A look on Kyrgyzstan celebrating its 27 years of independence
Paper in English
Kyrgyzstan celebrated its twenty-seven years of independence following the end of the Soviet Union. Over the past three decades, the country located in the heart o Central Asia has gone through difficult economic and political times. Bruno Husquinet has talked to Talant Sultanov, director of the Center for Strategic Initiatives and former advisor to the exPrime Minister Sapar Isaakov. In this captivating interview, Talant Sultanov elaborates on the internal situation, on the relation between Bishkek and it Russian and Chinese neighbours, as well as with the United States and Europe. Hetackles as well the delicate issue of young radicalised Kyrgyz who have joined the Islamic State.
© Samat Durusbekov
Former president Askar Akaev dominated the scene from 1991 until 2005 when he was toppled during the Tulip revolution. Kurmanbek Bakiev took the leadership of the country until 2010 when he was ousted and replaced by a temporary Government led by Roza Otunbaeva. Eventually, Almazbek Atambaev was elected and remained in power until November 2017 when Sooronbay Jeenbekov became the fifth president of the Kyrgyz Republic. One of his first decisions was to dismiss the dynamic Prime Minister Sapar Isakov and his cabinet. Although elected with an overwhelming majority, the PM was dismissed after a vote of no confidence after few months. Is political stability at sight in the Kyrgyz political landscape?
Political stability depends on popular support. Almazbek Atambaev wanted to establish a political system that people trusted and one of his objectives was to establish a transparent electoral system. In 2015, a biometrics system was successfully tested on parliamentary elections, and has since been used during parliament, presidential and municipal elections. Technology has played its part to support the political will for more transparency. In the past, elections were contested, followed by protests and violence, eventually undermining political credibility of the elected. In Kyrgyzstan today, preliminary results are provided instantly and data is credible. Unlike some countries with results peaking high, results in Kyrgyzstan match those in developed countries.
The democratic road for Kyrgyzstan was bumpy, but even if the street kicked out two presidents, we witnessed afterwards that two presidents left after their terms without attempting to introduce constitutional changes and remain in place. We had also a woman president. An important fact that defeats preconceived ideas about our country. The Kyrgyz President is elected directly by the people and the reform of the system divides clearly between the role of the President and the Prime Minister. Today, the Parliament is fully controlled by the Presidential Administration and has also strong influence over the Prime Minister’s office. So, we are observing some changes indicating that we revert back to a strong presidential system. In 2020, new elections will be held and I believe that the people’s barometer will give us good indications on the health of our political situation.
What is clear today, is that nobody wants to experience violence again. During the 2010 revolution almost hundred died, followed by the ethnic clashes when another 600 hundred people died. The country went through painful moments and politicians realise that resorting violence is not an option. We are conscious that there is room for further improvement, especially in the judiciary system to establish a solid check and balance system, a milestone in democracies. If on the paper our judicial system fulfils all requirements, in reality it remains weak. Judges lack the necessary independence to do their job, partly because our legislative power is also weak. The parliament comprises many businessmen whose private interest is subdued to their civil responsibilities. To avoid harming their business, they will choose the path of least resistance. Conversely, to help their business flourishing, their decisions are not always guided by what is good for the country. For instance, the ex-Prime Minister is imprisoned on charges of embezzlement related to a Chinese project. Although, there was a call for independent inquiry, it will unlikely happen for the reasons I mentioned earlier. The prosecution argues that Sapar Isaakov back in 2013, as a 35-year old head of international affairs department in the Presidential Administration pushed through the Bishkek Heating Plan reconstruction. In fact, the Ministry of Energy initiated the project, an agreement was signed by then Prime Minister and 120-member Parliament ratified it. Yet, Isaakov is singled out in this case.
The Kyrgyz Republic was a dotation country under Soviet rhetoric, which means that most of its budget came from Moscow until 1991. Afterwards, Kyrgyzstan had to modernise its economy but many left abroad to seek job opportunities. Naturally, they went to Russia. In 2014, due to the economic sanctions against Russia, many lost their job and came back. Remittances stopped coming from Kyrgyz migrants. Could you tell us what is the economic situation and what measures are put in place by the Kyrgyz government to guarantee job creation and economic independence of the country?
Although independent since 1991, Kyrgyzstan remains economically dependent on Russia, its main trade and investment partner. The Kyrgyz population is roughly six million and a bit less than one million is working in Russia. Remittances constitutes as much as 30% of our GDP. These rough figures alone speak about our economic situation. Recently, Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEC) and Russia pledged funds to help Kyrgyzstan. The EEC offers labour opportunities, namely by easing the delivery of working permits.
The government should focus on job creation but at the moment, decision-makers privilege migration of workers and even promote migration. This short-termism solution to unemployment is dangerous. In Kyrgyzstan, education is free but if people leave to work on construction sites or restaurants in Russia, the state has no return on its education spending. In the longer run, our pension fund is not adapted to the situation. There is unfortunately little efforts to create jobs in Kyrgyzstan and support long-term employment strategies.
According to experts, 850 young people left Kyrgyzstan to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Some have even recently been sentenced to death by Iraqi court. Could you tell us more about the profile of these people and what are the current plans developed by the government to prevent radicalisation?
Allow me to first introduce a caveat here. Whilst nobody denies the fact that they held a Kyrgyz passport, investigation still has to demonstrate that they were actually Kyrgyz. Having said that, as the Islamic State is being defeated, the issue now focuses more on the disillusioned returnees. Seemingly, some have gone to other countries in the former USSR where they can pose as migrants and restart a life in a Russian-speaking environment. In Kyrgyzstan, the profile of the young people who joined IS defeats clichés, as we saw well-off people joining extremist groups. Authorities are still studying the phenomenon on which there is no quick fix. From some preliminary conclusion, it came out that many have been radicalised abroad in countries where they worked. Isolated and sometimes subject to racism, these migrant workers were vulnerable and constituted an easy target for recruiters.
Kyrgyz authorities have chosen an inclusive path and engage with religious groups, favouring dialogue to shaming. For example, the Tablighi Jamaat is not banned in Kyrgyzstan unlike in neighbouring countries.
Religious revivals gained momentum in the backdrop of soviet dismantle. Islamic charities and mosques are more present in the Kyrgyz landscape. To a large extent, they play a constructive role in preventing people to go the extremism path. This is why Kyrgyz authorities are engaging with them. For instance, a non-profit foundation Iman gives stipends to those wishing to receive formal religious education and becoming teachers.
The Kyrgyz Republic is at the crossroads between China and Russia. In the world-renown Kyrgyz markets in Osh and Bishkek, customers find products coming from these two countries and traders speak fluently Kyrgyz, Chinese and Russian. As you mentioned, Kyrgyzstan has joined the Eurasian Economic Union and hosts Russian military on its territory. Kyrgyzstan has thus very strong ties to Moscow and Bejing that are considered by the current American administration as two major threats to their national interests. How is the Kyrgyz Republic finding a balanced position between these powers?
Well, the United States interest for Central Asia has considerably dropped and Washington does not seem to consider the region as a priority anymore. Kyrgyzstan was of strategic relevance during the heat of the war in Afghanistan when Bishkek hosted a military base between 2001 and 2013. In 2002, Kyrgyzstan also allowed Russia to have military presence. For many years, Kyrgyzstan was one of the few countries in the world to host military bases of both the Russian Federation and a US-led coalition. The situation changed in 2013 when the US strategy operated a turn and decreased its presence in Afghanistan. The lease of the base expired and it was not renewed forcing the United States to close the base. For memories, Uzbekistan had asked the US to close their base in Khanabad as early as 2005. So, as you see, the relation between the US and Central Asia is a complex one. The US are trying to strike a balance between idealism on the one hand, with their support for democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech; and pragmatism on the other hand, by defending their energy and security interests. Nonetheless, they are still present and provide help through USAID and the Peace Corps, but definitely to a much lesser degree than before.
If we had to draw Chinese policy in one brush stroke, I would say that it consists in not antagonising Russia in Central Asia. Beijing acknowledges that the region is part of Russia’ near abroad and is a priority region for Moscow. China has been investing in Kyrgyzstan and exporting its products for a long time. The Chinese ExIm Bank is massively supporting the energy sector, upgrading power stations and lines. China is also instrumental in developing Kyrgyz transport infrastructure that connects Kyrgyzstan to China. In fact, Chinese OBOR concept started here long before it was made an official vision for economic development between China, Europe, Asia and Africa. Kyrgyzstan was a trade route for Chinese products to Central Asia and the rest of Eurasia, but the custom union between Kazakhstan and Russia put us in a dilemma. Not joining would have isolated us, facing the risk of high tariffs and losing our transit beneficial position. Joining the union would mean that we would be part of a large customs-free region, but losing some customs privileges in our trading relation with China. Eventually, Kyrgyzstan joined the union in 2015, which represents in my opinion, an overall positive decision in our economic relation with both China and Russia.
The European Union is present and interested in keeping good relation with Bishkek. In 2016, Brussels signed a trade preference system, called the Generalized System of Preferences or “GSP+” with the Kyrgyz Republic. How do you assess the Kyrgyz-European relation today?
Indeed, Bishkek and Brussels entered into a good trade agreement with the GSP+. In my terms at the government think tank NISS, we actively pushed for Kyrgyzstan to apply for this preferential trading status. This agreement offers the opportunity to export around 6000 items duty-free to Europe. We are mainly talking about two sectors: agriculture and textile. In itself the GSP+ is a special relation granted to countries whose democratic indicators score high. So, we read this agreement as a token of recognition for our efforts to change and reform our country. This is, let’s say, an encouraging gesture from the EU to help us transitioning. How much is it economically effective is a different question. Standards imposed by the EU are high and difficult to meet. Currently, Kyrgyz business struggles getting the necessary certifications to export to Europe. The process is long and tedious, often costly for Kyrgyz producers who prefer selling their goods on the local markets or in countries whose standards are less strict. Since those markets can largely absorb our production, incentive to invest and obtain necessary certifications are low. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan does not yet benefit fully from the EU opportunity offered by the GSP+.
In general terms, the relation with the European Union and European institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and the OSCE are good.
© Stephen Lioy, great photographer Kirghiz you can find his work on this website : http://www.stephenlioy.co
To close this interview on a light note, what does it mean for Kyrgyzstan to host the Nomad games?
(Smiling) The third world Nomad Games took place in September and the entire country cheered up the athletes. The fact that we successfully hosted the Nomad games speaks about our ability to hold such world event to which 77 countries participated. I believe that this happy event is an acknowledgement that our country is stable and that we can unite behind sports, simply enjoying our culture and life. The soft power of sports has proved to be a strong element in politics. On the sidelines of the games, the Turkic Council held a session during which a new Secretary General Ambassador Baghdad Amreyev took over the post. The leaders of several countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, Hungary and others participated in the Council meeting and/or in the World Nomad Games. As you see, the Nomad Games combined business and pleasure.
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