When The New York Times misidentified Kyrgyzstan as Kyrzbekistan in a January 2015 piece, the inadvertent blunder went viral. Soon, the “new state” had a fictitious national anthem, faux flag, and fake Facebook and Twitter accounts. Not only did the mishap overshadow the story, but it also revealed the West’s lack of awareness about newly independent post-Soviet Central Asian countries.
Since its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been dubbed an island of democracy in Central Asia. In reality, about one million voters (almost every fourth eligible citizen) were reportedly deprived of the right to vote in the 2015 elections due to technical errors in biometric registration. Freedom House scores Kyrgyzstan as only a “partly free” country.
Despite this, relative to its Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan is still the freest country in the region. Antithetically, this pluralism may have proven to be a detriment to Washington’s foreign policy interests, resulting in growing distance and distrust in Kyrgyz-U.S. relationship. Two main sources drive this relationship gap: the United States’ policy of promoting democracy in Middle Eastern and post-Soviet countries, as well as Central Asian leaders’ increased exposure to Russian language Moscow-based alternative media sources on real motives of the United States in the region. Both of these issues seem to increase Central Asian leaders reservations in establishing closer ties with the United States.
The U.S.-Kyrgyz standoff dates back to 2006, when U.S. soldier Zachary Hatfield shot and killed an ethnically Russian-Kyrgyz citizen, Aleksandr Ivanov, at a U.S. airbase in Manas. Despite Bishkek’s demand that the United States lift Hatfield’s diplomatic immunity and hand him over for trial, the United States offered Ivanov’s family $2,000 in compensation, “an act widely viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a calculated insult.”
Ultimately, Ivanov’s wife accepted a goodwill payment of $55,000, which allowed Hatfield to depart Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. State Department explained “it cannot and will not suspend the legal and constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to advance another foreign policy objective.” However, as a result of the debacle, the then-U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan warned of disturbing trends in local opinions of the United States. Many Kyrgyz citizens ridiculed the notion that one could “hunt a Kyrgyz man for $1,000, but required $15,000 to hunt a mountain goat (the cost of a hunting license).”
The closure of Manas Air Base also symbolized the United States’ diminishing support in Kyrgyzstan and the triumph of Russia in Central Asian affairs. The U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s reacted by claiming, “Russia bribed Kyrgyzstan to kick the U.S. off its military base.” Pamela Spratlen, U.S. Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic, further couldn’t conceal her irritation, noting Kyrgyz President Atambayev’s increasingly strong partnership with Putin, which resulted in “the closure of the United States military presence at the Transit Center at Manas International Airport, while Russia retains its Kant Air Base outside of Bishkek.”
U.S.-Kyrgyz relations also weakened as a result of Washington’s support for the 2011 Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission (KIC) report that found that the Kyrgyz military and police failed to intervene – and may have in fact been complicit – in interethnic violence against Uzbeks, which left scores dead and included instances of gang rape and torture. The Kyrgyz parliament rebuffed the report and declared the KIC’s chair, Kimmo Kiljunen (a Finnish diplomat and special envoy of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly for Central Asia), persona non grata.
The Commission also questioned why the military surrendered its ammunition to the mob, in violation of Kyrgyz Army rules. The KIC even recommended renaming the Kyrgyz Republic to Kyrgyzstan as a way of encouraging reconciliation and of enhancing inclusiveness among ethnic groups. Interestingly, an unclassified, confidential report written to Hillary Clinton by attorney and human rights lawyer Scott Horton went so far as to claim that “police and army leaders directed the pogroms.” In his June 2015 visit to the region, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also called for a full and impartial investigation into past human rights violations in Kyrgyzstan.
The U.S. State Department dealt its final blow to U.S.-Kyrgyz relations when it awarded Azimjon Askarov a Human Rights Defender Award in July 2015, after he was sentenced to life in prison in Kyrgyzstan for his alleged involvement in interethnic violence in Osh and Jalalabad. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, in an extensive note, protested: “How could the same U.S. government honor both interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who established national unity, and a criminal who openly incited ethnic hatred?”
However, a number of scholars, including Philip Shishkin, whose field research focused on Kyrgyz-Uzbek unrest, questioned this characterization of Askarov, asking if a modest Uzbek artist and “grandfather with a record of helping victims of violence really have instigated the savage execution of a policeman?” The honor bestowed on Askarov culminated in Kyrgyz’ authorities defensively claiming that the United States was attempting to rekindle separatist tendencies in southern Kyrgyzstan – which would threaten the territorial integrity and unity of the country.
Kyrgyz promptly protested, denouncing its bilateral agreement to receive US assistance. The note was given to U.S. diplomat Richard Miles, who was appointed to serve as Charge d’affaires of the American Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Miles was portrayed in the local media as a perpetrator of the color revolutions in Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine. The Russian-sponsored Sputnik News featured an undated and unverified photo of Miles walking in front of a scene of houses engulfed in flames, implying that his appointment threatened Kyrgyzstan’s integrity. Bishkek’s increasing distance from the United States also stems from Kyrgyzstan’s presence in Russian information and media.
According to a 2014 Gallup survey, 79% of Kyrgyzstanis approve of the Russian government’s policies, constituting Russia’s second highest approval rate in the world, following Tajikistan. Despite prevailing pro-Kremlin perspectives, Bishkek refrains from fully entering Moscow’s politico-ideological orbit. This summer, however, Kyrgyzstan will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Urkun. Urkun, which involved a mass exodus and over a hundred of spontaneous protest riots of the mass population throughout contemporary Central Asia against the Russian colonial rule, was triggered by the Tsar Nicholas II’s notorious 1916 decree on World War I conscription, and consequent mortal escape of locals to Afghanistan and China.
There are few credible statistics of the casualties, which have been estimated at up to several hundred thousand deaths, but the conflict clearly resulted in a disproportionate change in the demographic makeup of the population and the easing of Russian control of large swaths of land in Central Asia. Recently, an independent public commission in Kyrgyzstan demanded that Urkun be categorized as a genocide and urged Russia to pay out retributions. The commission called for Vladimir Putin and Speaker of State Duma to personally visit Bishkek and ask for forgiveness from the Kyrgyz people. In response, a Counsellor at the Russian Embassy in Kyrgyzstan called the commission a “mere meager club” and lambasted its chair.
In this regard, Eric McGlinchey, Associate Professor at George Mason University, concludes that “U.S. policymakers confront a paradox in Eurasian politics: more pluralistic Kyrgyzstan’s turn toward nationalism is more prone than the region’s solidly authoritarian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to ethno-nationalist violence with problematic implications for U.S.-Kyrgyz relations.”
As the political temperature heats up with the spring and summer seasons in the East, concerns mount that Urkun commemorations may exacerbate already strained inter-ethnic relations in the Kyrgyz Republic. According to some analysts, Kyrgyzstan has already entered a precarious path of permanent chaos and these perturbations might be far from over.
The bottom line is that recent developments in Kyrgyzstan raise a fundamental question: will more freedom and pluralism in Central Asia give rise to developments counterproductive to U.S. aspirations for improved relations? Perhaps it is for these reasons that the realist decision-makers in Europe and the United States still face the dilemma of whether or not to support authoritarian regimes over more democratic states in Central Asia. While these authoritarian regimes lack freedom and pluralism, they consistently strive to curb ethnically driven hostilities in order to maintain stable, working diplomatic relations – while still maintaining balance of power in the region.