Last week Murat Zhurayev, a Kyrgyz parliamentarian from Batken, supported the idea of Kyrgyzstan entering the ruble zone. He thus joined the ranks of Kyrgyz politicians who advocate moving deeper into Russia’s orbit (24.kg, December 2). Given the ongoing economic crisis and political instability in Kyrgyzstan, many Kyrgyz see Russia as a possible path to recovery. In part, this view is attributable to the significant role the Russian mass media plays in shaping the views of Kyrgyz politicians and the public in general.
The vast majority of Kyrgyzstan’s mass media outlets are published and broadcast in the Russian language. Only a handful of newspapers and TV channels use Kyrgyz as their main language. The Kyrgyz government heavily controls channel KTR, which is the only media outlet that broadcasts across the entire country. About a dozen Russian TV channels enjoy widespread popularity in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. Russian ORT and RTR are widely watched in Bishkek, where more than 20% of Kyrgyzstan’s five million residents live. Most Kyrgyz get their international news reports from these two channels, which also broadcast popular entertainment programs.
Since most Russian mass media outlets, especially state-run ORT and RTR, usually promulgate pro-Kremlin views, the Kyrgyz public’s perception of world affairs are similar to those held by Russian citizens. The Russian mass media was especially successful in building pro-Kremlin attitudes toward the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and the war in Chechnya. They also propagate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong-minded, pragmatic politician. As a result, the Kyrgyz public’s trust in Russian policies in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia is higher compared to their views toward the West.
In the 1990s, under president Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin did not regard the Central Asian states as a priority. But unlike Yeltsin, Putin has developed a more activist policy toward the former Soviet republics. Kyrgyzstan became an important component in Putin’s efforts to build a strong Russia after the U.S. stationed a military base in Bishkek in October 2001. Today, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world where U.S. and Russian troops are based less than 50 kilometers apart. Both installations are also located near the Chinese border.
While Russian political policies toward Kyrgyzstan have been fluid, Bishkek’s attitudes toward its bigger neighbor have remained rather stable since 1991. Except for a short period after the U.S. base opened, Kyrgyz-Russian relations were rarely challenged by domestic or international factors. In fact, this stability in the relationship with the Kremlin affected Kyrgyzstan’s ties with Washington. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has made several clumsy statements against the long-term U.S. military presence in the country. Similarly, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, headed by Alibek Zhekshenkulov, clearly follows a more pro-Russia stance. Anti-Russian slogans are rare and local elites usually treat them as manifestations of nationalism by local political elites.
Bakiyev’s open favoritism toward Russia, expressed on numerous occasions, reassured the Kremlin that despite the U.S. presence in the country, its own positions are not under any major threat. While Moscow did not sympathize with the overthrow of Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev in March 2005, the Kremlin was able to reestablish its influence in Bishkek without any major resistance, partly because members of the current regime, as well as their family members, own businesses linked to the Russian market.
Most Kyrgyz approve their political leaders’ friendly relations with Russia. A number of Kyrgyz MPs support Kyrgyzstan’s closer relations with Russia despite the fact that relations between the two countries never actually cooled. Most parliamentarians and government representatives support the idea of dual citizenship with Russia.
Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is still regarded as an historical partner that contributed to the economic and cultural development of the country starting from the 19th century. Fluency in the Russian language and familiarity with Russian literature are considered hallmarks of cosmopolitanism and quality education. Studying at Moscow universities is rated popular among young Kyrgyz. Russia sporadically supports cultural exchange programs, and Moscow regards Russian TV channels as important transmitters of Russian language and culture throughout the Central Asian region.
The Central Asian states, with the exception of Turkmenistan, might be the only post-Soviet region to agree with the continuing Russian dominance. Yet Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the poorest and weakest countries in the region, remain especially loyal to Kremlin. Both states’ potential in water resources and electricity production interest Russian investors. RUSAL is involved in Tajikistan, where the parliament and government have actively considered the possibility of granting Russia concession rights for producing electricity.
Kyrgyzstan depends economically on Russia in many ways. Imports from or through Russia are vital for Kyrgyzstan’s domestic market. Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz labor migrants work in Russia and send remittances home. International groupings such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Eurasian Economic Community have enormous impact on domestic security and economic policies. Influence imposed through these regional organizations often exceeds their official mandates, and Moscow could use these channels to further expand its influence.