Kyrgyzstan's default mode is Russia

About the author
Sureyya Yigit is a scholar at the International Ataturk Alatoo University in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The end of the US airbase at Manas airbase  was only one of the decisions announced at the recent meeting in Moscow between Kyrgyz President Bakiev and President Medvedev. Russia announced that they would give Kyrgyzstan  $2 billion in loans and $150 million in aid, as well as writing off debts of $180 million.

The background to these developments is not a happy one. The Kyrgyz elite never wanted independence, but ever since the leadership was forced to accept it, there has been a deep divide between them and the man on the street. One corrupt administration has been followed by another. Governments have been incompetent and the opposition disunited and ineffectual. The Kyrgyz government wanted to think that it could get itself a good deal by playing the unipolar power against the past superpower (which had forcefully occupied it).

The problem with this scenario has always been the Kyrgyz elite's extremely high level of dependency on Russia. Within this category we can include almost all the deputies in the national parliament as well as all high-level bureaucrats and intellectuals. They prefer to speak Russian rather than their own language. They find it easier to express themselves in an alien language. This is not their fault, as they were ‘educated', or rather ‘indoctrinated', under the Soviets. This ‘influence' has been reinforced in the last two decades or so. The elite have not thought to do anything to redress this situation as they do not regard it as a cultural imposition.

The elite continues to view the world through a Moscow-centric prism, as it did in the old Soviet days. Bishkek follows what the ‘party boss' says in Moscow. The only change is in the person of the big boss. The Bolshevik Party has been replaced by equally authoritarian political parties in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. But the relationship between the two remains that of master and slave.

The Kyrgyz elites continue to pursue the lifestyle imposed on them by the Russians. Their clothes, drinking habits, system of education, administration, law enforcement, military, civil code are stuck in the Soviet past. They receive their news from Russian television channels, read Russian language newspapers, correspond and speak in Russian.

There has been no concerted effort to change this and implement a ‘national' alternative. This is not surprising given the depth and scope of the indoctrination and dependency over the last century. So the recent decision by the Kyrgyz President to close down the American airbase should not come as a surprise.

Whether you call this ‘eastern cunning', a ‘balanced strategy' or a version of ‘multi-vector foreign policy', as neighbouring Kazakhstan would have it, the Kyrgyz President is simply trying to maximise his gains. Like any head of state, he is bargaining to get the best deal possible for the real estate of his capital's airport.

Bear in mind that the Kyrgyz Republic is the only country in the world to house both Russians and Americans airbases. Indeed, they are less than 100 kilometres apart! The main difference being that while the Americans are charged for their air base the Russians pay nothing for theirs as it comes under the umbrella security arrangements of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

For rent, not sale         

Some have accused the Kyrgyz of selling themselves to the Americans. This is very unfair as buying something like an apartment or car is for life, or for as long as it remains usable. But the Kyrgyz elite has only leased the Manas air base. They have ‘rented' it out, as one rents out an apartment or a car. When the lease runs out you fix a new rent or return it. This is the dilemma the Americans will soon face. From an American point of view, the Kyrgyz elite can never be bought, only rented for the duration. After that, they revert to their previous owners.

However, the local population does not share this view of their country's symbiotic relationship with the Russian Federation. There is a small and so far, silent minority that is aware of their historic origins as well as their culture, religion and language. They know that Joseph Stalin created the state of Kyrgyzstan. They do not support the continuation of the old Soviet status quo. They long for closer relations with the Turkic world, with their Islamic brethren as well as with democratic nations - in fact with any state other than authoritarian Russia.

Since the Kyrgyz Republic is not a democracy, neither the government nor parliament listens to this minority.  Criticism levelled at the elite does not apply to the ordinary citizens. They remain in the grip of a vast state apparatus which grows more corrupt all the time. This can be seen clearly in the realm of higher education where all but one or two institutions are rife with corruption. This does not bode well for the future, as these young minds are being conditioned to accept that corruption is the only means of advancement, the only way to survive and prosper.

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America will just have to pay up                    

America should not worry too much about President Bakiev's declaration, however. President Obama has publicly declared Afghanistan to be a primary foreign policy objective, and the Manas air base is crucial to achieve this objective. But  the U.S. is currently deliberating a financial stimulus package that runs into the hundreds of billions, close to a trillion dollars to kick-start the American economy so that it may speedily overcome the recession. The financial loan that the Kyrgyz president has been offered from Moscow is $2 billion. The rent the Americans pay for the Manas airbase is less than $200 million a year. Alternative bases exist in Eastern Europe and the Gulf region which will cost more than $200 million dollars.

Given the importance President Obama attaches to Afghanistan, the extra cost of relocating Manas airbase is not a large burden on the American taxpayer. If it wants to, Washington can match and surpass the loan Moscow offered. Right now Washington is weighing its options, like President Bakiev and the many other nations who are potentially willing to lease their territory for the ‘war on terror'.

The Corruption Factor

Many Kyrgyz regret to see a Turkic nation with a subservient Russophile leadership succumb to this carrot and stick approach from Moscow. The reason why the Kyrgyz Republic needs money so desperately is not just because of the global financial crisis but because of domestic corruption. The various financial packages it has received over the last few years having been frittered away, the country's dependence on remittances makes it extremely vulnerable.  This is why international institutions, except for the Russian Federation, are unwilling to lend to the Kyrgyz Republic. The Americans are not interested enough. The EU is too far away. The Turks are too weak and the Chinese do not pay much attention to the Kyrgyz Republic.

This leaves the Russian Federation free to emulate the strategy successfully employed by Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. This allowed a militarily and economically powerful state that was regionally feared to lock weaker states into its sphere of influence by offering them economic inducements. 

Had the Bakiev government really tried to deal with corruption it would have been in a better position  to face the present economic downturn.  If the Russian loan agreement goes ahead how much of the $2 billion will enter the real economy and how much will go into the pockets of the deputies and the president's cronies? When the Kyrgyz Parliament debates whether or not to support the President's initiative this question will be on the minds of international observers.

Whatever the outcome, what we are witnessing is the continuation of an aggressive Russian foreign policy activism in what its ‘near abroad' that began the day the Olympic Games began in 2008.

What about the rest of Central Asia?

Will this particular Russian strategy be successful in the rest of Central Asia? That rather depends on whether the Kyrgyz authorities do actually terminate the lease on Manas airbase. Even if this happens, there is little to suggest (apart from Tajikistan which is already within the Russian orbit) that the other three Turkic States will change their policies.

All three possess natural resources (Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in abundance). Turkmenistan still officially proclaims its ‘neutrality', though what this means in the current environment is unclear. But it has never obstructed Moscow in any major foreign policy venture and is unlikely to do so in the future.

The Uzbeks under their authoritarian leader Karimov, bend disproportionally towards the prevailing wind, whether this is a hurricane from the west or a gentle eastern breeze.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand treads very carefully due to its large Russian minority in foreign affairs and would find itself closer to the Russian orbit if the Kyrgyz implement what is being forced upon them.

We can only wait and see what the decision of the Kyryz parliament will be.

He is Founding Director: Social Science Research Centre,  International Ataturk Alatoo University,  Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.