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Kazakhstan: A New Player In Kyrgyzstan's Politics


Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev (right) raised hackles in Bishkek when he met with Kyrgyz opposition presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov (left) in Almaty in September. Babanov subsequently lost the election to Sooronbai Jeenbekov the following month.

The dispute between the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is affecting many aspects of bilateral relations between the two countries, but one result that seems very likely is that Kazakhstan's government will be taking a much greater interest in Kyrgyzstan's domestic politics in the years to come.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev might have sparked the current tensions when he met with the head of Kyrgyzstan's Respublika party, Omurbek Babanov, on September 19 in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Babanov was running for president of Kyrgyzstan at the time and his main challenger was Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who was supported by sitting President Almazbek Atambaev. Jeenbekov eventually won the October 15 election.

But since that meeting in Astana it has been Atambaev who has been dumping fuel on the fire Nazarbaev touched off.

First there were some angry statements exchanged between the two countries' foreign ministries.

At an award ceremony in Bishkek on October 7, Atambaev addressed the Nazarbaev-Babanov meeting, calling it "meddling in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs," and adding some uncomplimentary comments about Kazakhstan's government and Nazarbaev.

Kazakhstan closed the border with Kyrgyzstan on October 10, less than one week before Kyrgyzstan's presidential election.

The 'Entourage' Strikes Back

On October 18, three days after Jeenbekov won the Kyrgyz presidential election, Atambaev made a feeble attempt at an apology by saying that Nazarbaev "is a trusting person ... [and] much like any president, [Nazarbaev] trusts his entourage, but his entourage are oligarchs who think of their own future, not about Kazakhstan and Nazarbaev."

This is a good time to move things forward a few weeks.

Nazarbaev has not publicly responded to anything Atambaev has said about Kazakhstan and its leader. But some of Nazarbaev's "entourage" has.

Mukhtar Kul-Muhammad is the deputy chairman of Kazakhstan's ruling Nur-Otan party, founded on March 1, 1999, with the intention of seeing Nazarbaev reelected president.

Kazakhstan's Tengrinews information website printed an article on November 27 titled Mukhtar Kul-Muhammad: This Is A Complete Failure For Atambaev.

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (file photo)
Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (file photo)

The Nur-Otan deputy chairman questioned Atambaev's knowledge of Kyrgyz and Kazakh history, but later got right to the heart of it.

"Lately the expressions heard from the mouth of Atambaev ... (give) the impression that this is a person in prison or a hospital. (Words like) 'flunky, a**hole, mankurt [a completely Sovietized Central Asian], idiot, stinky, bastards, sh*t' have already become commonplace in the lexicon of Atambaev."

Kul-Muhammad's article came after Tengrinews carried an piece on November 20 by Nurlan Nigmatulin, the speaker of the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament.

Nigmatulin wrote: "Concerning Atambaev, it is obvious to everyone that during the years of his presidency he could not accomplish even one result in the economy, or in politics."

Atambaev had continued with his intermittent criticism of Kazakhstan through late October and into November. On November 15, Atambaev said he would not apologize to the "aged president," a clear reference to Nazarbaev. Atambaev said Kazakhstan continued to impose a "blockade" on the border with Kyrgyzstan.

"Some people seem to say that Atambaev must bend his knee in front of the rich neighbor and apologize," he continued. "It is not Atambaev but those who impertinently meddle in our affairs who must apologize."

He had more to say.

That prompted not only the responses from Nigmatulin and Kul-Muhammad, it also elicited comments from Kasymzhomart Tokaev, who as speaker of the Senate, the upper house of Kazakhstan's parliament, would constitutionally take over as president (temporarily) in the event that Nazarbaev cannot perform the duties of his office.

'Hysterical Speech'

Tokaev used Twitter to respond to Atambaev on November 15.

"The latest hysterical speech of Atambaev, with foul attacks on Kazakhstan, only work to the detriment of relations of genuine good-neighborliness," he said. "Such emotion has no place in politics. There is no talk of a blockade on Kyrgyzstan. The norms/demands of the EEU [Eurasian Economic Union] need to be fulfilled. This is a subject for negotiations."

Tokaev was not finished. On November 23, one day before Jeenbekov took the oath of the office of Kyrgyzstan's president, Tokaev posted another tweet about Atambaev.

"WikiLeaks published comments of U.S. Ambassador [Stephen] Young based on information of Turkish doctors about Atambaev's psychiatric afflictions and his dependence on alcohol that contribute to his paranoia. Everything becomes clear then! We're hoping for his recovery," he said.

Tokaev's earlier experience as Kazakhstan's foreign minister shows in the diplomatic language of his tweets, but more importantly, Tokaev is one of the most powerful figures in Kazakhstan. Nigmatulin and Kul-Muhammad are also part of the elite. They help determine policy and should Nazarbaev, who is 77, be unable to perform his presidential duties these three would have a lot of say in the succession.

Tokaev, Nigmatulin, and Kul-Muhammad, as well as other Kazakh officials, have been very careful to distinguish Kyrgyzstan's people from Atambaev in their comments.

But those three, and others in Kazakhstan's elite, probably have a different view of Kyrgyzstan now than anyone in Kazakhstan had just three months ago.

Kyrgyzstan' new president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov
Kyrgyzstan' new president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov

There were hopes that after Jeenbekov officially took over as Kyrgyzstan's president this unpleasant episode would start to wind down.

But in the first few days of Jeenbekov's presidency there have been no signs of a thaw.

Jeenbekov decided to make his first trip as Kyrgyzstan's president to Russia, not Kazakhstan.

In Jeenbekov's defense, the Kremlin invited him and he needs to travel on to Minsk on November 30 for the 15th anniversary summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Nazarbaev should be in Minsk also, but there were no reported plans for the Kazakh and Kyrgyz leaders to meet on the sidelines of the summit.

Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in late 1991, Kazakhstan has been a benign neighbor that worked with Kyrgyzstan but did not ever seem to interfere in internal Kyrgyz politics.

But possibilities for Kazakhstan to exert influence on Kyrgyzstan's internal dynamics exist.

Ties between groups on both sides of the border are strong.

Certainly, there is the potential for groups or individuals in Kazakhstan, many of whom have access to vast amounts of money, to finance political parties or candidates in Kyrgyzstan, though of course under Kyrgyzstan's laws this would be illegal.

One thing seems sure -- many of the elite in Kazakhstan will not want to see a repeat of this ongoing saga with Kyrgyzstan and they will be much more interested in Kyrgyzstan's domestic politics.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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