Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s state visit to China kicked off on June 6 as a political scandal linked to a Chinese-owned company raged back home.
Jeenbekov was due to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, ahead of the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization taking place this weekend in the port city of Qingdao.
Along with his trip to Moscow to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin in November, this will rank as Jeenbekov’s most important foreign visit since coming to office.
In a pre-trip interview to Xinhua news agency, Jeenbekov delivered the standard bromides about the ever-growing importance of relations between Bishkek and Beijing. But there are also some concerns back home about what these ties ultimately mean for Kyrgyzstan’s economic and political sovereignty, as evidenced by some shock arrests earlier in the week.
June 5 was an eventful day in Bishkek. Former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov and ex-Bishkek mayor Kubanychbek Kulmatov – two allies of Jeenbekov’s predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev – were placed under arrest in connection with ongoing corruption investigations.
Both investigations are linked to a deal that saw a Chinese company TBEA plow Chinese credits worth $386 million into the modernization of Bishkek’s main power plant. The same plant suffered a dramatic malfunction in the middle of an intensely cold winter, provoking considerable uproar.
Isakov is accused of lobbying on TBEA’s behalf, while investigators say Kulmatov misused a grant slated for social projects as part of the deal. A tense parliamentary inquiry into the power plant crash laid bare the sentiments of lawmakers who felt that leading officials had sold the country out.
A June 4 press briefing with Jeenbekov’s foreign relations chief, Daniyar Sydykov, betrayed presidential administration fears that the TBEA scandal might cast a pall over the China trip.
The investigation into the power plant is “an internal matter of Kyrgyzstan and one should not project this onto Kyrgyz-Chinese relations,” Sydykov told journalists.
Nevertheless, the matter was hinted at in the otherwise upbeat interview that Jeenbekov gave to Xinhua. Responding to a question about protections for Chinese investors, he noted that investors themselves “need to observe norms and procedures … in order to ensure the supremacy of the law of the host country.”
TBEA is not the only China-related issue high on the Kyrgyz media agenda.
Another is a deal that will see China take out a free-of-charge, 49-year lease on the patch of land where its embassy stands. The territory was expanded somewhat following a 2016 suicide bomb attack that moved Beijing to put new security measures in place.
In exchange for China foregoing rent, Kyrgyzstan has been offered a new spot – much smaller than China’s – for its embassy in Beijing on like-for-like terms.
The agreement might have passed under the radar completely had the Bishkek city council not taken the surprising step of voting on May 30 to scupper the lease. Councillors objected that they had not been given enough time by the Foreign Ministry to consider the terms. They later approved it, however, and the deal should be tied up when Jeenbekov meets Xi.
Land and China make for an explosive combination for governments across Central Asia. Jeenbekov’s team is no doubt mindful that the anti-Beijing card could become a headache should it be exploited by his foes.
After all, the combustible Atambayev, the erstwhile ally he replaced, never wanted to give up office. It was only constitutional restrictions that prevented him from running and forced him, by way of a back-up option, to support Jeenbekov’s presidential campaign last year. After Atambayev publicly criticized his successor in no uncertain terms, it all began to go wrong. The arrests of Isakov and Kulmatov appear to mark the latest phase in this months-old standoff.
Under Atambayev, China emerged as Kyrgyzstan’s leading trade partner. Beijing currently holds nearly half of the country’s $4 billion debt. For these reasons, the long-time rabble-rouser would seem an unlikely purveyor of Sinophobic politics.
But Atambayev is full of contradictions. It was a Kyrgyz-language newspaper that has served as his mouthpiece during the conflict with Jeenbekov that gleefully jumped on the news of the embassy deal.
The Bishkek city council, Achyk Sayasat wrote on June 4, had caved “under pressure from the government.”
Atambayev had “reached a place where he spoke with leaders of neighboring countries on an equal footing. Never bend your knee. We believe President Sooronbai Jeenbekov will positively resolve this issue, and not give up a single meter of land,” the editorial crowed.
Whatever Kyrgyzstan’s new president gets out of his China trip, he will have to work hard to present it as a win.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.