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Moscow Chills Relations With Kyrgyzstan

A year ago, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev were all smiles.
A year ago, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev were all smiles.
Relations between longtime allies Russia and Kyrgyzstan seemed as close as ever when Moscow agreed to provide Bishkek with a $2 billion loan and a large grant in February 2009.

The pledges, announced during a visit to Moscow by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, followed his surprise announcement that the Manas air base outside Bishkek would be closed.

Considering Russia's vocal displeasure with the United States' use of the base as part of its military operations in Afghanistan, observers widely assessed the announcements as a quid pro quo. That appraisal seemed to grow more likely when Bakiev and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev later signed a memorandum that would bring more Russian troops to Kyrgyzstan and allow Moscow to establish another military base there.

The developments caused concern near and abroad. In Washington, officials scurried to find an alternative air bridge to supply the military campaign in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, shuddered at the thought of Moscow allying with its neighbors in regional squabbles.

One year later, however, Moscow is not concealing its anger with the Kyrgyz government and has frozen its financial pledges. Uzbekistan appears to be trying to use the discord to advance its own regional ambitions. And the United States is again using Manas, not as a base, but as a "transit station."

Money-Making Operation

According to Vitaly Skrinnik, the first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, everything was going fine between Bishkek and Moscow until Russia's financial aid began to arrive in Bishkek.

The first was a $150 million grant to help the government "fix its budget problems" ahead of the July 2009 presidential election, according to Skrinnik. Soon thereafter came a $300 million loan to begin construction of the Kambar-Ata hydropower plant, whose construction was a key priority for Bishkek, but hotly protested by Tashkent.

Presidential son Maksim Bakiev
Russia floated Kyrgyzstan the loan that would allow it to begin construction of the power station on the condition that it would begin repaying it in 2026 at 0.5 percent annual interest.

"Nobody will give you that kind of money with such low interest," Skrinnik says. "But what does the [Kyrgyz] government do with the money? They establish a new foundation [the Central Agency for Development, Innovation, and Investment, headed by Bakiev's son, Maksim], deposit the money there, and begin loaning it out with interest."

Skrinnik describes the Kyrgyz actions as "complete nonsense," saying the funds were provided "to pay Kyrgyz teachers, doctors, police, judges, etc. The Russian State Duma had to pass a law about this money. But the Kyrgyz authorities decided to make money out of that money."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly made the Kremlin's unhappiness with Bishkek apparent at a November meeting in Yalta with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Daniyar Usenov. The Kyrgyz weekly newspaper "Belyi parus" reported that Putin told Usenov: "I've heard there is family business going on in Kyrgyzstan at the state level. Why is Russian money to Kyrgyzstan going straight to commercial banks?"

Putin's statement was seen as an answer to Usenov's question about when the rest of Russia's promised $2 billion would be delivered to Bishkek.

Double Dealing

The Kyrgyz government, apparently seeking a new financial suitor, didn't travel far. Last month, the increasingly powerful Maksim Bakiev -- in his new role as head of the cash-infused Agency for Development, Innovation, and Investment -- led a high-profile Kyrgyz business delegation to China.

Modest Kolerov, editor in chief of the Regnum Information Agency in Moscow and who worked in the Kremlin from 2005-07 as chief of the department for interregional and intercultural relations, says the Beijing visit outraged Moscow.

"Maksim Bakiev, without waiting for the results of negotiations with Russia -- negotiations on vital projects in Kyrgyzstan -- goes to China, and offers to China some of those projects," Kolerov says. "This kind of approach -- it would be an understatement to call it 'irresponsible'"

Among the investment opportunities reportedly discussed was the Kambar-Ata hydropower plant for which Moscow had already pledged funds, and which it had expressed interest in helping construct. A group of Chinese specialists recently visited Kambar-Ata and inspected the site.

Kolerov downplays the role the U.S. use of Kyrgyzstan's Manas air base has played in Bishkek-Moscow relations. But he says the way in which Bishkek apparently played the United States and Russia off each other -- offering Washington use of the base as a "transit station" after initially having told the United States the base would be closed -- certainly damaged bilateral relations with Russia.

Kyrgyz-Russian Relations Strained

A joke is making the rounds in Bishkek about the base issue. It starts with Putin asking the Kyrgyz prime minister, "Why has the U.S. base not been closed?" Usenov says, "It's not a military base anymore, it's just a transit center." And Putin replies: "Bishkek was once called Frunze, as you surely remember. Now it's called Bishkek. What's the difference?"

Manas: an air base or a "transit station"?
Emil Uzakbaev, an expert on Kyrgyz affairs and a former representative of Kyrgyzstan in the Eurasian Economic Community, says that aside from Manas and other issues, the lack of movement on other joint Russian-Kyrgyz projects provide further evidence of souring relations.

Moscow had expressed interest in purchasing Dastan, a huge factory in Bishkek that makes military and space equipment. Also, the Russian gas giant Gazprom had sought to acquire the state Kyrgyzgaz gas company.

There are other apparent bones of contention as well. Moscow has expressed concern over several incidents in which ethnic Russians have been attacked and beaten in Bishkek in recent months, not to mention the killing in Almaty of journalist Gennady Pavluk, who was thrown from a high building after having his arms and legs bound with masking tape.

One of the ethnic Russians attacked was Kyrgyz political scientist Aleksandr Kniazev, the director of the regional branch of the Moscow-based Commonwealth of Independent States Institute think tank, who was beaten in December in Bishkek. It was Kniazev who then announced at a press conference in January that that all assets and bank accounts in Russia that belong to Maksim Bakiev had been frozen due to a criminal investigation launched against them.

There were no media reports of such actions having been taken against any Russian-based assets belonging to Maksim Bakiev or anyone else in the Kyrgyz government. The statements by Kniazev are seen by many as a public warning from Moscow to the Kyrgyz government.

Kniazev is still in Bishkek, and has not been sued or charged with defamation. For his part, Maksim Bakiev denied the reports and that he has assets in Russia.

Regional Tug-Of-War

Considering Uzbekistan's initial concern over Russia's plans to post troops in southern Kyrgyzstan, near the Uzbek border, and its protests that any new Kyrgyz hydropower plants would mean less water flowing into Uzbekistan, some believe Tashkent may be seizing the opportunity afforded by the strained Bishkek-Moscow relations.

Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariev notes that Uzbekistan is applying a lot of pressure on Kyrgyzstan, and appears to be aggravating Bishkek's issues with Russia, which he says makes it "very difficult" for Bishkek and Tashkent to "find a consensus now."

In addition, there is also the well-known shadow of former Russian oligarch and Kremlin enemy Boris Berezovsky looming over Kyrgyz-Moscow relations.

Right after the 2005 Tulip Revolution that brought President Bakiev to power, Kyrgyz authorities were accused publicly -- in parliament -- of having secret relations with the self-exiled tycoon.

Kyrgyz officials, and even Berezovsky, denied any connections existed between them, but his influence and role in relations with Moscow are among the topics often discussed in Kyrgyzstan.

The palpable change over the past 12 months in Russian-Kyrgyz relations seems to be caused by an intentional disregard by Bishkek to Moscow's wishes. Although it is unclear how upset the Kremlin is with the Kyrgyz government, one must note that Kyrgyz public opinion is strongly pro-Russian -- over 90 percent of Kyrgyz in some surveys say they trust Russia -- and be wary of the Kremlin's ability to manipulate Kyrgyz politics if it so chooses.

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