In early March 2011, the U.S. Department of State awarded then-Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva with the International Women of Courage Award. “So what?” an interested reader might ask. “She earned it,” was perhaps the thought in her administration, which included Temir Sariyev—then the deputy premier and finances minister.
However, when the U.S. DoS awarded Azimjan Askarov—a 64-year-old rights advocate imprisoned for life—now Prime Minister Sariyev’s cabinet thinks otherwise. In response to the Human Rights Defenders Award given mid-July to Mr. Askarov, the Kyrgyz foreign ministry and parliament issued angry statements, arguing the award of an imprisoned ethnic Uzbek rights advocate would “jeopardize the Kyrgyz government’s measures” to normalize interethnic relations. The relations the government is referring to crumbled in the cities of Osh and Jalalabad in the Kyrgyz south, where Mr. Askarov hails from, during horrific interethnic clashes that left about 500 people killed, thousands wounded and millions of dollars in property damage in their wake. Both local and foreign rights watchdogs repeatedly stated Mr. Askarov was illegally detained, brutally tortured and unjustly imprisoned for allegedly murdering a law-enforcement officer. But the incumbent Kyrgyz authorities believe in the contrary. So Premier Sariyev went as far as denouncing a bilateral agreement with the USA in response to the award.
The agreement in question—Agreement on Cooperation To Facilitate The Provision Of Assistance—was signed between the two governments in the US capital in 1993, and essentially provided for relieving the US assistance and aid, civil and military personnel, and organizations from any and all taxes applicable in such cases. The Kyrgyz government cleverly did not choose to rescind other agreements. (Although the Kyrgyz government did boot the US Transit Centre [PDF] from an airport near Bishkek in 2014.) In other words, “Keep that aid coming, just pay taxes from now on.”
The Kyrgyz government was quick, too, responding in less than a few days with the initiative of rescinding the agreement. But why such a hurry? And why leave an entire month before the renunciation decision enters force on August 20? To be sure, the US Embassy in Bishkek also was quick to express “disappointment” with the decision. Still, as if the Kyrgyz government was waiting for just the right excuse to announce the relations with the US are souring despite the fact the Kyrgyz economy “slowed to 3.6% in 2014 […], while local currency depreciation of about 19% pushed inflation to 7.5%.” And in 2015, “growth will likely slow further to 1.7%. […] and inflation will likely reach or exceed 10%, and the current account deficit 15%” of the GDP, the Asian Development Bank’s figures and analyses show.
With this backdrop, even though the Kyrgyz government’s move might suggest it is acting irrationally and counter-intuitively, one plausible motive is voiced. MP Ravshan Jeenbekov told a Bishkek newspaper the denunciation was “an initiative of external forces, which exert very strong influence over Kyrgyzstan,” echoing a Russian expert on Central Asia. MP Jeebenkov harshly states the Sariyev cabinet “betrayed the country’s interests” by denunciating the agreement. In the MP’s opinion, “Kyrgyzstan needs cooperation with [the USA], because it provides significant financial assistance” for educational, security and humanitarian initiatives. Therefore, according to the MP, “an independent government would not have adopted [this] decision” to Kyrgyzstan’s detriment.
And one of the “external forces” the Kyrgyz MP is referring to is Russia, Erica Marat, a Washington-based researcher on Central Asia originally from Kyrgyzstan, told the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. According to Ms. Marat, President Almazbek Atambayev and the government are preparing for the upcoming parliamentary elections in autumn. (The exact date of which will soon be known as Premier Sariyev has recently said.) The researcher asserts President Atambayev, who once was the Social Democratic Party leader, is trying to secure “political and possibly financial” support abroad ahead of the elections.
Ms. Marat’s statements hold water especially well in the light of Kyrgyzstan’s recent ascension into the Kremlin-dominated Eurasian Economic Union and joining Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia. It is worth noting the document to that effect was signed only after Mr. Sariyev was elected premier “at the support of the Kremlin,” as some claim, late April this year. It would, therefore, be “no surprise if telephone calls were made to the Kremlin before the decision was made,” a Kyrgyz news agency quotes Emil Jurayev, a professor at the Bishkek-based American University in Central Asia, as saying. In light of these statements, the aforementioned MP Jeenbekov’s claim that Premier Sariyev single-handedly signed the denunciation without consulting the cabinet or the parliament and backdated it sounds plausible.
Furthermore, in addition to political ties, there are many economic and security ties that bridge Bishkek with Moscow. An estimated million Kyrgyz citizens are in labor migration in Russia, who remitted nearly US$2.3b last year. (According to the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan, the GDP was just over US$7b as of January 2014.) Also, Kyrgyzstan’s longstanding membership in the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization leaves Bishkek very limited room for political maneuvering.
While this author remains open to other motives behind Bishkek’s decision to denounce the agreement in question, damage has already been inflicted on the Kyrgyz-US relations. No toning down the language, no “damage control” and certainly no afterthoughts will cancel the cancellation of the agreement. But Bishkek knew about it all along: “We do not exclude the probability of decreasing or maybe even stoppage of the aid, which the USA was providing within the [now denounced] agreement’s framework,” the deputy foreign affairs minister said. Hence the hasty and “inadequate hysteria,” in the words of Edil Baysalov, a member of the Otunbayeva administration.
On the other hand, the Sariyev government left no room for the Department of State to “rethink” its decision to award Mr. Askarov—one of the only two awardees this year. After all, the government in Bishkek has not only claimed the decision the U.S. government’s foreign policy arm adopted “inflicts damage on friendly relations” but has also handed Richard M. Miles, Chargé d’Affaires ad Interim, a protest note to that effect. To top it all, Premier Sariyev signed a government decree on a unilateral (!) withdrawal from the more than two-decade old agreement. Having Mr. Askarov’s son visit the Department of State in Washington, D.C., to accept the award on behalf of his father and deliver an emotionally moving speech about “unjust judicial system” in Kyrgyzstan cannot be undone either. Despite all this, the optimistic U.S. government still hopes it can continue delivering aid to the ex-Soviet republic, which—delivered “to support and strengthen Kyrgyzstan’s democratic transition” since the country’s independence in 1991—amounts to nearly US$2b to date. To further confirm their preparedness and resolve to continue delivering aid, the US Embassy in Bishkek circulated another graphics-laden press release on August 2, enumerating assistance provided to improve healthcare, agriculture, education, infrastructure, economy, state agencies and security in Kyrgyzstan.
In conclusion: However trivial the case of a single imprisoned rights advocate may be, it has become the apple of discord in the latest round of the New Great Game. Unilaterally damaging relations with the US over this award suggests Kyrgyzstan is on the cusp of a new kind of foreign relationships—ones in the decisively northward direction. Because this is not first award conferred on Mr. Askarov, but it is the first to trigger so much ire in Bishkek. Therefore, the fame Mr. Askarov gained for this work on advocating on behalf of victims of rights abuse—which apparently turned him into a bargaining chip—could actually spell bigger problems for himself. After going into so much trouble as damaging relations with the most powerful country in the world, the Kyrgyz government would be irrational to even consider pardoning Mr. Askarov, should the latter ever think of requesting clemency. Turning around on heels after all this would be too embarrassing for the government in Bishkek.
But on the other hand, that is a chance Mr. Askarov has to secure release, since the Kyrgyz Supreme Court’s decision to uphold his life-long imprisonment may not be appealed against. The only two ways for Mr. Askarov to leave prison alive are either a) escaping—which he is probably physically incapable of and morally unwilling to—or, more plausibly, b) being pardoned because of his already poor and further deteriorating health. Mr. Askarov’s supporters maintain extended tortures and prison conditions per se badly weakened his health since conviction in September 2010. The imprisoned rights advocate—whose life has been turned into a seemingly endless misery lasting for five years as of this writing—could “confess” in the crime he is accused of and “express remorse.”
Perhaps pardoning and releasing him is now too late to mend the Kyrgyz-US ties, but this scenario would save both Mr. Askarov’s life and the Kyrgyz government’s face.