The Fate of Kyrgyzstan Institutionalism
When discussions arise over multilateralism and international institutions, organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU), and, of course, the United Nations (UN) are often the central focus. Little, if any, attention is given to non-Western-centric international bodies, leaving out many regional and cooperative initiatives. One such region is Central Asia, a region void of official organizations to unite the five former Soviet republics. Additionally, the region has never experienced a culture of institutionalism or liberal democracy. Kyrgyzstan had its first peaceful transition of power between leaders without a revolution in October 2017, but this event was the first of its kind, not only in the former Soviet republic, but also in all of Central Asia. Additionally, in the lead up to the October elections, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan experienced a border spat, causing a massive logistical headache for trade and migration between the two states. However, the diplomatic rhetoric between Almaty and Bishkek has changed in recent times, reflecting a warming of relations in the region. None of this is to say that Central Asia is ripe for international liberalism. Still, the five Central Asian republics, with especial emphasis on Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations, highlight the importance of regional cooperation despite the presence of heavyweight neighboring actors like China and Russia.
The aforementioned border dispute between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan took place weeks before the Kyrgyz elections when then-President Almazbek Atambayev lashed out at the neighboring country for allegedly backing presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov. Almaty rebutted by drastically increasing border security, maintaining “the increased scrutiny had to do with concerns about contraband and smuggling of goods from China via Kyrgyzstan and other weaknesses in Kyrgyzstan’s veterinary and sanitary controls on exported goods.” However, this standoff had been brewing in the discussion rooms for several years. Since joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015, the benefits have been unevenly felt in Kyrgyzstan. Those who work outside of the country were optimistic. Up to 25-30% of Kyrgyzstan's GDP comes from income earned outside of the country, almost entirely from workers living in Russia, who saw the EEU as a way for the Kremlin to cut red tape around Kyrgyz workers. On the other side of the economic picture, small business owners feared the mandatory tariffs EEU members place on non-members. For Kyrgyzstan, that meant an increase in prices of cheap goods from neighboring China. This disparity has led to economic anxiety for some citizens, with mixed rhetoric coming from Bishkek. These feels culminated in backlash towards Kazakhstan, who was already suspicious of the amount of contraband goods flowing from China to Kazakhstan via Kyrgyzstan.
Newly elected Kyrgyz President Jeenbekov was quick to reverse the diplomatic squabble made by his predecessor and mentor. On November 30, Jeenbekov and Nazarbayev “agreed to work out a plan to resolve the two-months bottleneck at the shared border. Starting December 4, all vehicles started passing the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border without any delays.” Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations were thus normalized. Several weeks later, the two men reconvened to discuss and sign a slew of diplomatic and economic documents “aimed at the further deepening the Kazakh-Kyrgyz cooperation. Those include the treaty on the demarcation of the Kazakh-Kyrgyz state border and the agreement on the state border regime,” President Nazarbayev stated. On the surface, it was a sign of diplomatic realignment and reestablishing or relations between the two republics. However, it was also an indication of how bilateral cooperation was possible without outside interference. Russia and China, both of whom have much at stake in Central Asia due to the region’s rich supply of oil and natural gas, did not need to step in to settle the dispute. Rather, both parties saw it as a regional issue that required a regional solution.
This sense of regional self-reliance was seen again in the March 2018 Central Asian summit of all five of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia in Astana. It was the first summit between all the heads of state in nearly a decade and the first since the death of the divisive Uzbek leader Islam Karimov in September 2016. The move was a shock to the international community. President Nazarbayev described it as a “new mood” and confidently stated “There is no need to call an outsider to resolve issues of the Central Asian nations, we are able to resolve everything ourselves -- that is why we are meeting.” However, the official title of the summit was a consultative meeting, “in an obvious effort not to raise eyebrows in Moscow. No documents from the meeting were adopted.” While it is by no means liberal institutionalism’s most recent crowning achievement, the Central Asian republics are learning that there is far more to gain collectively than when divided. The added decision that such consultative meetings take place each year in late March adds to the optimistic rhetoric of budding multilateralism in Central Asia. It is a declaration, albeit a soft one, to China and Russia that the five republics are capable of functioning as a single unit.
Looking to the future, the role of this consultative structure is unlikely to expand in scope. Russia still plays a major role in all political decisions. However, that is the extent to which the Kremlin’s influence is seen in 2018. China’s One Belt One Road Initiative may still be in an embryonic stage, but the potential benefits for the region are profound. As Marlene Laruelle of the George Washington University Central Asia Program writes in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, “[Beijing] is the only country that can mobilize huge investment in the region, far beyond what Western countries and Russia can offer.” On the other hand, these investments do not necessarily benefit the entire country as a whole. Corruption is still very prevalent in Central Asia, so the funds may instead go to the political elite and oligarchs. Regardless, the One Belt One Road Initiative will undoubtedly reshape the geopolitical landscape. Whether or not that leads to greater regional autonomy, one involving formalized institutions, or a down a path of an elite flushed with foreign investment funds with no multilateralism to speak of is yet to be seen. That being said, those two options are not mutually exclusive.
The five Central Asian republics, with especial emphasis on Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations, highlight the importance of regional cooperation despite the presence of heavyweight neighboring actors like China and Russia. Economic anxieties seeped their way from small business owners up to Bishkek decision makers, resulting in a diplomatic row with Kazakhstan. The issues have since resolved, although the back and forth rhetoric over the merits and losses of Kyrgyzstan joining the EEU is still fervent. Regardless, Kazak-Kyrgyz relations are back on track and the latter is continuing to implement reforms to meet the former’s request on imported goods. Additionally, there is a new diplomatic aura emerging from Central Asia. It is not necessarily analogous to European integration, but a step towards multilateralism nonetheless. Whether or not that step becomes a trek relies heavily on how China’s investment in the region changes the geopolitical landscape.