Unguarded comments made by Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev in remarks to Euronews while on a visit to Brussels have been greeted with dismay in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The flare-up has once again illustrated the persisting underlying tensions within the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union trade bloc, which has to date fallen far short of the hopes of its backers.
A recurrent criticism made by EEU objectors stems from the perception that the trading bloc has been designed to serve primarily Russian interests. Asked about this point by a Euronews interviewer, Atambayev deflected the blame elsewhere.
“We have to trade with somebody, we have to work with our neighbors somehow. If we had not entered the Eurasian Economic Union we would have been at risk of a blockade. In 2010, when Kazakhstan blockaded us for one and a half months, we even had casualties,” he said. “We have six million people. What are supposed to do — shut ourselves off and survive like we’re in the jungle or something? We have to develop, we need a market.”
It is not entirely clear what casualties Atambayev was alluding to, and requests for clarification filed by reporters with the presidential administration have shed no light on the matter.
But media in Kazakhstan appear to have gone out of their way to whip up some ill-will by, for example, writing headlines about the interview such as “The president of Kyrgyzstan accuses Kazakhstan of claiming human casualties.”
The interview has generated much heated discussion among social media users in Kazakhstan. Most people seem to have dwelled little on the broader point Atambayev was attempting, in characteristic ham-fisted fashion, to make, but instead reserved their animus for their neighbor nation. Many criticized Atambayev’s failure to properly acknowledge the assistance they feel Kazakhstan has given Kyrgyzstan over the years. Some even thought the timing of Atambayev’s barb was an attempt to blacken Kazakhstan’s name ahead of this year’s EXPO-2017 fair in Astana.
News about Atambayev published in media outlets in Kazakhstan are typically of a broadly positive hue, so the negative coverage marks something of a rare departure.
Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry has also waded into the fray, noting that they have taken note of Atambayev’s remarks and that they are expecting clarifications from his office.
These bursts of neighborly intemperance occur from time to time. The most memorable recent instance occurred last May when a government minister in Kazakhstan dwelled in deeply patronizing fashion on what he deemed the plight of Kyrgyz migrant laborers in Russian.
“It is such a pity when you fly into Moscow or other cities and see that public toilets are being cleaned by young girls from our neighboring country. This cannot but offend one’s sensibilities. What could she have done to deserve this and at such a young age — to have to clean a public toilet?” the Culture and Sport Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediyuly said in the interview.
The indignation was strong and immediate. Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry described Mukhamediyuly’s remarks as “offensive and unconsidered” and said they had harmed bilateral relations.
Indeed, if the EEU was ever intended to foster greater harmony among member countries, the outcome has been highly disappointing. Kazakhstan continues to intermittently impose bans on the import of Kyrgyz agricultural goods on grounds of health and safety. And Kyrgyzstan has conversely threatened to tighten registration rules for visiting citizens of Kazakhstan. Wars of words are the background music.