Kyrgyzstan’s acting president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, visited Almaty on April 22. Despite the ceremonial pleasantries, Bakiyev’s reception was not nearly as pompous and cordial as the one given to Kyrgyzstan’s toppled president, Askar Akayev, during his first visit in 1997. Instead, Bakiyev seemed to be the poor nephew visiting his rich uncle. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev treated his Kyrgyz guest in a conspicuously condescending manner, pointedly telling that Bakiyev had requested this meeting. As recently as March 31, Nazarbayev had said, “Events in Kyrgyzstan were a mistake,” and it seemed improbable that he could reconcile himself to the Kyrgyz “usurpers” so soon.
But after meeting with Bakiyev, Nazarbayev made his first public statements indicating that he accepts the new political realities in Kyrgyzstan and is willing to restore relations. He particularly emphasized the ethnic closeness of the two nations. “There is nothing to divide Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz. What is done is done. We are fraternal peoples, and we will continue our traditional relations” (Yegemen Qazaqstan, April 23).
The Kazakh government promised Bakiyev 1,000 tons of grain and 10,000 tons of diesel oil to ensure spring planting. He also is to receive aviation fuel for Kyrgyz airports, which were paralyzed in the wake of what is depicted in Kazakhstan as a “wild riot.”
Bakiyev did not expect more. Experts in Kazakhstan estimate that the public uprising cost the Kyrgyz economy $100 million. However strong the fraternal sentiments towards the Kyrgyz people may be, it is difficult for Kazakhstan to resist the temptation to take advantage of the economic vulnerability of its neighbor.
Nazarbayev seized this opportunity to renew Kazakhstan’s claims on four resorts on Kyrgyzstan’s renowned Lake Issyk kul. Astana and Bishkek have long debated the ownership of these resorts, but the two sides never came near a compromise solution. In 2003 Bishkek declared that the resorts were the property of Kyrgyzstan; Kazakhstan Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov promptly established a government commission to settle the dispute. This resolute step forced Kyrgyzstan to abandon its claims. After recent talks with Bakiyev, both sides agreed to use the resorts jointly.
The two sides also reached a compromise on maintenance for the Kyrgyz sector of the gas pipeline that runs from Uzbekistan to southern Kazakhstan via Kyrgyzstan. In recent years this pipeline caused much irritation for Astana, which accused Bishkek of illegally siphoning gas from the pipeline. Officials from the Kazakh gas transport company Kaztransgaz claim that gas allegedly stolen by Kyrgyzstan cost the Kazakh gas industry $5 million in 2004. Kaztransgaz was even contemplating the construction of a bypass pipeline to avoid Kyrgyz territory. But that project would not be feasible technically or financially. Kazakhstan indicated it would allocate $20 million to repair the pipeline (Liter, April 23). Undoubtedly, the sum will considerably strain Kazakhstan’s already tight budget. But the acute shortage of Uzbek gas supplies to southern Kazakhstan demands some concessions.
Bakiyev stressed that he would welcome Kazakh investors in Kyrgyzstan and that investment security would be guaranteed. Given the miserable state of Kyrgyzstan’s financial sector and the ongoing political turmoil in the country, his assurances sound hollow. Under the Akayev regime, joint ventures to develop the water and energy resources of the Naryn and Syrdarya Rivers and to construct the Kambarata hydroelectric power station in Kyrgyzstan largely remained on paper. The prospects are even less encouraging now.
Typically more than 70% of the vacationers in the Issyk kul resort area are from Kazakhstan. But this year many Kazakhstan citizens may avoid Issyk kul due to rumors of rampant lawlessness and violence in the area. Officials from the Kyrgyz tourist industry came to Almaty on April 27 to encourage Kazakh citizens to travel to Issyk kul, promising them safe and pleasant trips (KTK TV, April 27).
While the Kyrgyz government is worried over the declining tourist industry, Kazakh authorities have good reason to be concerned with the growing number of seasonal migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Many of them are expected to tend tobacco plantations in Almaty region, while others will continue their journey on to Russia. A growing number of Kyrgyz are applying for Kazakh citizenship (Altyn Orda, April 26). The uncontrolled flow of migrant workers is often blamed for rising crime and scarce jobs in southern Kazakhstan. It is getting increasingly difficult for the Kazakh government to cope with the potentially explosive situation in the area. And the problem is likely to remain until economic and political stability are restored in Kyrgyzstan. Astana has no alternative other than to lend a helping hand to its neighbor in its efforts to bring life back to normal in the region.