Tense US-Kyrgyz Relations

by Nathan Hamm on 8/16/2006 · 5 comments

There are many signs of deteriorating relations between states, and hefty helpings of hypocrisy and self-righteousness are as good an indicator of underlying tension as many others. Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman says that he will not accept an invitation to attend a human rights conference in the US out of protest against President Bush’s use of the term “Islamic fascists” to describe Islamic terrorists.

Addressing reporters in Bishkek, Bakir-uulu said today he could not, as a citizen of a predominantly Muslim country in which other religions peacefully coexist, attend the U.S. Ombudsman Association’s conference that is due to open on September 12 in Iowa.

“Because of the American president’s use of the ‘Islamic fascists’ expression, I have decided to not participate in this conference,” Bakir-uulu said. “I have also appealed to my American colleagues so that they exert their influence on their president. This is not good to humiliate another people, another religion, another nation in such a way.”

Bakir-uulu said he believed Bush’s remarks were “inadmissible” on the part of a head of state “who says he supports the development of democracy.”

There has been a surprising amount of fuss over Bush’s most recent use of the term. He has used it before. Maybe it is because I am a blogger who inhabits that farther reaches of the dextrosphere, where the term has long been used to differentiate Muslims who espouse ideologies like that of Hizb ut-Tahrir or Al Qaeda from the larger Muslim community.

Anyhow, the main point is that it is quite odd to hear any Central Asian official get so twisted out of shape over such a term. After all, Central Asian politicians give the far right in the West a run for its money in blurring the line between Muslims and violent Islamists. Kyrgyzstan has outlawed and regularly confronts Islamic organizations which could be said to aspire to create what one might be tempted to call a fascist state. Much like with Uzbekistan’s occasional recent accusations individuals or organizations of insulting Islam, one cannot help but think that this is mere opportunistic posturing used as a tool in foreign relations.

This makes some sense considering, as the NYT reports today, recent steps by the Kyrgyz government indicate some disillusion with the West.

“The Kyrgyz aren’t acting in as haphazard a way as it looks,” said Michael Hall, Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, an independent policy analysis group. “Given the demands and conditions from the United States, the Kyrgyz are simply thinking it is more in their interest to play along with Russia and Uzbekistan, neighbors that can make life difficult for Kyrgyzstan in the long term.”

I am not entirely convinced that Bakiyev is playing his foreign policy from a well-written script so much as he is winging it, but he does appear to have a bit more reason to his rhyme in recent months. Hall is almost certainly right that the Kyrgyz decision to cooperate with Russia and Uzbekistan is informed by their lack of power relative to either. I do not know that Kyrgyzstan sees so much long-term benefit from cooperation as it does possible short-term harm from not doing so.

Roger McDermott, writing in yesterday’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, suggests that Kyrgyzstan wants good relations with the US. But since warm relations with the US carry costs, it is up to the US to make good relations worth Kyrgyzstan’s while.

Each side stressed the need to cooperate on combating terrorism and drug trafficking. Boucher was reassured during his visit that Bishkek believes the United States plays a key role in Kyrgyz foreign policy, but he offered little by way of specifics. Bakiyev, on the other hand, told Boucher that he specifically wants an expansion of trade and economic cooperation, with more being done to attract U.S. investment in the Kyrgyz economy, as well as American assistance in democracy building in the country (24. kg, August 11).

McDermott’s article indicates that relations between the US and Kyrgyzstan are not as bad as they may seem, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. But positive joint statements notwithstanding, most of the rhetoric and public actions are fairly tense. As McDermott notes, if the US is willing to make partnership a lucrative proposition for Kyrgyzstan, it will surely come with the expectation that Kyrgyzstan stop its critical rhetoric and tone down the SCO’s.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Edil August 16, 2006 at 9:14 pm

I don’t think Bakir uulu is acting on a hint from the MFA or eslewhere. He is being spontaneous but this step is good politics for him: first of all, for many years he’ll use this refusal to deny well-grounded regular accusations of him using his office for tourism; he is also aligning himself with the newly found Bakiev’s anti-americanism, a few months ago he proposed a ban on NGO’s foreign funding again in an effort to bring himself closer to the administration; and number three reason – he is pleasing his foreign friend-patrons in Tehran and elsewhere and supposedly strengthening his Islamic credentials with the local electorate: Bakir uulu positions himself as the most Muslim friendly Kyrgyz politician as it was visible during his last year bid for presidency.

Nathan August 17, 2006 at 7:53 am

Edil, thanks for adding that. Very interesting and quite helpful perspective.

Rustam August 17, 2006 at 6:58 pm

Here’s how it goes, Karimov has a chat with Bakiyev and shares his intelligence received from Georgia and Ukraine regarding western revolution. Bakiyev being weak and in desperate need of a friend, is sold on the idea of having Russian and Chinese as friends instead of America. Americans under Bush are inconsistent with their foreign policy. Karimov tells Bakiyev, if you want to stay in power then go with us, which includes Russia and China. Otherwise, pack your bags.

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