U.S. – Kyrgyz Relations: Limiting Partnership?

By: Mirgul Karimova

Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State

When facing challenges, people tend to encourage each other and advise to eat healthfully, rest more, save money, and stop procrastinating to be able to see the silver lining. Maybe, there is such a recipe for satisfaction in intergovernmental partnerships as well? Or, are states destined not to parallel this thinking? The case of almost a quarter-century of cooperation between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan, at least, suggests that we are more volatile when it comes to politics, and are finding a delicate balance unachievable.

On Friday of July 17th, 2015, the Kyrgyz Government aired its decision to denounce its bilateral U.S.-Kyrgyzstan cooperation agreement, which was almost as old as the country itself. Such a radical turn was fired up by Washington’s bestowing of the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award, “given to individuals or non-governmental organizations that have shown exceptional valor and leadership in advocating for the protection of human rights and democracy”, on jailed activist Azimjon Askarov. Explaining the move, Bishkek stated its “great surprise and deep concern” about the U.S.’s choice for the award, as the person “was convicted and proven guilty by the justice system in all instances” in Kyrgyzstan. Standing for the supremacy of the law, the government perceived the U.S. decision as the one which “did not adhere to levels of cordial relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and could damage government efforts to strengthen interethnic harmony.” Also, the statement argued that U.S. actions were threatening peace and social stability in Kyrgyzstan, as Mr. Askarov “participated in organizing the June 2010 violence in southern Kyrgyzstan” which had left at least 200 people dead and thousands displaced.

The treaty signed by the governments in 1993, two years after Kyrgyzstan’s declaration of its independence, had important financial and diplomatic implications (full text here). Under the financial provisions, the agreement waived tariffs on all goods and services imported to Kyrgyzstan as part of U.S. aid programs and all non-Kyrgyz employees of the U.S. State Department implementing those programs were exempted from income, social security and other charges related to their assistance work in Kyrgyzstan. The diplomatic component proposed protections, codified by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, for all civilian and military personnel representing the U.S. government and present in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz Government’s statement on the denunciation of the 1993 Treaty, which could come into action on August 20, 2015, would threaten the overall content of cooperation, even if could not be called a complete ‘break off’ as the bilateral investment agreement would still stay in place, continuing diplomatic relations.

Unmet expectations

One of the most recent updates on U.S.-Kyrgyz relations was well described by Dr. Erica Marat in her work Two-Decades of U.S-Kyrgyz Relations, published by the Rethink Institute in 2013. The Wilson Center scholar highlighted the ups and downs of the two-decades of cooperation between the two states. Thus, the ’90s opened many venues for deepening dialogue, with Kyrgyzstan becoming a member in a number of international organizations (the UN, Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, OSCE, IMF, WB, WTO, and NATO), all of which the United States belongs to as well. Since then, the Central Asian country accomplished impressive results transforming into a democracy, supported by the U.S.. It would not be hard to argue that Kyrgyzstan represented the only island in the autocratic region, standing for the rule of law and respect for human rights which enabled the existence of a robust civil society and a relatively free media sector in the country.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks though, the U.S. focused more on the anti-terrorism campaign, viewing Kyrgyzstan as a zone to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. As cooperation over military and security issues prevailed, most of the U.S. development assistance programs in Kyrgyzstan were linked to the Republic’s agreement to host a U.S. airbase at Manas, the largest civilian airport in the country. Hurt by the 1998 financial crisis, a still transitioning Kyrgyzstan agreed to host the U.S. airbase in December 2001. At first, the military hub was welcomed by civil society, as Kyrgyzstanis saw a real protection from the possible spread of terrorism and religious extremism locally because of the base’s presence. However, the U.S.’s repetitive mishandling of delicate situations — going to war with Iraq, the stationing of a Russian base in Kant as a response to U.S. presence in the region, supporting the corrupted state management of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and the 2006 unpunished killing of Kyrgyz truck driver Alexander Ivanov by American soldier Zachary Hatfield — affected the moods of Kyrgyzstan’s residents and the United States’s image as real partner started fading away. By 2011, it became clear that the highly politically and economically significant agreement on Manas would not be renewed. The Transit Center (the new political reference for “the base” after  2009) at Manas would have to close by July 2014. Over its lifespan, the base served multiple purposes — a transit point for over 1,500 U.S. troops on their way to Afghanistan, a base for C-17 transport aircraft and for a fleet of KC-135 refueling tankers — and enabled U.S. tanker aircraft to conduct over 33,000 missions from Manas, refueling more than 135,000 aircraft.

The official withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the closure of the Transit Center at Manas in 2014, marked a new stage in U.S.-Kyrgyz relations: the two partners decided to continue their strategic cooperation, meeting annually for bilateral consultations. In April 2015, on the Third (consecutive) Joint Meeting in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry and Minister of Foreign Affairs Erlan Abdyldaev announced an increase to the validity of business and tourist nonimmigrant visas for citizens of both countries traveling to the United States/Kyrgyzstan from one year to five. It was hoped that the new development would be mutually beneficial as increased travel could lead to enhanced investment and expanded business cooperation. In addition, Kyrgyzstan could enjoy another opportunity to strive for inclusive democracy through “greater person-to-person interactions”, given the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2015 and presidential elections in 2017. However, after April 28, when the first multiple-entry five-year visas were issued, nationals of the Kyrgyz Republic started their protests in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek as in only one category (i.e. Summer Work & Travel) of cultural enrichment programs over 90 percent of applications for a U.S. visa received denials. According to some civil society activists, for the last nine years of Work and Travel program’s existence, widely commercialized by the Embassy, the U.S. Treasury gained more than $16 million from Kyrgyz applicants (due to the non-refundable $160 visa application fee), a sizable loss for a country with a $7.4 billion GDP.

Without a break, another diplomatic surprise occurred on July 16th, when the U.S. State Department selected activist Azimjon Askarov , imprisoned after the June 2010 interethnic (Kyrgyz-Uzbek) violence, as the Year 2014 Human Rights Defender, along with others from Venezuela. Mr. Askarov was accused of spreading the violence, filming and photographing the sufferings of only ethnic Uzbeks, whereas hundred and thousands of others were displaced by or became victims of the chaos as well. The investigations on causes of the violence and of the disturbing scenes has been ongoing since then. (Although, it had been concerning that the Kyrgyz government chose to have the public anger and dissatisfaction with unfair trials to cool down by itself, explaining its decision that further analysis could have triggered another clash between the ethnic lines.) Thus, Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken’s awarding of the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award to a person convicted by the Kyrgyz government elicited an emotional response in Bishkek and was received as a loud signal of disrespect to Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty and as an attempt to inflame the violent events of June 2010, which is hardly history to Kyrgyzstanis. The following day, Prime Minister Temir Sariyev announced Kyrgyzstan’s denunciation of the 1993 Treaty with the U.S.. The growing negativity in the partnership had served as a fertile environment for conspiracy theories – with a more recent one referring to the U.S. State Department’s provocative choice in appointing current Chargé d’Affaires ad Interim Richard Miles, given his background as “father of color revolutions” (having served as U.S. Ambassador in Tbilisi and Belgrade during the color revolutions there). At the time, the U.S. State Department released its annual Human Rights report (with this year’s drawing attention on the global issue of trafficking in persons), stressing the Kyrgyz Government’s insufficient compliance with the minimum standards for elimination of human trafficking and uncontrolled child labor.

It takes two hands to clap

The cause of the currently limiting partnership between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan may not be all one-way, of course. The permanent Russian presence in the dialogue, though economic and political pressures (with debt waivers and inexpensive loans) represented by its Customs Union or another model of integration, the Eurasian Economic Union, certainly have been guiding Kyrgyz foreign policy decisions. However, as a small landlocked country, Kyrgyzstan is destined to follow the multi-vectored (China, Russia, the United States, and Turkey) recipe there. And, obviously, “the aggressive break from cordial relations with Washington” would ensure a peak in the Moscow-led cooperation initiatives, even if the financial gaps created by such initiatives for the Kyrgyz economy were very tangible.

The U.S. Foreign Policy towards Kyrgyzstan failed to earn individualized attention. Even in the 1990s, the only “partly free” country in Central Asia often served as a point to promote inclusive democracy in the region. The last decade of partnership was linked to Kyrgyzstan’s acceptance of the U.S. Airbase at Manas International Airport. If the country agreed to host the base, it could gain around $40 million annually from USAID alone (supporting the Kyrgyz healthcare and education systems, agriculture and business), in addition to $60 million of annual rent. Thus, after 2001, U.S.’s security and military implications in Afghanistan overshadowed its direct partnership with Kyrgyzstan.

In 2012, along with Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz government signed a proposal on regional energy cooperation, CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia, 1000MW/year), as part of President Obama’s vision of the New Silk Road. Requiring $865 million only for the construction of 750km (or 466mi) of gridlines (from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the other two partnering states), the Project had neither been allocated funds (even if the launch was planned for 2014), nor did it create much optimism in national circles, (especially Kyrgyzstan’s) since the idea, when calculated, did not come out to be economically-viable and projected more security risks than other benefits. Nevertheless, in April 2015, at the Joint Annual (bilateral) Consultations in Washington, the United States reminded Kyrgyzstan about the latter’s initial support of the CASA-1000. The Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed an intent to host the next US-Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council Meeting in 2015. The upcoming month or two should show whether a consolidation and resolution to the abovementioned discrepancies in the U.S.-Kyrgyz relations would be achieved or not.

Beyond August 20th

Considering the protracted conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, it had been projected that the socio-economic well-being of Kyrgyzstan’s residents would continue to scale down throughout 2015. The Kyrgyz National Institute for Strategic Research confirmed that the money coming from direct and indirect investments, both from the U.S. and Russia, dropped in 2014 and continued its downslide into 2015. Such an apprehensive prognosis should have galvanized the Kyrgyz Government to re-visit its initial and strategically viable multi-vectored foreign policy. However, its July 17th announcement about the denunciation of the fundamental 1993 Treaty on adjusted cooperation between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan suggested a move in the opposite direction. Sometimes reliance on symbolism might cause a country not only diplomatic, but economic and political risks as well. It might have been that the U.S. State Department could not have expected that a single award to the state-prosecuted defender of human rights would induce such a radical reaction from its Kyrgyz colleagues. Now, it should comprehended the Kyrgyz Government’s increased vulnerability in anticipation of its October parliamentary elections and inability to pursue a delicate balance in foreign policy decision making with Moscow’s pressure reaching record highs.

On July 29th, Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs of the Department of State, met with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Askar Beshimov in Bishkek, resuming the discussion of the July 17th Kyrgyz government’s announcement on denunciation. Hopefully, the treetops will get their foreign policies straight prior to August 20th, when the Kyrgyz statement on renouncing the 1993 Treaty between the long-standing partners is expected to go in action. Otherwise, in the case of a different scenario, the grassroots — the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.8-million population — would be affected the most by a limited partnership.

pic_KarimovaMirgul Karimova is a former Fulbright Scholar and 2014 graduate of the Patterson School with an MA in International Security and Diplomacy. Prior to her studies, she joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in order to provide technical assistance to law enforcement agencies and advocate for community policing in the cross-border regions of Kyrgyzstan.

After the tragic events of June 2010 in southern Kyrgyzstan, Karimova was assigned by the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia (EFCA) to coordinate a peacebuilding project, working closely with youth and women in the affected cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in order to re-build trust between local Uzbek and Kyrgyz residents.

For feedback and opportunities, Mirgul Karimova can be reached at karimovam@gmail.com.


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