As politicians in Kyrgyzstan vie to form the next government in Bishkek, it seems the path to power goes through Moscow. Russian leaders, however, appear to be nervous kingmakers. The chief concern in the Kremlin is that Kyrgyzstan’s new constitution, which transforms the Central Asian state into a parliamentary democracy, will produce governmental gridlock.
Since Kyrgyzstan’s October 10 elections, all signs indicate that Russia is exerting tremendous influence over the shaping of Kyrgyzstan’s incoming government. Leaders of four of the five parties entering the new parliament, for example, flew to the Russian capital for secretive consultations in the days following the vote. The visits seemed to offer tacit acknowledgement that a Kyrgyz politician needs the Kremlin’s seal of approval to have any hope of leading the governing coalition.
Of the four Kyrgyz leaders who went to Moscow, two of Russia’s favorites, former prime ministers and archrivals Felix Kulov of Ar-Namys and Almazbek Atambayev of the Social Democratic Party (SDPK), are both angling for the prime minister’s post. Also hoping for the top job is Respublika’s Omurbek Babanov, who has strong business ties to Moscow and has pledged that any coalition partner of his “must acknowledge that Russia is the main economic partner of Kyrgyzstan.”
Babanov claimed he would not work with “nationalist” parties, but the most prominent of those, Ata-Jurt, turned out to be the top vote getter. Meanwhile, Ata-Jurt’s leaders have publicly endorsed the lasting presence of Russian military facilities in Kyrgyzstan, while also hinting that the American lease at the Manas Transit Center might not deserve renewal.
Between them, the men who went to Moscow – Kulov, Atambayev, Babanov and Ata-Jurt co-chair, former prosecutor general Myktybek Abdyldayev – stand to control 101 seats in the 120-seat parliament. In setting up lines of communications with all of them, the Kremlin is thus keeping its options open.
“The main thing is not control, but to ensure that the Kyrgyz government is predictable,” said veteran Kyrgyzstan observer Alexander Knyazev, long seen as close to the Kremlin, of the Institute for Political Solutions in Almaty.
Details from the various closed-door meetings in Moscow between Kyrgyz political leaders of Kremlin officials are unlikely to become public. But it is clear that even if Russian leaders haven’t yet settled on a preferred prime ministerial candidate, they know what party they don’t want in the new government. That would be Ata-Meken, a pro-Western party that is a prominent in the current provisional government. Ata-Meken’s leader, Omurbek Tekebayev, has been conspicuous in his absence from Moscow during the post-election period. And during the election campaign, Russian media outlets carried reports that did substantial damage to Ata-Meken’s political standing, including the broadcast of television footage of a man identified as Tekebayev cavorting with a young woman.
“Moscow worked against us,” the party’s deputy chairman, Ravshan Djeyenbekov, told EurasiaNet.org. The other parties, he said, “have been managed by the Kremlin, and the Kremlin will decide what the coalition will be.”
Kyrgyzstan’s experiment with parliamentary democracy – provided for in the new Kyrgyz constitution ratified in June, and famously dubbed a “catastrophe” by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – is what has Moscow on edge.
The upheaval of the past half-year – first, the collapse of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration in April, followed by the inter-ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in June – put Russia in an awkward diplomatic position. Moscow’s refusal to intervene to end the June violence, though perhaps prudent from a political standpoint, undermined an image the Kremlin is keen to project – that Russia is Central Asia’s main power broker. Under the Kremlin’s way of thinking, the unwillingness to intervene could be taken as a sign of weakness that emboldens geopolitical rivals, suggested Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“When they [Russian leaders] don’t act, it may send the message that Russia is weak, inviting others to step in and register Russia’s weakness,” Trenin said.
Getting a viable, competent and pliant governing coalition in place in Bishkek is thus a top priority for Russian leaders. Moscow’s main worry isn’t connected with the political reliability of the incoming cabinet, but with its ability to function properly, Trenin indicated. Parliamentary democracy may prove too unwieldy for Kyrgyzstan, given the present circumstances. “A crisis in Kyrgyzstan is the last thing Moscow wants. The problem I think with this new system of governance is that they [Russian leaders] suspect it may turn into an institutionalized crisis,” Trenin told EurasiaNet.org.
Knyazev pointed out that Kyrgyzstan’s location makes it vital to the Kremlin’s regional interests in at least two ways. First, it “plays the role of buffer zone against [security] threats coming from the south.” And second, Kyrgyzstan is an upstream country in a region where “whoever controls the hydropower situation in upriver zones […] will have an influential lever over Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.”
On a geopolitical level, Russia sees its influence in Kyrgyzstan as a key to checking the expanding economic influence of China. In addition, Russia is keen to gain the upper hand in its strategic rivalry with the United States: Kyrgyzstan is the only country that hosts both Russian- and American-operated military facilities.
“The Russians want to be recognized by the United States as the de facto strategic hegemon in the area. In other words, before you stop at Bishkek or elsewhere in the region, you go to Moscow. You go to Moscow to solve the big issues and you go to Bishkek, or elsewhere, to fix the details. That’s the ideal formula from the standpoint of the Russian establishment,” Trenin said.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.