Vladimir Putin will arrive in Kyrgyzstan at the end of February in the framework of his tour of Central Asia.
His visit to Kyrgyzstan is considered by some as the launch of the country’s electoral campaign – the election for a new head of state is scheduled for 19 November. However, a firm indication of whom to vote for in the next election will hardly be made during Putin’s visit.
It is rather evident that Russia’s authority in Kyrgyzstan is more significant as compared to other Central Asian countries, such as Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. The presidential candidates cannot ignore the ‘Russian Factor’. As characterised by Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, former deputy of the Jogorku Kenesh (Parliament), local politicians bend over backwards to be noticed by Putin. Nevertheless, the Kremlin cannot decide on the outcome of Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election. The actual decision lies with the local population – fragmented and anxious, having nonetheless embraced democracy, even though a somewhat peculiar form of it.
As a side note, Russia is not the only country interested in Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan is also keeping an eye on it, but both countries are interested in Kyrgyzstan’s stronger participation in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
None of the contenders for the presidency question the necessity of cooperating with Russia. Such a cooperation is supported by many, including Temir Sariyev, leader of the Ak-Sanat Party; Omurbek Babanov, chairman and founder of the Respublika Party of Kyrgyzstan; and by the present social democrat prime minister, Sooronbay Sharipovich Jeenbekov, the protégé of the president.
Only the chairman and founder of the Ata Meken Socialist Party, Omurbek Tekebaev, expressed a rather sceptical optimism with regard to Kyrgyzstan’s proximity to Russia, and criticised Russia’s former president, Dmitry Medvedev. In Moscow, he is considered as pro-American. However, his chances of winning are minimal.
There is no obvious front-runner among the contenders, and most likely none will surface prior to the election. Such an environment may trigger an administrative response from the outgoing president Almazbek Atambayev in the interest of supporting Jeenbekov.
Other contenders in this election are Adakhana Madumarov and Elmir Ibraimov, but their political influence and popularity are not as notable.
Let us note that such revolutionary excesses as those encountered in Kyrgyzstan back in 2005 and 2010 are most probably no longer possible. The public is tired of unstable environments and is not inclined to participate in mass protests. Past attempts by some politicians to incite the population to take to the streets proved unsuccessful. Destabilising scenarios cannot be fully excluded, but they are unlikely.
In the end, the future president, whoever he may be, will not be as omnipotent as his predecessors. The results of a national referendum carried out on 11 December 2016 supported a new and unique constitution in Central Asia that transformed Kyrgyzstan from a presidential republic into a parliamentary government. The prime minister henceforth is the key player, with the power to appoint the heads of local administrations and ministers without the president’s consent. Notably, these constitutional amendments were lobbied for by supporters of Atambaev – having renounced the presidency, he is not considering renouncing politics altogether. Hence his interest in a new president from among his entourage.
Putin will obviously ask his Kyrgyz colleague about his forecast for the November elections. However, the main thrust of the discussions will concern the relationship between Russia and Kyrgyzstan, including the following three interrelated issues: 1) strategic military partnership; 2) economic relations; and 3) integration into the framework of the EEU.
There are no major disagreements with regard to the first item. The mutual understanding is documented by the agreement concerning the status and conditions governing the deployment of Russia’s military base, which was signed in 2013 and came into force in early 2016. Russia pays Kyrgyzstan a yearly fee of $4.5 million for the deployment of its air force in Kant. The agreement’s term is 15 years, and it may be automatically extended unless either party objects.
Russia supplies Kyrgyzstan with weapons and provides training for its military. These measures are designed to counter potential threats – as minimal as they may be – and any possible instability incited by religious extremism.
With regard to the second item, economic relations are not as encouraging. Kyrgyzstan expects a closer collaboration, essentially greater assistance from Russia. It is well known that certain extremely important mutual projects are still unrealised and will probably remain so. Kyrgyzstan cancelled an agreement with Russia, signed in 2012, regarding the construction of the Kambarata-1 Hydro Power Plant, with a $3 billion investment from Russia, which it relinquished due to its own financial problems. Rosneft withdrew from involvement in the reconstruction of Manas, Kyrgyzstan’s major airport. Russia is also undertaking measures to constrain the re-exportation of ‘grey market’ Chinese goods from Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan has a negative trade balance with Russia. The value of Kyrgyz imports from Russia surpassed the value of Kyrgyz exports to Russia by $1.84 billion. The list of Kyrgyzstan’s economic ‘inconveniences’ is extremely long.
Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, visited Bishkek in June 2016. Six agreements for the development of economic cooperation were signed during his visit, but according to some Kyrgyz independent experts, these agreements simply serve as a framework and have no binding character.
These bilateral negotiations are directly linked to Kyrgyzstan’s involvement in the EEU, Russia’s integration project. No one in Bishkek is seriously against it. However, it is still not effectual and contributes no real benefits. The head of the Eurasian Analytical Club, Nikita Mendkovitch, indicates that once Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU, it had to adjust its economic policies, ‘find a replacement for its re-export by creating actual production conditions, and adapt to the requirements of the new market’. Unfortunately, this is not materialising, and no one knows how, when, and by what means it may happen.
The only possible concrete benefit for Kyrgyzstan is the free access of its migrants – numbering some 574,000 in 2016 – to Russia. It should be noted, however, that the remitted earnings for the past two years represent a drop of more than $1 billion on previous years.
It is highly doubtful that the major issues surrounding the bilateral economic cooperation and integration will be resolved by Vladimir Putin’s visit in February (which is merely routine), and that the major contender for the presidency will not become any clearer. However, Russia’s president will definitely give voice to certain weighty statements that Bishkek cannot ignore.