Kyrgyzstan: Mr. Jeenbekov Goes to Moscow

Right out of the gate, Kyrgyzstan’s new president is seeking to prove his fealty to  Moscow by traveling to the Russian capital for his maiden foreign trip.

A presidential administration official said on November 28 that Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s choice of destination was a declaration of intent about Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy priorities. 

“Our external political course is aimed at developing our deepening and strengthening alliance and strategic partnership with Russia,” said Aizada Subakozhoyeva, head of the presidential administration’s foreign policy department.

Jeenbekov is slated to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The leaders will discuss “further development of bilateral cooperation and exchange views on international issues,” Jeenbekov’s office said in a detail-light statement.

Jeenbekov will also hold talks on trade and economic matters with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. 

Moving on from Moscow, the Kyrgyz leader will travel to Belarus to participate in an event to mark the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led military bloc. Talks at that event will dwell on the fight against terrorism and religious extremism, Subakozhoyeva said.

It is striking that Kyrgyzstan’s freshly inaugurated president has chosen against making contact with any of his immediate neighbors before paying tribute to Russia.

Consider the contrast with Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who made his first trip as president to Turkmenistan, in March, more than two-and-a-half months after being sworn into office. Following that, Mirziyoyev went to Kazakhstan. It was only in early April that he traveled to Russia. Since then Mirziyoyev has also embarked on a state trip to Kyrgyzstan, leaving only Tajikistan left among the Central Asian nations. That final piece of the puzzle is expected to be filled in the coming weeks.

Mirziyoyev was clear in his statement after assuming office that he intended to prioritize relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbors. (While Jeenbekov has refrained so far even from getting any of his neighbors on the phone, Mirziyoyev and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who are now firm friends, got in touch for a catch-up chat on November 27.)

Jeenbekov has inherited something of a mixed legacy on the Central Asian front. 

On the positive side of the ledger, relations with Uzbekistan have rarely been better. Bishkek and Tashkent have almost completed the process of definitively agreeing on the outline of their respective borders — a thorny issue that has bedeviled ties since independence. The reopening of important border crossing has also raised the prospect of a boom in trading.

But the picture is grim to the north. Jeenbekov has not yet given any indication of how he intends to patch things up with Kazakhstan, which has in effect subjected Kyrgyzstan to a trade embargo. The row ostensibly began after Jeenbekov’s predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, repeatedly insulted Nazarbayev and accused him of presiding over a government riddled with corruption. The rants were motivated by Atambayev’s belief that Astana was tacitly backing a presidential candidate running against the ruling party’s pick, Jeenbekov.

Despite the fact that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound together in the Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, the former has barred a range of imports from the latter on the grounds that some of the goods do meet required sanitary standards. Border controls have also been stepped up, causing significant financial losses to Kyrgyz exporters. The International Monetary Fund and others have said the set-to has caused a noteworthy slowdown to economic growth in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan has explicitly sought Moscow’s moral — not to say political — support over the course of this dispute, complaining that the situation is gravely threatening the viability of the EEU, but to no avail. Jeenbekov is likely to renew those appeals behind closed doors in his talks with Putin and Medvedev.

It will be intriguing to see whether, and how, Russia eventually intends to get off the fence over this whole Kyrgyz-Kazakh kerfuffle.

Kazakhstan has justified its hostile actions toward Kyrgyzstan by arguing that corrupt officials in Bishkek are turning a blind to a colossal flow of Chinese contraband slipping under the EEU import levy net, collectively costing the bloc billions. Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev said in October that failure to properly enforce import tariffs, which are apportioned among bloc members at pre-agreed rates, cost the EEU around $2.7 billion in the first eight months of 2017 alone.

Astana’s evidence appears convincing — although Kyrgyzstan has grumbled that Kazakhstan is hardly one to talk as it is struggling with its own contraband problem — so Russia will be reluctant to waste diplomatic capital by being seen to come down on Kyrgyzstan’s side. Then again, Kyrgyzstan has one very slender ace up its sleeve in the shape of the EEU customs code. The long-delayed, all-union legislation regulating the processing of cross border trade has been ratified by all members but Kyrgyzstan. Russia is desperate to see the code come into effect by January 1, so as to dispel concerns that the EEU, which also includes Belarus and Armenia among its members, is running ashore. Kyrgyzstan is hardly likely to risk incurring Russia’s ire by scuppering plans, but as it is Bishkek is taking things down to the wire.

Kyrgyzstan may be a loyal partner to Russia, but not a particularly reliable one.

Kyrgyzstan: Mr. Jeenbekov Goes to Moscow

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