What a difference a month can make. In the final days of February, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev was engaged in an emotional and unseemly spat with Belarus over the death of a Kyrgyz gangster.
By the end of his 10-day European tour this week, Atambayev was positioning himself as a peacemaker between Brussels and Moscow – one eager to continue receiving Western aid. Kyrgyzstan is due to join the Russia-led Eurasia Economic Union next month.
Atambayev made some revealing comments during an April 1 interview with Euronews – an outlet notorious for softball questions and sympathetic interviews with regional leaders. He used the opportunity to praise Russia’s leadership, present himself as a wise leader dabbling in international diplomacy, and remind Western donors that their assistance hasn’t been enough.
Euronews: “Mr. President, welcome to Euronews. Can we regard your visit to Brussels as something of a farewell before Kyrgyzstan joins the Eurasian Economic Union in May and when you will stop getting closer to the European Union?”
Atambayev: “On the contrary. I think, as a part of the Eurasian Union, Kyrgyzstan will be pushing it towards tight engagement with the European Union. Europe should extend from Lisbon and Brussels – to Vladivostok, and of course, I think, to Bishkek.”
Atambayev then gave his interlocutor a lecture on the division of powers in a parliamentary republic:
Euronews: “Human rights bodies criticize Kyrgyzstan for following the Russian example in preparing laws ‘against gay propaganda’ and for registration of ‘foreign agents.’ Aren’t you losing already your democratic gains and liberties?”
Atambayev: “You know you are confusing Kyrgyzstan with other ‘stans’. Our parliament considers any laws. When I am asked such questions it show that many people think in old way. In Kyrgyzstan it’s the parliament that decides what laws to adopt. And often the laws are such that I have to veto them.”
Some of the more eye-popping comments came when Atambayev addressed foreign aid – shortly after asking for more. Atambayev appeared to ignore the hundreds of millions of dollars the West has spent trying to get his country’s self-serving leaders to work for the interests of their people, and said the West simply didn’t understand how to build world peace.
Euronews: “One of the main threats for the European Union comes from the so-called Islamic State. Do you think that your country can cooperate with the EU in containing this threat?”
Atambayev: “When trillions of dollars are being spent on wars in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or elsewhere you can’t stop them with force. They can be stopped only by showing an example of at least one country – [a] democratic, secular Muslim country. I’m tired of pointing out that it would be much cheaper just to help Kyrgyzstan build a secular democratic state in our Muslim country. But you know, we are left with no real support from the democratic countries.”
At home, at least, the headline takeaway from the Euronews interview was that Atambayev wants to use his friendship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to bring Moscow and Europe closer together. But can he achieve such a grand plan? After all, he is carrying the alms bowl around Europe, in part, because Russia has not kept basic investment promises to his impoverished country.
It is the second time in recent weeks that Atambayev’s office has played up his role as elder statesman on a mission for the Kremlin.
Last month, the president took a mysterious trip on a private jet to Moldova to meet a controversial oligarch-politician Vladimir Plahotniuc. At the time, his foreign-relations advisor refused to discuss the visit, only saying that everything Atambayev does he does out of love for Kyrgyzstan. But after a pounding from Kyrgyzstan’s mottled opposition, Atambayev’s office got on message, declaring that the secret meeting was “devoted to discussion of issues of cooperation between Moldova and the European Union and Russia.”
Atambayev ended his European trip on April 1. This time, his handlers made sure there were loads of photos of him climbing on and off his own plane in European capitals.