The diplomatic dispute has been brewing since the United States announced July 14 that it would grant the Human Rights Defender Award, an annual honor given by the State Department for human rights activists around the world, to Azimzhan Askarov, along with the Venezuelan nongovernmental organization Foro Penal. In an official press release, the State Department applauded Askarov's efforts to "monitor police brutality" and to uncover "abuse that resulted in prosecutions of officials" during ethnic riots in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. The Kyrgyz government immediately spoke out against the decision, referring to Askarov as a criminal who "incited ethnic hatred" and stating that he was fairly convicted by courts for crimes of organizing mass unrest and complicity in the murder of a law enforcement official.
Because of the dispute, the Kyrgyz government renounced a cooperation agreement with the United States, known as the Bilateral Agreement, on July 22. Signed in 1993, the agreement provides certain U.S. organizations that operated in Kyrgyzstan, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, with tax and customs privileges, while also granting U.S. nationals involved in aid projects with status and immunity equal to that of diplomats. Washington warned Bishkek that the decision could force it to withdraw its financial assistance, though U.S. officials subsequently said that no such actions would be immediately taken. Nevertheless, the Kyrgyz government said the Bilateral Agreement would no longer be valid between the two countries as of Aug. 20, and on July 27 Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev blamed the United States for creating "controlled chaos" in Kyrgyzstan and purposefully undermining the stability of the country.
This is not the first diplomatic dispute between Kyrgyzstan and the United States. Tension arose periodically between the two countries over the Manas air base, a key logistical military facility Kyrgyzstan granted access to the United States and its NATO allies for their military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz government, both under the country's first post-Soviet President Askar Akayev and his successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev, frequently threatened to close the base, only to retract after the United States agreed to pay more to rent it. However, diplomatic tension peaked when President Atambayev formally discontinued the U.S. lease of the base in June 2014, despite U.S. requests to maintain its presence.
The Broader Standoff
Such actions can be viewed in the context of the competition between the United States and Russia over the former Soviet periphery, including Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has long been a contested area of influence between Russia and the United States — it is the only country in the world to have hosted both a Russian and a U.S. military base on its territory (with Russia's Kant air base located just 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, from Manas). Kyrgyzstan was also part of the wave of Western-supported "color revolutions" in the former Soviet Union, with the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005 overthrowing Akayev. Russia subsequently supported a revolution against Akayev's successor, Bakiyev, in 2010, making Kyrgyzstan one of the most politically volatile and geopolitically contested countries in the former Soviet space.
However, since the April 2010 revolution and the ethnic riots that followed in southern Kyrgyzstan two months later, after which Moscow beefed up its security presence in the country, the Kyrgyz government has firmly been entrenched in the Russian camp. Kyrgyzstan's official closure of the Manas air base just a few months after the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine was seen as evidence of this relationship. Kyrgyzstan integrated with Russia in the economic and security realms as well, serving as a member of Russia's Eurasian Economic Union, which was finalized in May 2015, and Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance.
While these actions have earned the Kyrgyz government political backing and financial support from Russia, they have conversely created more friction between Bishkek and Washington. Kyrgyzstan’s reaction to the U.S. decision to grant the human rights award is only the most recent development of extensive diplomatic tension between the two countries. And though the United States may not explicitly intend the move to undermine the Kyrgyz government, Atambayev and other Kyrgyz officials are publicly signaling that they see it that way. Because of Kyrgyzstan's history of political volatility influenced by outside powers and its close ties with Russia, Bishkek cannot be certain that such actions are not intended to destabilize the country.
Atambayev has so far been more effective in maintaining order among Kyrgyzstan's clans and competing political factions than his predecessors. A weakening economy and upcoming parliamentary elections in October, however, are concerns in an already unstable environment. Like Russia, Kyrgyzstan often views U.S. efforts to support pro-democracy and human rights groups as a cover for undermining the government, particularly while Bishkek grows closer to Moscow. It is a sensitive time for Bishkek to squeeze certain U.S. operations, as domestic instability and geopolitical competition are recurring features for Kyrgyzstan.