Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 111

On June 5 U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Kyrgyzstan to discuss the status of the U.S. military base in Bishkek with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Kyrgyz Minister of Defense Ismail Isakov.

In the past, treating the Kyrgyz-U.S. military cooperation as an important part of the international fight against terrorism soothed anti-U.S. tensions among Kyrgyz political actors and civil society activists. However, the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek still remains the central focus of Kyrgyz political life. The SCO is comprised of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

A few days prior to Gates’ visit, opposition leader and former prime minister Felix Kulov publicly suggested having Kyrgyzstan join Russia in a confederation. Kulov compared Kyrgyzstan’s prospective cooperation with Russia to the situation of Belarus, calling that partnership a successful experience. Some Kyrgyz experts think that by proposing such a radical idea, Kulov pre-empted Bakiyev’s possible options regarding Russia. Against the background of the recent rise in anti-U.S. moods in Bishkek, pro-Russian polemics offer both political leaders a chance to score quick popularity points (see EDM, June 4). Kulov’s proposal to join the northern neighbor allows him to reemerge on the political scene after his April fiasco, when he failed to pressure the president to resign.

With Kyrgyzstan’s most powerful political actors speaking in favor of Russia, public anger against the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan is likely to resume soon. Today, only a few Kyrgyz public figures dare to look at the U.S. military base as a positive development in the country. Most consider Russia to be Bishkek’s key economic and political partner. However, few Kyrgyz realize that the economic influence of China and Kazakhstan is soaring and at time exceeds that of Russia’s.

According to the Kyrgyz Customs Control Office, Russia leads imports to Kyrgyzstan with $646 million in 2006. China and Kazakhstan’s exports to Kyrgyzstan the same year comprised $247 million and $195 million, respectively. With Russia being the main source of imports, Kazakhstan is Kyrgyzstan’s biggest buyer. In 2006, Kyrgyzstan’s export volume to Kazakhstan amounted to $163 million, compared to $155 million to Russia and $39 million to China. Imports from the U.S. the same year amounted to $356 millions and only $8 million of exports. A somewhat similar trade dynamic took place in 2006, with Russia being the biggest source of exports and Kazakhstan the biggest consumer country. Kyrgyzstan’s trade relations with Kazakhstan are the most advanced, particularly since it is a transit country to Russia and the EU.

Kyrgyzstan has significantly increased cooperation with Kazakhstan since the late 1990s, sharing about 100 bilateral trade and transportation agreements. According to a recent report by French scholar Marlene Laruelle, there are approximately 200,000 Kyrgyz labor migrants in Russia. Roughly the same number resides in Kazakhstan. About 80% of Kyrgyzstan’s tourists are from Kazakhstan. As Bakiyev has declared on several occasions, the August SCO summit will expand economic cooperation among its members. However, Kyrgyz-Kazakh economic ties are growing even without the SCO (see EDM, May 3).

Importantly, as Kyrgyz and Tajik drug agencies indicate, Russia and Kazakhstan are the key transit countries for Afghan heroin traveling from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Demand on the Russian market has been increasing in the past decade. As research by the Central Asia-Caucasus and Silk Road Studies Joint Center suggests, there are still formidable ties between Russian and Kyrgyz criminal networks left since the Soviet period. The Kyrgyz economy and society are affected by the increase of drug exports from Afghanistan. But Kyrgyz politician consider the U.S. and international efforts to fight the Taliban regime to be secondary to cooperation within the SCO.

Gates’ recent visit to Bishkek is indeed an important development in Kyrgyz-U.S. relations. But it would be naïve to expect the current Kyrgyz political leaders to fret about international terrorism more than their own hold on power. With the 2010 presidential election approaching, Kulov, Bakiyev and other political actors will seek international support to win the next presidency. Winning support among the SCO’s members is key for any future presidential candidate. Gates’ predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and several other high U.S. officials had previously visited Kyrgyzstan on various occasions. Despite the promises made by Kyrgyz political leaders, events such as the SCO summits seem to interest them more.

(,,,, June 5-6)