With the ballot counting all but over in Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary vote, the results drive home the extent to which that Central Asian republic has resigned itself to a place in Moscow’s orbit.
All of the main parties reelected to parliament in the October 4 poll are pro-Russian. Their campaigns, which focused on economic and local issues, took it as a given that Kyrgyzstan’s best economic chances lie in close ties with Moscow. And voters seem to have agreed.
That makes Kyrgyzstan something of a paradox: the only democracy within the former Soviet Union that is willing to return Russia’s embrace.
But can democracy thrive in Russia’s shadow?
Already, the Kyrgyz parliament has shown an inclination to model proposed legislation on some of Russia’s most controversial restrictions. Deputies in the outgoing parliament introduced bills stigmatizing local nongovernmental organizations with funding from abroad as “foreign agents” and limiting the activities of gay-rights campaigners by banning the advocacy of nontraditional lifestyles.
Final approval of those bills was postponed until after these elections, but many Kyrgyz political analysts predict the new deputies will not only pass the existing bills but create more of their own.
“When it comes to legislation, I believe the policy of the repressive laws will continue,” Elmira Nogoibaeva, director of Polis Asia think tank in Bishkek, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.
But it needn’t end there, Nogoibaeva added, and might well come back to haunt the Kyrgyz public and officials alike.
“There will be a trend of utmost restrictions and repressive policies regarding general legislation, media [laws], and the like,” Nogoibaeva said. “I only wish that our politicians kept in mind that this is very dangerous for Kyrgyzstan; every attempt of the kind leads to a bad outcome.”
Russia’s influence in Kyrgyzstan has risen steadily since President Almazbek Atambaev last year fulfilled a promise he made to Moscow during his 2011 election campaign to end the U.S. presence at Manas air base.
Until the U.S. lease on Manas expired in 2014, the base had been Washington’s signature cooperative project with Bishkek as it supported U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan for 13 years. Now, it passes to the Russian military, which received the right to lease the base for 15 years beginning 2017 in exchange for Moscow writing off $500 million of Kyrgyz debts.
Manas is far from the only measure of Kyrgyzstan’s warmer ties with Russia.
In June, Bishkek pointedly rebuffed Washington by terminating a 1993 agreement on cooperation with the United States, just days after a U.S. decision to grant a prestigious human rights award to an imprisoned Kyrgyz activist.
And, in August, Bishkek fully cast its economic lot with Moscow by joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which also includes Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and which the Kremlin views as a counter to the European Union.
For many analysts, Bishkek’s steadily tighter embrace of Moscow has come as no surprise. One reason is geographic.
A poor country of 5.5 million people on the eastern end of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is far from world markets and depends heavily on Russia to stay afloat. All of the country’s gas imports come from Russia, many Kyrgyz work as migrant laborers in Russia, and Russia offers the best market for Kyrgyz exports, which are mostly agricultural.
Matteo Fumagalli, a professor at the Central European University in Budapest who specializes in Central Asia, said many Kyrgyz politicians see Russia as the best of a limited choice of partners.
Its other biggest neighbor, China, has shown little interest in Kyrgyzstan other than as a place to sell Chinese goods ranging from electronics to textiles while buying only natural resources in return.
“What politicians in Kyrgyzstan are concerned about is the seemingly endless economic expansion of China on the domestic market,” Fumagalli noted. “In that respect, preserving very good ties with Moscow could serve as a counterbalance.”
Bishkek hopes that joining the EEU will offer it a wider market for the farm products the vast majority of its citizens depend upon for a living. Moscow has reportedly offered Bishkek some $1.2 billion as part of a package to assist its entry into the EEU.
Meanwhile, the West has offered Kyrgyzstan few alternatives.
“While I can see what Russia has to offer and what China has to offer to Kyrgyzstan, I am slightly less sure exactly what the West — the European Union and the United States — have to offer and, in fact, if they are interested in offering anything concrete,” Fumagalli said.
But a closer relationship with Russia could also pose problems for Kyrgyzstan. Moscow has no experience working with democracies within its orbit and is far more comfortable with autocracies. That could mean pressure on Kyrgyzstan to conform more closely to Moscow’s own political values as the two countries’ relationship deepens.
The danger was highlighted ahead of the October 4 elections by the visit of close Kremlin media adviser Dmitry Kiselyov to Bishkek. Kiselyov, who heads state-owned media organization Rossiya Segodnya, met with local journalists on September 25 and urged them to “take a position” in their news reports about global and local events.
The position that Kiselyov’s own media outlets take in Russia is solidly pro-Kremlin, virulently anti-Western, and generally intolerant of opposition and human rights voices.
Emil Dzhuraev, assistant professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, expressed concern that Kyrgyzstan’s pro-Russian parties place little value on individual liberties and might do little to defend them.
“When it comes to bills on foreign agents, on issues of nontraditional [sexual] orientation, most of the potential members of the [future] ruling coalition — and others as well — their priorities on all these things are so low that they cannot be bothered less about where it all progresses to,” Dzhuraev said.
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty