After 25 years of stagnation, India and Iran are beginning to make serious efforts in Central Asia
An outlier in the region, Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country where elections have brought down an incumbent and the only one where two revolutions have brought a change in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More free, democratic and politically pluralistic than its peers, Kyrgyzstan has called itself as the Switzerland of Central Asia. But the similarity between the two is limited mostly to mountainous terrain. The entire Kyrgyzstan is covered in mountain ranges and associated valleys. Over 90% of the Kyrgyz terrain is at least 3,000 feet above sea level. The highest peak, Jengish Chokusu, on the Chinese border soars over 24,000 feet, and is the second highest peak in the former Soviet Union after Tajikistan’s Ismoil Somoni. The steep mountain ranges zigzag through Kyrgyzstan, dividing the country into regions that even to this day remain only loosely connected to each other—one reason why no single ruler has successfully subjugated the country under a centralized leadership.
Nomad tribes of Turkic descent, overrun and influenced by outside empires from the Mongols to Chinese dynasties to Uzbek Khanates to the Russian Empire, traversed the modern day Kyrgyzstan until the Soviet central planners tied the mobile herders and their yurts to the land in 1930s. The traditional way of life survived only in the borderlands near the Chinese border, where the nomadic tribes’ local knowledge of the terrain created a bulwark against intrusions by Chinese spies.
For Russians and the Soviets, the distinctions between the intermixed ethnic groups that lacked a history of independent statehood were arbitrary. Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz were considered as one people until the early 20th century. Shared cultural heritage and the mutually intelligible languages still tie Kyrgyz and Kazakh societies closely together even if the political relationship on the interstate level has often proven turbulent.
Looking at historical legacies and similarities, it would be tempting to call Kyrgyzstan Kazakhstan’s little brother, but for Kyrgyz the comparison should go other way around. A small nation of 6 million people, Kyrgyzstan boasts a proud and long history, which they date to the 10th Century. The national identity is centered around the 18th Century epic poem of Manas, which recites a story of the tribal leader Manas, who unified 40 tribes of the Kyrgyz lands to fend off attacks by Mongol tribes. Now Manas dominates the Kyrgyz national symbols: the country’s highest honor, main airport, numerous monuments are named after Manas, and the 40 sun rays of the Kyrgyz national flag symbolise the 40 unified tribes.
Reflecting the traditional power of tribal and kinship networks, the Kyrgyz people when encountering strangers often start the conversation by asking of each other’s ancestry. Often colored with fictional accounts, most trace their lineage back even 8 generations. Family heritage trumps all other forms identity, creating powerful kinship networks that dominate the Kyrgyz politics. Notions of family honor and loyalty are deeply embedded in the Kyrgyz political culture, and the geographic divisions have prevented any single group to dominate the entire country. The political plurality, built on kinship networks and geography, have given rise to political institutions that are, compared to the other Central Asian countries, relatively pluralistic and democratic, but also unstable. The only color revolution of Central Asia, the Tulip revolution led to the fall of the president Askar Akayev, who ruled the country since independence from the Soviet Union until 2005, when fraudulent parliamentary elections led to street protests and fracturing of the political elite. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who emerged as the new president, met the same faith five years later when revolts and ethnic violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan forced him to flee the country.
The tumultuous politics and inter-clan struggles have intertwined with Kyrgyzstan’s foreign relations. Southern and Northern Kyrgyzstan are separated by mountain ranges and the major highways that connect the capital Bishkek in the North to the regional center of Osh, in the South, go through Uzbekistan. Southern Kyrgyzstan has only ever been loosely controlled by the central government in Bishkek, and when in 2010, ethnic violence broke out between the intermixed Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities of Osh, the Kyrgyz security forces were unable to bring the situation under control before entire neighborhoods were cleansed of the Uzbek minority, hundreds of thousands had fled to Uzbekistan and up to a thousand people killed. Kyrgyzstan called for Russia to intervene, but Moscow declined. Violence deepened the rift between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which has occasionally blocked the road access on the Bishkek-Osh highway to pressure Kyrgyzstan in political disputes.
The nexus of clan politics, foreign relations and economics came dramatically together in the tug-of-war around the Manas air base. Kyrgyzstan is rich in minerals, especially gold, and in hydropower, but remains the second poorest post-soviet country after Tajikistan—with a GDP per capita income of only half of Uzbekistan’s, which, like Kyrgyzstan, does not have a substantial oil or gas wealth. Like other Central Asian countries, the patrimonial political economy of Kyrgyzstan relies heavily on rent seeking. In the absence of hydrocarbon resources, the country’s elites have sought creative ways to extract wealth.
When the war in Afghanistan started, Kyrgyzstan rushed in to offer United States basing rights near Bishkek. The American rents enriched the close associates of the president Akayev. Subsequently Russia tired to pressure Kyrgyzstan to close down the air base to preserve its military primacy in the region. Kyrgyz elites saw this as an opportunity to pit Moscow and Washington into a bidding war between ever increasing rents paid by the Americans and economic deals promised by Moscow. In the end, after one more round, Moscow lost its patience and, according to allegations, was orchestrating the 2010 revolt and change of power with the help of clans, who were opposed to then-president Bakiyev.
More free and chaotic than the other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan’s reform agenda scored important points in the 1990s. It joined the World Trade Organization in 1998, long before its neighbors or Russia. Since then, the self-proclaimed Switzerland of Central Asia has gone through tumultuous uprisings, ethnic violence, revolutions, and chaotic foreign relations. Kyrgyzstan has gone from pitting Russia and the United States against each other to being a gateway for China to Central Asia to become a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
It is still the only country in Central Asia, where elections are not just ceremonial but can bring change of power. But change does not mean progress, and in many ways, Kyrgyzstan is still where it was at the beginning of the transition: waiting for the untapped potential of its minerals and hydropower to transform into a meaningful change in the quality of life in the scarce villages and isolated valleys, where lores of Manas, horses and family clans dominate the everyday life now just as they did generations ago.
|Country Population||6 million|
|Largest City (Population)||Bishke (960,000)|
|2nd Largest City (Population)||Osh (260,000)|
|3rd Largest City (Population)||Jalal-Abad (97,000)|
|4th Largest City (Population)||Karakol (66,000)|
|5th Largest City (Population)||Tokmok (53,000)|
|President (Dates)||Sooronbay Jeenbekov (2017-Present)|
|Prime Minister (Dates)||Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev (2018-Present)|
|Prime Minister||Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev|
|Freedom House Score (1=Free, 7=Not Free)||5|
|Ruling Party||Social Democratic Party|
|Past Presidents (Dates)||Almazbek Atanbeyev (2011-2017)
Roza Otunbayeva (2010-2011)
Kurmanbek Bakiyev (2005-2010)
Ishenbai Kadyrbekov (2005)
Askar Akayev (1990-2005)
|Past Prime Ministers (Dates)||Sapar Isakov (2017-2018)
Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev (2017)
Sooronbay Jeenbekov (2016-2017)
Temir Sariyev (2015-2016)
Djoomart Otorbaev (2014-2015)
Zhantoro Satybaldiyev (2012-2014)
Aaly Karashev (2012)
Omurbek Babanov (2011)
Almazbek Atambayev (2010-2011, 2007)
Daniar Usenov (2009-2010)
Igor Chudinov (2007-2009)
Iskenderbek Aidaraliyev (2007)
Azim Isabekov (2007)
Felix Kulov (2005-2007)
Kurmanbek Bakiyev (2005, 2000-2002)
Medetbek Kerimkulov (2005)
Nikolai Tanayev (2002-2005)
Amangeldy Muraliyev (1999-2000)
Boris Silayev (1999, 1998)
Jumabek Ibraimov (1998-1999)
Kubanychbek Jumaliyev (1998)
Apas Jumagulov (1993-1998)
Almanbet Matrubrainov (1993)
Tursunbek Chyngyshev (1992-1993)
Andrey Iordan (1991-1992)
Nasirdin Isanov (1991)
|How Central Banker is Appointed||Appointed by Parliament|
|Average Voter Turnout in Last 5 Elections
(% of Total Population)
|10 Major Import Partners
(% of Total Imports)
|Top Exports||Sanctioned by
(and Start Date)
(and Start Date)
|1. China (51%)
2. Russia (18%)
3. Kazakhstan (9.4%)
4. Turkey (4.8%)
5. US (3.0%)
6. Uzbekistan (1.3%)
7. Germany (1.2%)
8. Belarus (0.96%)
9. South Korea (0.84%)
10. Ukraine (0.76%)
|1. Kazakhstan (22%)
2. Russia (17%)
3. Uzbekistan (12%)
4. Turkey (10%)
5. China (8.1%)
6. UK (6.2%)
7. Switzerland (5.9%)
8. UAE (3.6%)
9. Tajikistan (2.2%)
10. Germany (1.3%)
|Largest Sources of FDI by Country||1. China
|Largest Ethnic Groups
(% of Total Population)
(% of Total of Population)
|Sunni Islam (75%)
Russian Orthodox (20%)
Kyrgyzstan’s domestic political situation is very much of the “two steps forward, one step backward” variety—at times, the system even takes two steps backward for one step forward. Since its transition from Soviet control, the internal struggle for power has been marked by ups—strengthening civil society, democratic elections, and reforms—and downs—clannish politics, nationalism, bitter infighting, and corruption. The crux of the problem is that despite Kyrgyzstan’s repeated reforms, the country cannot seem to produce a stable and more transparent system. While the country boasts a strong civil society—possibly the strongest in Central Asia—they lack trust in the political processes and institutions of Kyrgyzstan. Amidst the allegations of corruption in the highest offices of government, patronage, nepotism, and the revolving door of politicians, internal actors and external observers are unsure of what to expect from the country’s domestic developments, which eats away at the country’s credibility to undertake reforms.
The country is torn by inter- and intra-party divisions. Though there are multiple parties, and some plurality, leaders and parties use their power to form an operate patronage networks arbitrating and manipulating competing interests in groups below them. Kyrgyzstan is also torn apart by waves of nationalist sentiment, particularly against Uzbeks, which is encouraged and used by politicians for their own ends. To make steps forward in its democratic development, Kyrgyzstan must check the power of party leaders and embrace its pluralist and open dialogue.
Kyrgyzstan's power is shared by a hybrid of executive and legislative governance. While the county is technically a parliamentary democracy, with the president as head of state and the prime minister as head of the government, there are two larger powers at work in the country, namely the clan networks and the north-south divide. Clan networks are area specific, and have internal codes of conduct. People tend to have allegiance alongside—or within—party membership. These tensions can blur the lines between personal and political, and result in larger, more dramatic outcomes. It also leads to more volatility in political discourse. The second feature is the north-south divide. It is hard for Bishkek to keep a reign on events and personalities toward the south. This can also lead to a split in policy and, given the above, push the government into different factions.
The president in Kyrgyzstan is the head of the state, elected by popular vote. Each president is elected to serve a single term of six years, amended after the first president, Askar Akayev, was re-elected twice amidst claims of falsified ballots. The president approves the prime minister, who is nominated by the majority party in parliament. As head of state, the president also controls the Kyrgyz state security services. The position has been developed by those who have held it since the country’s transition from the Soviet Union, in 1991.
Post-independence, the first elected president was Askar Akayev—a communist bureaucrat previously offered the position of vice president of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev (Akayev declined)—and generally seen as a middle-of-the-road personality. But, like other first-time leaders in Central Asia, hope that Akayev’s presidency would bring a seamless transition to democracy were lost as he held on to power, winning reelection twice, in 1995 and 2000, despite claims of rigged elections. His presidency was irrevocably tarnished by his violent crackdown on public protesters in 2002. Akayev’s legitimacy as a leader was further harmed by the Manas air base scandal, in which the president and those close to him were accused—rightly—of profiting handsomely off the U.S.-run transport center. His power was finally brought to an end in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, following fears that Akayev would hold on to power by ensuring one of his own children won the electoral spot for president. Amidst a stream of popular protests calling for his ouster, Akayev and his family fled to Russia, and he subsequently tendered his resignation and was stripped of the title of first president of Kyrgyzstan.
Akayev’s successor, Bakiyev, did not fare much better: his presidency was marked by divisive and corrupt politics. The Manas scnadal that had begun under Akayev flourished under Bakiyev—despite the extreme protests pushing Akayev out of power, the control of the fuel contracts moved without pause from Akayev to Bakiyev. Bakiyev’s son, in particular, infamously profited. To keep his hold on power, Bakiyev stirred up ethnic tensions and Kyrgyz nationalism, particularly in Fergana Valley, where a high population of ethnic Uzbeks live. He extended and manipulated patronage networks in the Fergana Valley, which he later used in an attempt to hold on to his assets. Like his predecessor, in the presidential election of 2010, Bakiyev was accused of manipulating voting to stay in power. Street protests led to his removal from power—but his role as a nationalist and divisive leader turned election protests into a wider dispute between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan— riots in Osh. At least 470 were killed because of the clashes arising from ethnic tensions.
Following the riots, changes were made to the government: Roza Otunbayeva, the first and only female head of state in Central Asia, formed a new opposition government. She oversaw negotiations on weakening the power of the president in favor of a stronger parliament. A constitutional amendment was passed that established a mixed presidential and parliamentary system. In the new setup, the president was popularly elected, and the prime minister was nominated by the majority in parliament and appointed by the president. The electoral system was moved to a closed list, in which party leadership, rather than voters, determined which deputies could enter parliament. The measures were passed via a popular referendum, in 2010, in which the amendments received 90% support. In October, several months after the riots and constitutional amendment referendum, Kyrgyzstan against held elections, with five parties reaching the 5% threshold to have parliamentary access. Otunbayeva stepped down from power willingly following the election of Almazbek Atambayev of Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan. At the time, his election was triumph of modern ideals over nationalism: a peaceful power transition following a tumultuous era.
Following his constitutional six-year tenure, elections were held in November 2017, which resulted in the victory of Sooronbay Jeenbekov, also a member of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, and another peaceful transition of power. The executive branch in Kyrgyzstan has had made ups and downs since the country’s independence in 1991 and transition away from the central Soviet setup. The legacy of a strong leader is highlighted, as are tensions between ethnic groups and clans, which have manifested over the years. But the conflict has served to move power away from the center and towards a healthier, more balanced relationship with parliament.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has grown in strength as the country has developed plurality and morphed into a genuine multi-party system. The Tulip Revolution was a watershed moment for this formation, giving a platform to a multitude of interests and voices, clamoring to be heard. At its best, the parliament in Kyrgyzstan leads to expression of various interests groups and sharing of power; at its worst, the politics devolves into clannish entrenchment and stymying policy for private gain, hurting the country as a whole. As in the executive branch, personalities of party leaders tend to win out over ideology. Parties—even opposition parties—will form short- or longer-term coalitions to achieve policy goals rather than unite over shared ideological factors. This can help create a system of shared needs, but it can hamper true policy directives in Kyrgyzstan’s larger thrust to assert itself and its future trajectory, as pragmatism can trump principle.
The legislature in Kyrgyzstan began as a unicameral parliament following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1995, the system was amended to make a bicameral Supreme Council—Joghorky Kenes. The Joghorky Kenes included the Assembly of People’s Representatives, with 45 seats, all of which were filled by popular vote, and the Legislative Assembly, with 60 seats, 45 of which were filled by popular vote and 15 of which were filled by national party lists with a 5% threshold. In 2005, following a 2003 referendum, the Kyrgyz legislature was reverted to a unicameral system—the Legislative Assembly of Myuzam Chygaruu Jyiyny. This iteration had 75 members total, each of which was elected for a five-year term. But, in 2007, a referendum again modified the parliamentary system: notable was the shift away from popular election in single-seat constituencies, replaced with party-list voting, in which parliamentarians were appointed by their respective parties, not directly by the voters.
There is rule of law in Kyrgyzstan, and the judicial branch of Kyrgyzstan comprises a series of courts in hierarchical order, with the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan at the top of the pyramid, overseeing all other courts. The Supreme Court is the nation’s final arbiter of appeals, and, following the abolition of the Constitutional Court, in 2010, is also responsible for overseeing and ruling on constitutional law in Kyrgyzstan. There are local courts, where most cases are first tried, and oblast courts for appeals. Kyrgyzstan's judges are appointed through the aptly-named Council for the Selection of Judges. While in theory the council is meant to keep political interest and corruption at bay, ensuring judicial independence, outside critics have levied that the council instead has deeply entrenched patronage schemes and works to maintain the status quo of power-holding.
The Kyrgyz government has taken tangible steps towards reforming its judicial system, including establishment of the Judiciary Reform Commission, to identify and implement necessary reforms to improve judicial systems in Kyrgyzstan. The lack of judicial accountability has been a major drawback for private business and foreign investment in Kyrgyzstan: potential investors feel a lack of confidence in the murky system where laws can be arbitrarily enforced or cases vanish. As Kyrgyzstan has addressed the shortcomings and power imbalances in its executive and legislative branches over the years, so, too, must it implement deep reform in its judiciary in order to independently hold the other two accountable.
Civil Society, Media, and NGOs
Despite other problems that Kyrgyzstan suffers in its clannish politics, separation of powers, and independence of the judiciary, the country enjoys a health and robust civil society. The media is partly free, and there are a variety of media sources available to Kyrgyz citizens. In addition to state-run TV networks, there are more than a dozen privately-owned and run stations, giving a plurality of voice and perspective. Russian networks are also available in Kyrgyz media, and are popular among the population. Generally, NGOs can operate without fear of crackdowns or reprisal. A flashpoint for political tension and some amount of censorship is the country’s ethnic tension: some media sources and civil society groups refuse to report on the issue or misconstrue information favorable to their side of choice. The Kyrgyz govern has applied the label of extremism—whether religious or ethnic—to justify crackdowns, revoking media licenses, or censoring information. On aggregate, though, Kyrgyzstan has one of the most free media environments in Central Asia, and its civil society is active and engaged in public discourse.
The politics of the second poorest post-Soviet country, Kyrgyzstan exemplify the problems that have plagued the whole region: endemic corruption, the power of informal networks over formal institutions, instability, and political violence. The rural country, fragmented by one of the world’s highest mountain ranges continues to suffer from the weakness of the state institutions. Families and clans rule the small country more than laws do. But unlike in every other Central Asian country, elections are not a foregone conclusion. The most recent presidential elections in 2017 marked the first, peaceful and democratic transition of power in the whole region. The political pluralism of Kyrgyzstan might be a result of internal divisions, state weakness—the inability of any single politician or group to dominate over others, but Kyrgyzstan’s strong civil society and relatively free electoral processes continue to be the closest thing to meaningful checks and balances in Central Asia.
The second poorest post-Soviet country, with a population of 6 million, Kyrgyzstan is not a great power. Its foreign policy has centered around managing internal problems and occasional maverick-like attempts to pit outside great powers against each other to extract the maximum benefit. In the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan marketed itself as the Switzerland of Central Asia—more free, democratic, politically pluralistic and reform-minded than its neighbors. It became the region’s largest recipient of foreign aid in per capita terms.
When the war in Afghanistan started in 2001, Kyrgyzstan sought to capitalize on its favorable geographic location by granting the US military an air base outside of the capital Bishkek. Russia did not object at the beginning, but started to increasingly resent the American military presence in Central Asia as wider US-Russia relations deteriorated. In response to the American presence, Russia also established an air base near the Kyrgyz capital, making Kyrgyzstan the only country in the world to host both the Russian and American military simultaneously. Promising economic benefits, Russia tried to persuade Bishkek to end the lease of the Manas air base to the American airforce.
Bishkek saw an opportunity to sell its loyalty to the highest bidder. With each successive round of informal bidding, the rents for the airbase soared as did Russia’s investment and trade promises. Finally, Russia lost its patience with Bishkek and allegedly fueled the 2010 protests with an information campaign that targeted the president Bakiyev. The revolts led to his downfall, and the new president Roza Otunbayeva swiftly showed the American military the exit door. Kyrgyzstan’s sporadic balancing act between great powers has since dwindled down. United States has scaled back its presensence in Central Asia.
China has emerged the most important economic player, but to check the increasing influence from Beijing, Bishkek has realigned itself again more closely with Moscow. Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, and is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with its Central Asian neighbors has been equally turbulent. Culturally, linguistically, and historically it is closest to its northern neighbor Kazakhstan. The societal links between northern Kyrgyzstan and Southern Kazakhstan are particularly strong. The drive from the capital Bishkek to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s most populous city, is under three hours, while the squiggly road to Osh, the regional center in Southern Kyrgyzstan, travesses through Uzbekistan and takes over 10 hours.
Despite the close day-to-day interactions between peoples and businesses, the state level relations between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have been strained by Kyrgyz accusations that Kazakhstan continues to meddle in the internal affairs of its small neighbor—most recently the presidential elections in 2017, when Ömürbek Babanov, an opposition candidate, was allegedly backed by Astana. But Kazakhstan still remains Kyrgyzstan’s closest partner in Central Asia. The relationship with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has been marked by the porous boundaries in the Ferghana Valley, where flexuous borders and exclaves, interethnic violence and crime. The Ferghana Valley, shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is home to over 14 million people and the center of Central Asia’s agriculture.
Osh, the center of Southern Kyrgyzstan, is only loosely connected and controlled by the central government in Bishkek. In 2010, violence broke out between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in Osh. The central government was unable to bring the situation under control and pledged Russia for military intervention. Moscow refused, and the violence only halted after entire neighborhoods had been cleansed of the Uzbek population, hundreds dead, and hundreds of thousands fled across the border to Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan feared a military intervention by Uzbekistan, which at the time was led by Islam Karimov, who had previously declared himself as the protector of all Uzbeks. His successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev has reached out to Kyrgyzstan with a more conciliatory approach, and the relations between the two countries have markedly improved, but the instability factor of the Ferghana Valley retains its potential to shake up the interstate relations with tragic events.
Linguistically, culturally and historically, of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan has had the closest ties with Kazakhstan. Northern Kyrgyzstan and Southern Kazakhstan, and the major cities of the region, Almaty and Bishkek form an area, where societal, transborder links are stronger than between northern and southern parts of Kyrgyzstan, which are separated by mountain ranges. Kazakhstan has often played a mediating role between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have had more antagonistic relations.
Despite close societal links, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have had their own share of political disputes. In 2017, ahead of the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan, president Atambayev accused Moscow of backing one of the candidates, the former prime minister Ömürbek Babanov, who eventually came in second. Following the accusations, Kazakhstan imposed heavy border inspections, which brought the traffic on the border to a halt. But the incident has not had further consequences, as the new president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and the Kazakh government swiftly agreed on the normalization of the relations. Kazakhstan continues to remain as Kyrgyzstan’s most important regional partner, but economic and power imbalance means that Kyrgyzstan is bound to remain as the junior partner.
Nearly 15% of Kyrgyzstan’s population are Uzbeks, who constitute its largest minority, mostly concentrated in the southern Ferghana Valley and Osh. The valley is shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz side is fragmented by Uzbek and Tajik exclaves, which have been at the center of border disputes. In the Soviet period, the fractal borders were administrative and not accurately demarcated. The largest of the Uzbek excalves, Sokh has a population of 50,000, and has been a scene to blockades and riots. The tensions between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations escalated into ethnic violence in Osh in 2010. Entire Uzbek neighborhoods were cleansed and hundreds of thousands crossed the nearby border to Uzbekistan before the Kyrgyz government was able to restore order. The inability of the Kyrgyz central government to maintain control in the southern provinces has fuelled fears that Uzbekistan, at a time of crisis, would intervene militarily to defend the Uzbek communities.
During the rule of the Uzbek president Islam Karimov, relations were especially antagonistic. Karimov was known for his uncompromising style of diplomacy and self-projected image as the defender of all Uzbeks. After Karimov’s death in 2016, the new Uzbek president Sakhat Mirziyoyev has reached out to Kyrgyzstan with a more conciliatory approach. The two sides have agreed on the demarcation of most of the disputed borders, markedly improving the bilateral relationship. Remaining disputes revolve around Kyrgyzstan’s plans to expand its hydropower infrastructure. A downstream country, Uzbekistan relies on irrigation from rivers that flow down from the Kyrgyz mountains. The planned Kambarata-1 Dam would be one of the world’s largest. The dam was objected by the Karimov regime, but the new Uzbek leadership has softened its stance, and the two sides are negotiating on arrangements that would allow the construction of the dam, while securing Uzbekistan’s access to the downstream water resources.
All the problems that Kyrgyzstan has from political instability to poverty, Tajikistan shares but in a more extreme form. Tajikistan has no means to project power on Kyrgyzstan, and the mountainous borderlands limit the extent of interactions between the Kyrgyz and Tajik societies. Kyrgyzstan’s main fear has been the spillover effects of refugees, extremism, crime, and drugs from its volatile southern neighbor. But cooperation has been fostered by shared problems with Uzbekistan. Dushanbe has signalled support to Bishkek and vice versa over border and dam disputes. During the 2010 Osh riots, Tajikistan urged the Uzbeks of Southern Kyrgyzstan to respect Kyrgyz laws. But the ability of the poorest soviet country to offer meaningful support to the almost equally poor Kyrgyzstan is limited.
Especially in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan, led by Askar Akayev, wanted more Russian assistance than Moscow was willing to offer. Russia had to essentially kick Kyrgyzstan out of the ruble zone to establish its own independent currency, the som, in 1993. Kyrgyzstan has seen close ties with Moscow as a way to manage internal problems from extremism to porous borders with Tajikistan—challenges which it has considered challenging and expensive to address alone. Russia established its first foreign military base since the fall of the Soviet Union, in 2003, in Kant, Northern Kyrgyzstan. The airbase hosts 400 soldiers, and the lease was extended in 2012 by 15 more years after Russia wrote off $500 million of Kyrgyz debt. But few years later, the Kyrgyz president Atambayev urged for the base to be shut down only to make a u-turn in 2017, when he requested Russia to expand its military presence by opening a second base in Southern Kyrgyzstan, where the threat of the instability spilling over from Tajikistan or political violence in the weakly managed region posed a security threat. Moscow did not jump on the opportunity.
The new Kyrgyz president Jeenbekov has restated his predecessor’s view that Russia has the option to open a second military base. For Russia, military presence in Kyrgyzstan is a means to maintain a stepping board for operations in the southern part of the region and to boost its great power prestige, but Moscow’s reluctance to establish further bases reveals the lack of tangible benefits for further expensive investments in military infrastructure. Russia remains Kyrgyzstan’s main outside political and security partner—a position further strengthened by Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union since 2015.
The United States
Kyrgyzstan’s importance to the American foreign policy rose and waned with the war in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz president Akayev granted the American military an air base at the Manas airport, north of the capital Bishkek. The base, which was opened in 2001, became a critically important part of the supply chain for the NATO troops in Afghanistan, especially as the instability in Pakistan undermined the reliability of the southern route. Russia was originally supportive of the American military presence in Central Asia, but as disputes over NATO enlargement, missile defense, responses to the color revolutions led to deteriorating relations, Russia (and China), in 2005, started efforts to pressure the Central Asian states to close down the American bases in the region. The Kyrgyz leadership saw this as an opportunity to pit great powers against each other in a bidding war. In 2009, Kyrgyzstan was demanding the American military to withdraw from the base after Russia had promised $2 billion in loans and $150 million in financial aid. But after agreeing to hike up rents for the base, Kyrgyzstan extended the lease of the base until 2014, when the United States closed down the transit center as part of the wider scaling back of the operation in Afghanistan. With the closure of Manas, the significance of Kyrgyzstan for the American foreign policy has all but vanished. United States continues to support development projects in Kyrgyzstan, but the days when Kyrgyzstan was at the center of the 21st Century Great Game are over for now.
China has emerged as the preeminent outside investor and trade partner for Kyrgyzstan. The two are separated by mountain ranges, where the highest peaks soar to altitudes of over 20,000 feet. The natural barriers have limited interactions along the 800-kilometer border. The only two border crossings are at an altitude of over 9000 feet, making them hard to cross in harsh winter conditions. But trade has soared, and Kyrgyzstan has welcomed Chinese investments into infrastructure, putting high hopes especially in the Chinese-funded project to build a railway that would connect China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s investments in Kyrgyzstan are largely motivated by efforts to bring stability and prosperity to the isolated borderlands, where fighters from the Chinese Xinjiang province have found safe haven. In the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China has conducted operations with the Kyrgyz authorities to extract suspects from Kyrgyzstan. The repressive measures by Chinese authorities against the muslim minorities in the province have led to resentment amid the Kyrgyz civil society, straining the warm state-to-state relations.
Aside the Uyghurs, the Kyrgyz minority of 200,000 people in China has been a subject to the measures aimed against the influence of Islam in the region. The most dramatic backlash against the increasing Chinese influence in Kyrgyzstan was the 2016 suicide bomb attack against the Chinese embassy in Bishkek. The attack was connected to Uyghur separatism, but did not claim other casualties than the perpetrator. Despite tensions, the Chinese role in Kyrgyzstan is expected to continue its grow.
For a brief moment, during the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan became an important geopolitical actor, proffering its geographic location as a key base to service the conflict. The country and its sponsors dramatically mismanaged the conflict, leading to scandal and U.S. withdrawal from the base. This is a good analogy for Kyrgyzstan's geopolitical methods and the resulting effect. The country aspires to link to other great powers to help its own status, but it is unable to do this in the long run because of the power imbalance and because of Kyrgyzstan’s own domestic feuding. Meanwhile, it is battling instability inside and outside its own borders, and turning to great powers to help curb that as well. Further, Kyrgyzstan has been unable to keep fruitful relations with the less powerful and its more familiar and immediate Central Asian neighbors. The will to be proactive is present in Kyrgyzstan, but it will need perseverance and a more systematic approach to harness its eagerness into a sustainable regional IR strategy.
Kyrgyzstan is the second-poorest country in Central Asia, after Tajikistan. Its economy is marked by the difficulty of transition away from the Soviet Union after 1991. Before the breakup, nearly 100% of Kyrgyzstan’s exports went to the Soviet Union, after the breakup, despite the backing of major financial institutions, such as the IMF, World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, issues from the transition economy persisted. About 31.7% of the population lives under the poverty line, but the country has aspirations to improve the situation. The current GDP is $7.2 billion, with GDP per capita at $1,160.
The economy is primarily dependent on gold from a single Canadian-owned mine, Kumtor, which makes up around 10% of GDP, and remittances from workers abroad, mostly in Russia, which accounts for 30% of the economy. This makes the Kyrgyz economy vulnerable to external market shocks, particularly in Russia. The National Bank of Kyrgyz Republic, which serves as the Central bank of Kyrgyzstan, tries to offset these shocks, but is tied to the yo-yoing domestic political situation. With the first onset of political hope and reform, the Central Asian republic joined the WTO in 1998, just seven years after it gained independence and began the rocky road to transition, far before other more developed countries in the region, including Russia and Kazakhstan.
Structure of Economy and Key Markets
Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which gives Kyrgyz migrant laborers abroad freedom of movement and more legal protection. Its membership is indicative of the strong hold Russia has over the Central Asian republic. Bishkek signed on to the EAEU, partly due to Moscow strong-arming threats to close its borders to Kyrgyz migrant workers. Kyrgyzstan is highly dependent on Russia for remittances, for its import and export trade partnership, and for domestic financing of projects. It is highly susceptible to changes in the Russian economy.
Membership in the EAEU brought help from Gazprom to revamp Kyrgyzstan's pipeline infrastructure, and helped reduce the country’s dependency on Uzbekistan, which is not a member of the EAEU. Kyrgyzstan likely joined before its time, though, and the long-term effects have yet to pan out. The country was not properly prepared to implement EAEU requirements and is suffering from inconsistent application of documents and codes for importers and exporter as it is continues to adapt its domestic laws to EAEU policies, leading to confusion. And it its has yet to see mighty benefits of union membership. Indeed, Bishkek’s membership could have been a short-sighted ploy to appease Moscow with longer-term drawbacks - union membership could negatively affect non-EAEU trade because of required tariffs on certain goods to meet union regulations. These tariffs could potentially violate Kyrgyzstan’s WTO requirements or preclude it from membership in other, more lucrative, trade agreements. EAEU membership has also hurt business for small Kyrgyz vendors re-selling cheap Chinese goods, a symptom that could be indicative of wider issues that will arise with Chinese-Kyrgyz re-export aspirations. Kyrgyzstan’s oscillation on the EAEU is exemplified by the rollercoaster of public support over the years: in 2013, 67% of Kyrgyz supported membership in the Union; in 2014, that support dwindled to 50%; but it rose again to 86% in 2015.
But Russia’s own domestic problems could hurt its hold on its neighbor to the south. A weak Russian economy means less migrant labor demand and fewer remittances from Russia, and dropping Russian influence. Bishkek has already had to halt two Moscow-led hydro deals. In 2016, following several years of empty promises from Russian energy companies Inter RAO UES and RusHydro to construct two hydroelectric plants, Kyrgyzstan finally yanked the project.
China is another key partner for Kyrgyzstan, marked by an asymmetry. Bishkek is not essential to the success of Beijing's economic policy—China’s primary reason for investing in Central Asia is to shore up security on its western borders and sow regional integration, smoothing China’s own expansion of influence. Bishkek needs Chinese money to make its economy boom, But this relationship also has resulted in a growing dependence. Kyrgyzstan's state debt tallies at $4 billion, a quarter of which is owed to the Export-Import Bank of China. Beijing is a feasible alternative to temper Moscow’s influence.
This disparity of needs is seen in the execution of projects and Chinese commitment, but for its part, Kyrgyzstan should put more effort into courting the Chinese and ensuring property rights. China is interested in opening factories in Kyrgyzstan, and the Central Asian country was floated as an addition to Line D of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline. Aside from development projects, the two countries’ bilateral trade has more than doubled in the past decade; China is now Kyrgyzstan’s fifth-largest export partner and second-largest import partner, after Russia. Much of the goods moving from China through Kyrgyzstan’s borders is transit trade—shuttling through to larger, more profitable markets in Russia and Kazakhstan. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is also projected to come to Kyrgyzstan, but China is less keen as the terrain is mountainous and the country is still plagued by instability—not the optimal transit route.
Important domestic industries in Kyrgyzstan are the mining industry—gold in particular makes up between 8–10% of GDP. Though the country is rich in minerals, it has little natural gas or petroleum, which it must import. Remittances from foreign workers accounts for around 30% of GDP. Remittances are a benefit in that they help grow the middle class and raise demand for consumer products, helping to grow the local economy, but they also can harm the economy by tying it to the performance of foreign markets where the migrant laborers are working. Another node of the Kyrgyz economy is its agriculture. The terrain lends itself to raising livestock and is a good source of domestic self-employment. Kyrgyz land is also used to cultivate vegetables and grain, but little of this produce leaves the region because the country lacks the transport infrastructure to deliver perishable items to markets outside immediate neighbors before the fruit and vegetables spoil. The country has poor telecom business, but a great deal of potential to the patient investor. Kyrgyzstan also has massive potential for growth in hydro power. Hydroelectricity accounts for between 80–90% of Kyrgyzstan's energy, but there are still energy shortages. With the proper investment and technology, Kyrgyzstan has aspirations of being an energy exporter, and has attempted to pursue plans to that effect.
Russia and China have both explored investing in this area, and several projects have been planned. A longtime plan with Russia was scrapped, but China is increasingly interested in the field. Still, the long term feasibility is being revisited, due to the gradual depletion of glacial deposits and decreased water flow in key areas. Like other countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan has a large informal economy. Its value has been estimated to be at 60% of the GDP. Kyrgyzstan's economic climate is plagued by problems that make business tricky, best handled by those who have taken time to understand risks and political situation.
The top issues to doing business in Kyrgyzstan are deal with its rampant corruption and shadow economy. The judiciary is not independent enough to be a reliable enforcer of law separate from or against government wishes. The rule of law is weak: while rules governing private property rights and methods of doing business exist, their enforcement is half hearted or sporadic. There is a shortage of resources in the government and the private sector to keep business services moving smoothly.
There are issues in transparency in business, including access to permits and applications, taxation law, and consistent guarantee of private property ownership. This has led to problems in attracting foreign aid in Kyrgyzstan and stimulating new sources of private investment, diversifying away from the two chief partners the country has in China—which readily absorbs risk—and Russia. Would-be outside business partners or givers of foreign aid are wary that most of their time will be wasted tied up in court, scandal, and renegotiation of terms, especially given the case example of the experience of Canadian-owned gold mine, Kumtor. The bottom line with Kumtor and similar areas is that Kyrgyzstan is still politically sensitive about investment in resource extraction and industries connected with its legacy in the Soviet Union.
Kyrgyzstan holds a negative trade balance. Its consumer economy runs on imports from other countries, like China and Turkey, but their products are not in high demand on the global market. The country is landlocked and mountainous, making it a slow and unreliable trade partner. Its infrastructure is not reliable, and export delays are common. As a result, its top trade partners for its export market are all in its immediate neighbors, a setup that does the Kyrgyz economy does not favor, given the high political and economic instability in the region. Kyrgyzstan's key exports—which can be sent outside its immediate neighborhood to bigger buyers—are non-perishables, like gold and other non-precious metals, dried legumes, and mechanical equipment. The gold, supplied almost exclusively from the Canadian-owned Kumtor mine, makes up $155 million of its export, and is exported to four destinations: the UK, Switzerland, the UAE, and Turkey. The country’s other ores, including previous metal, and sent to Kazakhstan and China, making a combined export value of $152.3 million. Dried legumes, at a value of $58.3 million are exported to a large audience, chiefly Turkey, but including countries like Serbia, Russia, Poland, and Georgia. The country’s last big export category is planes, helicopters, and other spacecraft, accounting for $46.7 million, which it exports to Turkey, the UAE, and Iran.
Its top export partners are Kazakhstan, accounting for $224 million, the main recipient of Kyrgyz metal ores. Russia is the next largest, with $167 million, and mostly received cotton and consumer goods. Uzbekistan receives $125 million, mostly delivery trucks and iron. Turkey is the fourth largest partner, with $101 million, with Kyrgyzstan’s export trade led by its planes, helicopters and spacecraft, dried legumes, gold, refined petroleum, and raw cotton. Finally, China is the fifth-largest export partner, but its share could grow in coming years. It accounts for $81.7 million, mostly precious metal ore, refined petroleum, rolled tobacco, consumer goods.
Unlike its regional neighbors, Kyrgyzstan is relatively natural resource-deficient when it comes to petroleum or natural gas. As a result, the country’s top import is fuel and natural gas. Other major imports include iron, machinery, automobiles, chemical products, medicine, food products. Kyrgyzstan also imports a lot of consumer goods, which, on aggregate, make up the biggest bracket of imports. Rubber footwear accounts for the largest import, at a value of $618 million. Refined petroleum makes up $375 million of the import pie. Cottons—light pure and mixed woven—make up $355 million. The last category, packaged medicaments, accounts for $110 million.
The top import partner is China, sending over a whopping $2.62 billion in goods, mostly rubber footwear and cotton products. Russia is its second-largest partner, with $941 million, sending petroleum and consumer goods. Kazakhstan sends $482 million worth of of goods, led by petroleum, tobacco, and iron. Turkey’s exports to Kyrgyzstan are mostly consumer goods, totalling $244 million. The last partner is the United States, which sends Kyrgyzstan planes, helicopters, spacecraft and other machine parts, accounting for $151 million of imports to the Central Asian country. Overall, Kyrgyzstan stands to gain plenty from increased cooperation with its trade partners, especially China, which might invest in infrastructure. The country has potential to grow its hydropower industry to export electricity and its agriculture sector to export more livestock and produce products—it needs the means to do so.
Foreign Money Flows
Most of Kyrgyzstan’s economic ills could be cured—or at least mightily addressed—by outside capital. The country is too poor to finance much of the change, but outsiders can bring projects to the country that would benefit both parties. FDI has risen steadily over the years, and is currently around $750 million. Still, the country’s—and region’s—pervasive instability and corruption creates a poor investment climate and hurts opportunities. The biggest investment sector by far is mining, but it remains underdeveloped and a political flashpoint—Chinese, Russian, Kazakh firms big contenders for those tenders, but all are exhausted at the prospect of endless rounds of wrangling with the government over tenders and rights. The infamous study of the Kumtor gold mine (which is traded on Toronto Stock Exchange [TSX] as “CG”) serves to encourage and discourage involvement. The mine is Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine—a joint venture between Canada Canterra Gold and the Kyrgyz government, which holds just under ⅓ of the shares. The project has been miring in scandal amid accusations of corruption, especially on the government side, environmental problems, and health concerns in the region, whose residents regularly complain. The Canadian company and Kyrgyz government have engaged in repeated rounds of negotiations to nationalize the mine, but such an option would be a lose-lose-lose for the Kyrgyz government. Leaders in Bishkek would be unlikely to continue to grow the output of the mine, and seizing an asset developed by a foreign company would only further scare away potential western investors that are nervous about their own private property protection. Aside from the 10% of GDP that Kumtor’s mine creates for the Kyrgyz economy, its aggregate industrial output amounts to around 21.1%; in 2017, the business’s contributions to the country in taxes and other means was more than $2.69 million—something the Kyrgyz government doesn’t want to miss out on. The Kyrgyz government has set up the Investment Promotion Agency, housed in the Ministry of Economy, to stimulate investment and lead outsiders through the thorny system of registration. But the best way to enter and stay in the market is through a joint-stock venture with a local partner, familiar with the Kyrgyz system. These plans can pan out, but to attract more foreign investors, Kyrgyzstan needs to simplify its processes, open up its system, and uphold its rule of law.
Central Asia has two sets of countries: the natural gas and petroleum-rich, which barely have to do anything to obtain wealth and security, and those without, which must scrounge to develop the domestic economy, infrastructure, and attract foreign business. Kyrgyzstan falls into the latter category. The country’s greatest assets, like its agriculture and hydropower, are woefully underdeveloped. When foreign investment does develop the country the government plays flippantly with private property rights, causing other potential developers to think twice about the price of involvement. Its economy is still highly dependent on work done from its citizens abroad—putting itself at risk of shocks in those countries’ domestic markets—rather than developing its own market as the nexus of employment and trade. The country has recovered from previous shocks, which is promising, but it needs to further develop and anchor itself by staying on the path of institutional reform, building relationships with local partners, and casting its net wider into the global economy.
Culture & Society
Kyrgyzstan, the Switzerland of Central Asia as its government tried to brand it in the 1990s, is a small mountainous country but with a big pride of its heritage. Manas, perhaps the world’s longest epic poem with over 500,000 lines, tells the story of the legendary tribal chief Manas who united the 40 tribes of Kyrgyzstan to deter the Uighur invaders. The forty tribes are symbolized in the 40 sunbeams on the Kyrgyz flag. The epic is probably much younger than the Kyrgyz would like to admit, but it points to enduring features in the Kyrgyz society and national identity: nomadism and the importance of clans. Upon meeting a compatriot, it is customary for a Kyrgyz to jump straight into asking about the other’s ancestry. Most Kyrgyz date back their ancestry 8 generations. The narratives of lineage are often more myths than facts, but the tribal identities continue to play a crucial part in organizing the society and the individual’s place in it.
The country is very rural and mountainous: only around a third of the population live in urban areas, and over four fifths of the country is covered in mountain. In the small villages, the power of the state pales next to the clan networks and old traditions. The tribe ties the individual into a community whose expectations and favors can make or break careers, marriages. And there is no worse punishment than an exclusion by one’s community. Al kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz hat worn by men of all ages in the countryside, tells one’s status. Black ornaments tell of the high status of an elderly member of the village, while an all white hat tells that its bearer is unmarried.
In the villages, every visitor is treated with great hospitality. The guest is seated on the honorary spot in the living room and usually served an impressive assortment of dairy: cheeses, ayran, and even kumis, which is a fermented horse milk. On the turnside of the hospitality, the Kyrgyz village life has a darker side. The marriage practices of rural Kyrgyzstan have received international infamy. Bride kidnappings are still part of the village life. Traditionally, the practice used to be a way for two lovers to set up a marriage in the event that the bride’s parents did not agree to it. But the old tradition has turned into a literal practice of men kidnapping women from other villages and forcing them into a marriage.
Horses still retain their place as a vital part of Kyrgyz villages. Horse riding remains an indelible skill for any villager. The Kyrgyz horses are small and agile compared to their European peers, making them well-suitable to the narrow mountain paths. Different forms of horse riding also form the backbone of Kyrgyz sports. Perhaps the most famous version is Buzkhasi—a game where the players of two teams struggle in rugby fashion (though on horseback) to fetch a carcass of a goat, and then place it in the goal pit. Buzkhasi and other traditional sports have been revived in the post-soviet era as a nomadic foundation of the Kyrgyz national identity. Many are now on display the annual world nomadic games, which bring together athletes mainly from Central Asia to compete in different forms of horse riding, archery, and other essential nomadic skills.