Recently revived security ties between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan risk becoming yet another pompous declaration made by leaders of both states on regional security, fighting terrorism, religious extremism, and drug trafficking. The experience of the past year shows that political climates in both countries have rather different circumstances for the rise of religious extremism and terrorism. Therefore, both states are likely to pursue bilateral cooperation with differing goals.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov is concerned with suppressing political opposition at home and abroad, while Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev must assure that energy supplies from Uzbekistan are not interrupted as the winter approaches. Despite their incompatible interests, “fighting religious extremism and terrorism” poses an opportunity for both presidents to resume bilateral cooperation.
Kyrgyzstan’s and Uzbekistan’s official interpretations of what constitutes Islamic terrorism have little in common. Islamic extremism represents a threat to both states, but in different capacities. For Uzbekistan, religious groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pose a threat to the political regime’s continuity. Many such groups are also enmeshed in drug trafficking. Any outbreak of violence instigated by extremists threatens the legitimacy of the Uzbek regime.
In Kyrgyzstan, in contrast, violent clashes between terrorist groups and the Kyrgyz military, such as the one on May 12, indicate the weakness of the security sector, but have limited implications on the functioning of the entire state (see EDM, May 23). The more peaceful religious movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir attracts mainly young people, but it is far from being a threat to the political regime’s integrity. Therefore, while the rise of extremism and terrorism in Uzbekistan is closely linked to the suppressive policies of the Uzbek government, in Kyrgyzstan illegal religious organization spread due to religious illiteracy and unemployment among the population.
The means chosen by both states in fighting violent non-state actors are different as well. Kyrgyz security structures, although weaker than their Uzbek counterparts, have a more transparent approach to fighting terrorist groups compared with Uzbekistan. Local mass media outlets are often critical towards the Kyrgyz security structures’ inefficient responses in dealing with outbreaks of armed groups. Such public criticism of government actions is unthinkable in Uzbekistan, which has been isolated from the international community since the Andijan massacre on May 13-14, 2005.
Boosting ties with Uzbekistan could potentially affect the democratic climate in Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek risks cooperating with an authoritarian political regime that seeks to persecute its own political dissidents on neighboring territories. Unlike the hundreds of Andijan refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan in May 2005, individuals or small groups of dissidents from Uzbekistan are more likely to be maltreated away from the attention of international or local human rights organizations.
Kyrgyzstan has become a hub for numerous Uzbek political asylum-seekers, refugees, and members of banned religious groups, mainly from eastern Uzbek cities. Recently, ten Uzbek citizens were detained in southern Kyrgyzstan, including Gulmira Maksudova, the daughter of Akram Yuldashev, an Uzbek spiritual leader from the banned religious organization Akramiya. All detainees are currently held at the Osh branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Maksudova has applied for political asylum in Kyrgyzstan (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 30).
It remains to be seen if Bishkek repatriates Maksudova to Uzbekistan or grants her political asylum. The case of the Andijan refugees in May 2005 showed that the Kyrgyz government is not able to freely comply with international regulations on refugees due to pressure from Uzbekistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees insisted that all Andijan residents who fled to Kyrgyzstan in May 2005 were to be granted refugee status, but Uzbekistan claimed that bilateral agreements with the Kyrgyz government require repatriation of Uzbek citizens.
Kyrgyzstan is dependent on Uzbek gas supplies in winter and therefore is interested in having positive relations with Uzbekistan. Roughly a year ago Uzbekistan unilaterally canceled natural gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan. This caused a severe energy crisis in Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz government was forced to purchase gas from Kazakhstan at higher prices (see EDM, September 6, 2005). Uzbekistan has been also accused Bishkek of allowing terrorist organizations to train inside Kyrgyzstan.
Bakiyev met with Karimov for the first time in October 2005 at the Central Asian Cooperation Organization summit in St. Petersburg. Those bilateral talks took place amid a prolonged crisis between the two states. Although both presidents pledged to cooperate on security and energy-supply issues, little has been achieved since that meeting.