A Meeting of Minds

by Casey_Michel on 8/27/2012

I attempted, over at the Central Eurasia Standard, to read the tea-leaves of Nazarbayev’s recent (and first) visit to Bishkek. I trust you guys’ll let me know if it was anywhere near adequate:

… Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is a swelling economic power — some economists stake Astana with the third-fastest-growing economy over the past decade, behind only Qatar and China — and is seeking to export of bit of that new weight where it can. And Kyrgyzstan, despite its revolutions, presents the region’s best stabs at democracy and pluralism — it’s most recent election, after all, posed the first contest in which the victor wasn’t predetermined. While the resulting governmental structure’s been bogged by marked charges of corruption, Bishkek still represents the best sampling of parliamentarism north of New Delhi. These successes, hitched to a shared Turkic history and a notably shamanistic take on Islam, seem to make these two nations salient candidates for cooperation.

But don’t take this to mean that any meeting is one of equals. Kazakhstan, backed by ever-swelling oil fields, has seen its PPP GDP rise to $13,000 over the last two decades, while Kyrgyzstan, at $2,400, owns one of the lowest per capita GDPs in Asia, stuck between Yemen and Papua New Guinea. The difference between the two ‘stans, in relative terms, is equal to the distance between the US and Romania — or, stretched a bit, between the US and Kazakhstan.

Likewise, this is no longer the halcyon day of intra-USSR visits — these are independent states, meeting with independent claims and concerns. Kyrgyzstan is looking for international aid to buoy its listing economy. President Almazbek Atambayev may also be looking to bolster his battered image, recently hamstrung by a broken coalition and a bizarre case of horse-based bribery. And Nazarbayev, long second fiddle to Moscow and Beijing, undoubtedly relishes a moment to look like the big man of the steppe, using a bit of regional politicking to influence his neighbors.

It seems to have worked, especially in the former’s case. Kazakhstan promised Kyrgyzstan not simply 200,000 tons of grain — an impressive number, considering the recent drought – but the two countries agreed to boost trade turnover to $1 billion per year. Additionally, Kazakhstan recently pledged a $100 million valve for a ‘joint Kyrgyz-Kazakh investment development fund,’ set for business projects in Kazakhstan, and has announced both new funding for both Kyrgyz schools and opportunities for Bishkek’s students to study in Kazakhstan.

As with any aid, however, strings will remain. In this case, Kazakhstan will be looking for assurances on security along its southern border (which, massacres aside, is actually one of the more stable areas in the region). No reports have yet come out of any increased military cooperation, and it’s likely that any substantive coordination won’t come until after the Americans abscond, but don’t be surprised if there’s some form of concurrent troop training.

And don’t be surprised, likewise, if Nazarbayev begins to lean on Atambayev to consolidate the power he can. As has been shown in Central Asia — at least in the short-term — the most effective form of governance seems to be the soft autocracy that Kazakhstan employs, and which Kyrgyzstan has taken pains to avoid. Those supporting Nazarbayev’s grip merely point southward to the tumult and poverty Bishkek experiences when deflecting criticism of Nursultan’s rule. As such, if there’s a notable backslide to Atambayev’s tightening, don’t look to Astana for any encouragement otherwise.

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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