Authorities in Kyrgyzstan are trumpeting a set of strategic accords to be signed by Moscow and Bishkek this fall as the end to a period of fraught bilateral relations. But observers say the terms are still vague, suggesting mutual wariness as both sides again defer substantive decisions.
The two countries reached a preliminary consensus on energy cooperation, Russian military installations in Kyrgyzstan, and debt repayment during Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov’s August 14-15 visit to Cholpon-Ata, local media reported. Critically for Kyrgyzstan, Moscow has again offered to help with the long-stalled Kambarata-1 hydroelectric dam project and to write off two-fifths of Kyrgyzstan’s roughly $500 million debt. In return, Bishkek has promised Moscow a 15-year extension on its military facilities in the Central Asian country after the current lease expires in 2017.
Any deal is also expected to address Dastan, a Soviet-era torpedo factory in Bishkek. While Kyrgyzstan has previously offered shares in the company in exchange for debt forgiveness, Russian newspaper Kommersant claimed on August 23 that the facility will now be opened up to auction, in a move reflecting its age and declining military value to Moscow. Others believe the Kremlin is seeking an increased stake, from the 48 percent it sought previously to 75 percent.
The package of deals dates back almost four years. In February 2009, former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev secured a $300 million loan from Moscow, intended for the construction of Kambarata-1. When the loan apparently vanished into an investment fund headed by Bakiyev’s son Maxim, relations between the two countries soured. Bad turned to worse after Bakiyev backtracked on his promise to evict US forces from the Manas airbase that summer, a threat many analysts believe had been encouraged by Moscow. Less than eight months later, the Bakiyevs were deposed in violent street demonstrations, which also got some goading from Moscow. “Bakiyev and his people played a rather dishonest game with Moscow,” says Dmitry Alexandrov, deputy director of the Central Asia section at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research in Moscow. This month’s agreements on debt annulment and Kambarata-1 represent the product of over two years of tense diplomatic back and forth aimed at restoring trust, Alexandrov says. “Mostly these are agreements that should have been fulfilled almost four years ago.”
Its bitter experience with the Bakiyevs appears to have encouraged the Kremlin to play hardball. Russian sources have said Moscow is now pushing for its state-controlled companies – including Inter RAO and RusHydro – to have a 75-percent stake in the Kambarata-1 project. Kambarata-1 (not to be confused with the smaller Kambarata-2, partially put into operation in 2010) would help end frequent blackouts and move Kyrgyzstan closer to self-sufficiency in the energy sector. Officials hope the project, started in 1986 but stalled after the Soviet collapse, could make Kyrgyzstan a net electricity exporter. The Kyrgyz are said to want the facility to produce 1.9 gigawatts of electricity, while Russian media say Moscow is now offering a capacity of less than half that.
When contacted by EurasiaNet.org, a foreign affairs official in Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s office refused to discuss Kambarata’s proposed shareholder structure, but noted that the deal should be signed “before the middle of September.” The agreements discussed during Shuvalov’s visit represent “the joint commitment of the Kyrgyz and Russian sides to mutually beneficial strategic cooperation,” the official added.
Yet Valentin Bogatyrev, coordinator at Perspective, a think-tank in Bishkek, argues that the August negotiations were more significant for what they didn’t achieve. Most decisions were again “deferred,” he says, adding that Moscow’s controlling stake will make Kambarata’s construction “dependent on the dynamics of the Russia-Uzbekistan relationship, not the Russia-Kyrgyzstan relationship.”
Indeed, downstream Uzbekistan, fearing the project will give Kyrgyzstan and Russia control over the Syr Darya watershed, which is crucial for its agriculture sector, remains virulently opposed to Kambarata. Many believe Moscow is using the project to coerce Tashkent back into its orbit. (Uzbekistan pulled out of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, this summer.)
In a further sign that the negotiations in August were thorny, Kyrgyz officials have been coy about Russia’s continued military presence. Moscow reportedly sought a 49-year-lease for its four military facilities in Kyrgyzstan; the parties agreed to a 15-year lease starting in 2017. Yet an Atambayev representative told local media that the agreement may not actually be signed until 2017 – light years away in Kyrgyzstan’s boisterous political system.
Bogatyrev of Perspective says that Bishkek’s decision to delay signing the basing extension “speaks volumes” about the current state of bilateral relations.
And Kyrgyzstan’s ongoing political instability will hardly fill Russia with confidence, says Osmonakun Ibraimov, who served as a state secretary under Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev. In particular, the issue of the remaining $300 million debt is likely to stoke tensions in coming years. “There is still some way to go before harmony,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The only thing that keeps the negotiations alive, Ibraimov says, is that Kyrgyzstan and Russia need each other: “Kyrgyzstan because it has no money; Russia because it fears losing [influence in] Central Asia altogether. A certain amount of strategic cooperation is therefore forced on them."
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.