The Ukrainian crisis has had wide-reaching consequences, impacting countries as distant and remote yet strategic as Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry recently released a statement condemning former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich for his comments March 11 that he still considers himself Ukraine's leader. It may seem odd that Kyrgyzstan would weigh in on events occurring several thousand miles away, but there are more connections and parallels between the two countries than one might think.
One of the primary effects of the crisis in Ukraine is the growing polarization between two blocs that emerged out of the former Soviet Union. One bloc comprises countries such as Georgia and Moldova that seek increased ties with the West as part of their efforts to stand up to Russia. The other bloc comprises countries like Belarus and Armenia that eschew ties with the West in favor of increased ties with Russia.
Kyrgyzstan falls in the latter bloc. It began increasing its already substantial economic ties with Russia in recent years, formally applying to join Russia's Customs Union, Moscow's rival economic grouping to the European Union, in hopes of accession within the next two years. Kyrgyzstan also sold state energy firm Kyrgyzgaz to Russia's Gazprom in 2013 for a symbolic $1 in exchange for a write-off of the company's $40 million debt, and Russian oil giant Rosneft is in the process of purchasing Bishkek Oil Co., the country's largest oil and gasoline distributor.
Kyrgyzstan has also strengthened ties with Russia on the security front. It is a loyal member of Russia's Collective Security Treaty Organization and hosts a Russian military base at Kant. Kyrgyzstan also leases an air base at Manas to the United States, but in a move heavily influenced by Moscow it recently decided against renewing its lease. The base will formally close in July, leaving Russia as the only foreign country with a substantial military presence in Kyrgyzstan.
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Despite these strong economic and security ties, Kyrgyzstan has not been a dependable ally to Russia on the order of Armenia and Belarus. This is because of Kyrgyzstan's fractured domestic political landscape. Like Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan is bitterly divided. Given its mountainous geography and fractious north-south political divide, Kyrgyzstan is prone to political and security instability. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two revolutions in the past 10 years — the second one resulted in the overthrow of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010.
Since then, the country has experienced a political evolution that could serve as a warning of what may lie ahead in Ukraine. Following its 2010 revolution, Kyrgyzstan transitioned from a presidential to a parliamentary system, reducing the power of the presidency. This was designed to prevent power grabs and unchecked consolidation by a strong executive, which had been a major cause of the unrest that eventually forced two presidents out of power.
But the change has not eliminated political volatility. The parliament now sees even more intense infighting between the political groups that represent northern and southern interests. The past four years have been marked by shifting coalitions and new prime ministers, while the current president, Almazbak Atambayev, remains a powerful — though not unchecked — figure. The post-revolution period has also spawned greater civic involvement, frequently manifesting as demonstrations to air grievances with the government. Kyrgyzstan has seen regular protests over a number of issues, including north-south political tensions, security crackdowns on supposed Islamist militants and foreign involvement in the country's mining industry.
So far, these protests have been relatively contained and have not sparked a third revolution. The current government knows it still must be extremely cautious with regard to popular sentiment and the political opposition (which has recently formed a new coalition called the United National Movement) or risk suffering the fate of the two previous administrations. In this context, the government's calling Yanukovich illegitimate stands out.
Ukraine's recent presidential ouster parallels the Kyrgyz experience. Bakiyev, the former Kyrgyz president, remains in exile in Belarus, where he is rumored to be a major instigator of protests and clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan, a difficult place for the northern-led government to control. Atambayev is concerned that a scenario in which Yanukovich remains active in Ukrainian politics could set a precedent allowing Bakiyev to continue undermining Kyrgyzstan's shaky political and security situation.
While Kyrgyzstan's statement regarding Yanukovich consequently makes sense, it is bound to create frictions between Bishkek and Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the current government in Kiev illegitimate and, contradicting the Kyrgyz position, said Yanukovich is still legally the leader. While Moscow is well aware of the tenuous state of Kyrgyzstan's stability, it is also crucial for Putin to maintain a united front of former Soviet states against what Russia perceives as Western encroachment.
But Kyrgyzstan is not re-evaluating its fundamental relationship with Russia like the new government in Ukraine is. The West's ties and ability to influence Kyrgyzstan are much more limited than they are in Ukraine, and Russia's position in the country is even stronger than it is in Ukraine. Ultimately, Kyrgyzstan's internal problems could be the biggest obstacle to further integrating with Russia, making it an unreliable partner for Russia and a potential weak spot in its alliance system.