Kyrgyzstan’s leaders have been under fire in the Russian press of late, and some of the coverage has the unmistakable ring of a Kremlin warning shot.
President Sadyr Japarov’s dramatic rise to power nearly two years ago may have caught Russia off guard, but it did little to alter the status quo – Kyrgyzstan remains obsequious and loyal to its one-time colonial master.
The fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has seen Moscow and its surrogates become ever more exacting in their definition of loyalty.
Bishkek’s relative diplomatic caution regarding the war has gone down badly in Moscow’s pro-establishment media, which seem increasingly preoccupied with an as-yet unsigned accord governing Kyrgyzstan’s bilateral cooperation with the United States.
Kyrgyzstan tore up its last cooperation treaty with Washington back in 2015 during a standoff connected to a rights activist who had been jailed during ethnic unrest in 2010.
Moscow did little to hide its pleasure at this development, which appeared at the time to threaten Washington’s scope to provide assistance to the country. The activist, ethnic Uzbek campaigner Azimjan Askarov, died in jail in 2020.
That Russia sees any new treaty as an affront was laid out in stark terms by Moskovskiy Komsomolets, a pro-Kremlin tabloid, during U.S. Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya’s visit to Bishkek in April.
MK’s musing on Zeya’s trip was titled, “U.S. seduces Kyrgyzstan: Russia talks about ‘stab in the back.’” The piece cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that a new accord could trigger a “tough and immediate response” from Russia, including curtailment of investment, an end to preferential arrangements for fuel and food exports, and the expulsion of labor migrants.
Japarov should heed the mistakes of previous Kyrgyz presidents and restore a “sensible balance in foreign policy,” MK advised.
A mid-May op-ed in MK’s rival Komsomolskaya Pravda further hinted at Russian dissatisfaction over Kyrgyz policymaking and personnel.
This time the wrath was for Japarov’s security chief and de facto co-ruler Kamchybek Tashiyev, whose agency had recently banned symbols celebrating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from festivities marking the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
Tashiyev, KP claimed, was viewed by “observers” as responsible for “a significant increase in anti-Russian material in Kyrgyz electronic and print media and increased anti-Russian rhetoric in local segments of the Internet.”
He was also driving Kyrgyzstan toward the new deal with Washington.
“Many experts say that this agreement is about as ‘beneficial’ for Kyrgyzstan as the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union turned out to be ‘beneficial’,” the piece noted maliciously.
Kyrgyzstan’s top spook was just one of several politicians with “obvious nostalgia” for the days when Bishkek hosted a U.S. military base, it claimed. The Manas air base, used for operations in Afghanistan, was shuttered by the Kyrgyz government in 2014.
Clearly stung, Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry released a brief response. The May 20 statement stressed the strategic partnership with Russia but insisted Bishkek would “continue to develop mutually beneficial relations with its Western partners” in line with a “multi-vector” foreign policy.
The KP article has since been deleted from the tabloid’s website, but remains online elsewhere.
Neither Japarov nor Tashiyev will need reminding about the damage that a bad run in the Russian press can do to a politician.
Their former boss, Kyrgyzstan’s second president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was given similar treatment weeks before he was ousted, seemingly as punishment for him reneging on a commitment to evict Washington from the base. Street protests overthrew Bakiyev in April 2010, just days after Moscow introduced tariffs on petrol products exported to Kyrgyzstan.
MK in 2015 recalled the exiled former leader as “undistinguished by talent and tongue-tied” when covering the release of his memoirs five years later. “The rattle rattles but it is empty inside,” it added.
That was the same kind of derogatory language applied to Japarov in a May 27 column penned by a Kremlin pool reporter for the business daily Kommersant.
Andrei Kolesnikov called the Kyrgyz president’s speech at a regional economic forum “uninteresting, not only for his contemporaries and descendants, but surely for himself as well.”
While speaking at the video-linked forum, Japarov fiddled with his notes and scrolled around on his computer, the journalist complained.
On June 1, MK was beating the cooperation accord drum again, accusing Kyrgyzstan of “active political flirting with Washington” and bemoaning the fact that the government had replaced one supposedly pro-Western foreign minister with “an even more pro-Western” one.
“The West attacks the Kremlin from an unexpected angle,” raged the headline.
Aigerim Turgunbaeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.