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Kyrgyzstan Eats Some Crow, But Kazakhstan Still Annoyed

The outgoing president of Kyrgyzstan is sorry — but not sorry — about being rude to Kazakhstan.

Almazbek Atambayev effected something of an about-face this week, partly rowing back on the harsh comments about Kazakhstan that precipitated an economically damaging diplomatic row.

In a gesture of partial humility, Almazbek Atambayev said on October 18 that he “probably was not right” when he recently criticized his Kazakhstan counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“I probably wasn’t right when I emotively spoke about President Nazarbayev. He is such a trusting person, as I am, and he probably has to deal with more problems than I do,” he said. 

Atambayev did, however, lace his bowing and scraping with another pop at “Kazakhstan’s oligarchs” and their willingness to please the United States at all costs.

“Nazarbayev’s entourage are oligarchs, Kazakh billionaires who think not about Kazakhstan and not about Nazarbayev, but about their own future, since all their billion-dollar accounts are in western banks, which are of course controlled by the US currency system,” he said.

Atambayev ignited the row with Kazakhstan on October 7, when he indulged in a rambling rant in which he accused Astana of retaining sympathies for Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the Kyrgyz leader deposed in a bloody revolt in April 2010. The remarks were a testy outburst in response to what Kyrgyz authorities have said was Kazakhstan’s transparent backing of a presidential election candidate opposed to Atambayev’s close ally, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who eventually went on to win.

Kazakhstan responded to Atambayev’s remarks in heavy-handed manner, by tightening controls over the two nation’s borders, making it harder for people to cross. Kazakhstan claimed the measures were part of a routine intensification of border security — an explanation bought by nobody. There were still long lines of foot passengers and vehicles on the border as of late October 18. In another apparent reprisal, Kazakhstan has barred the import of dairy products from five Kyrgyz companies.  

In a diplomatic charm offensive that was implemented in parallel with Atambayev’s remarks of apology, Kyrgyz prime minister Sapar Isakov traveled to Astana to meet with his opposite party, Bakytzhan Sagintayev. Officials statements described the meeting in dry terms as a chance to discuss the issue of transportation, hygiene standards controls, customs along the border. 

“As the prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, I am disposed to embark on constructive work,” Isakov said.

In one firm result to come out of the meeting, it was agreed to begin allowing priority border passage to individual travelers carrying only personal luggage — as opposed to shuttle traders, presumably — public transportation and empty cargo vehicles. The two governments also agreed on creating a working group to forge a roadmap on the current state of economic relations.

That a roadmap on economic relations should be needed now, two years after Kyrgyzstan joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc speaks volumes about how bad things have got.

And Atambayev has not helped matters by spicing up his grudging apology with yet more animus for Kazakhstan. In his October 18 remarks, he said that authorities in Kazakhstan were doing everything in their power to seek integration with the West, and thereby wrecking the EEU. 

“Just look at Kazakhstan’s transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet — this is a rejection of Russia. And the joint exercise between Kazakhstan’s military and US Marines on the Russian border. We see that the last few years of policymaking in Kazakhstan have been directed at the collapse of the Eurasian Economic Union,” he said.

The figures, however, tell a different story, and one that makes the sudden flareup in hostilities all the more perplexing. 

As economic analysis website Finprom.kz has noted, bilateral trade between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in the first eight months of 2017 actually increased by 63.4 percent on the same period a year before. The caveat here being that trade had fallen by 47.1 percent since 2015 over that equivalent timeframe.

Kyrgyzstan is Kazakhstan’s second largest trading partner within the EEU — accounting for around $470 million in trade. And Kyrgyzstan is running a 2:1 ratio trade deficit with Kazakhstan, from which it imports mainly oil and oil products, iron and steel, wheat and beverages.

Kyrgyzstan Eats Some Crow, But Kazakhstan Still Annoyed

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