeavor, but in return it may look for less anti-American criticism and hostility from the SCO.