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Kyrgyzstan: An anti-western mood gains strength

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Daniel Sershen
Publication Date 22 May 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Kyrgyzstan: An anti-western mood gains strength, 22 May 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46cc3211c.html [accessed 9 December 2016]
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Daniel Sershen 5/22/07

A small state with little to offer except a strategic location, Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy has blended a pro-Russian orientation with nods to the West and, increasingly, to China. Yet a series of controversial developments involving Western interests, and an anticipated diplomatic offensive by Moscow and Beijing this summer threaten to disrupt that shaky equilibrium.

Although the protests that have dominated Kyrgyz politics for the past year are mainly a domestic affair, anti-Western currents appear to have played a role in other recent disputes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. These include the Kyrgyz rejection of a major international debt-relief program, demonstrations surrounding the Canadian-controlled Kumtor gold mine, and problems related to the American airbase supporting coalition operations in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Local analysts acknowledge a subtle shift in public opinion against the West and particularly the United States, but say that the change is due largely to American actions on the world stage and other external factors. Western policies toward Kyrgyzstan itself have played a secondary role, they say.

"Like many former Soviet countries, Kyrgyzstan was never notable for its pro-Western attitude at the popular level," said Emil Juraev, Deputy Director of the OSCE Academy. That ambivalence is turning negative, he said, "as part of the general, international [growth in] anti-Western and anti-American feeling."

Juraev said the Kyrgyz reaction to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), in which lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund agree to ease debt burdens in exchange for a commitment to implement reforms, was a reflection of worldwide sentiment. In the face of fierce protests by groups who saw HIPC as a loss of national sovereignty, Kyrgyzstan abandoned the program in February.

"Some people, aware of the global discussions and global discourse [that criticizes international financial institutions], place themselves in the same picture of being somehow dominated, misused, manipulated by the West, and in particular by the United States," Juraev said.

Orozbek Moldaliyev, Director of Bishkek's Research Center on Politics, Religion, and Security, attributed the shift to the US-led war in Iraq. "Anti-American sentiment practically did not exist prior to Iraq. On the contrary, there was great sympathy for America," he said. "But after the Iraq events such feelings appeared among part of the population, especially religious people."

Both analysts said that the dominance of Russian media in the country helped create an unflattering image of the United States. "The Russian media plays a major role in the formation of political consciousness" in Kyrgyzstan, said Moldaliyev. "Whenever Russian-American relations change [for the worse], they use any grounds they can to incite anti-American feelings among the population."

Several recent controversies surrounding the American airbase, especially the shooting death last December of a local driver by a US airman guarding the base, have proven particularly inflammatory. The incident prompted calls for the base's closure and the cancellation of the airman's immunity, enshrined by the 2001 US-Kyrgyz agreement establishing the facility. Reports in May that the soldier had returned home to face disciplinary hearings revived the debate.

A number of other irritants in US-Kyrgyz relations can be traced back to the Manas airbase, including car accidents involving American personnel and a runway near-miss involving a US tanker and a Kyrgyz passenger jet last September. An anonymously sourced report May 2 from the Russian agency Interfax suggested that Manas could be housing nuclear weapons for a strike against Iran. American and Kyrgyz officials have called the Iran speculation groundless.

Nevertheless, Kyrgyz Parliament Speaker Marat Sultanov vowed that Bishkek would give serious consideration to closing the base, if it were used in connection with any military action against Iran, the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported on May 21.

Meanwhile, the United States reportedly offered the widow of the shot truck driver a "final" settlement for her suffering, which the widow said amounted to $55,000. She added that the offer will not stop her from filing a wrongful death suit, in which she will seek $1 million in damages. In addition, activists have launched a movement that seeks the closure of the base, according to the AKIpress news agency.

Juraev said many Kyrgyz citizens connect the dots between the unsubstantiated reports about Iran attack plans and their vision of the United States as an overbearing superpower. "Whenever something bad or some unfortunate event happens in Bishkek, for example, it's easy to conclude that this is an example of what we know of the United States generally," he said.

The massive Kumtor gold mine has also proven a sensitive issue between Kyrgyzstan and its Western investors, sparking protests and roadblocks by area residents as recently as early May. In this case, much of the local dissent appears directed against the national government, for handing over part of the Kyrgyz stake to the Canadian owners and improperly distributing compensation for a disastrous cyanide spill in 1998.

"I don't think the Western factor is playing that much of a role" in prompting the protests, Juraev said. But, he added, the "raw deal" that the mine's investors gave to Kyrgyzstan, plus subsequent calls by Kyrgyz politicians to nationalize the mine, have helped create a less welcoming atmosphere for international corporations.

So far, evidence of a policy shift against US and Western interests in Kyrgyzstan is circumstantial. Observers say that may change in August, when the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) holds its annual summit in Bishkek. Russia and China dominate the security-oriented group, which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In a May 2 commentary for the Kyrgyz edition of the newspaper Argumenty i Fakti, analyst Raisa Polyakova said Moscow and Beijing would likely press for an end to the US military presence in the country. The SCO summit in Astana in 2005 ended with a declaration calling for "final timeframes for the temporary use" of Central Asian bases by coalition forces. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

"Of course, Russia and China want the United States to leave Kyrgyzstan," Moldaliyev said, "but in return, they do not offer anything." If at the summit they were to propose a concrete economic package, he said, the Kyrgyz "could waver."

Juraev said the Kyrgyz side preferred to downplay the subject, and was crafting an agenda with an "economic and humanitarian" focus. "Obviously it won't be possible to bypass the political, security issues but I think they'll try to somehow not make them the most important issues of discussion," he said.

However, Juraev said, Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy direction may ultimately be decided in capitals other than Bishkek. "Kyrgyzstan is not the kind of country that gets to choose how to behave" in foreign affairs, he said. "Kyrgyzstan can only somehow maneuver within a very limited space."

Editor's Note: Emil Juraev's views do not necessarily represent those of the OSCE Academy. Daniel Sershen is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.

Posted May 22, 2007 © Eurasianet

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