In his first visit in the West, Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev warned during a press conference with Angela Merkel in Berlin that his country might undergo turmoil similar to that in Afghanistan unless it consolidated its democratic reforms.
Atambayev became president in 2011, in the first peaceful power transfer in the country’s post-Soviet era. The previous two Kyrgyz presidents have been overthrown.
Kyrgyzstan, whose economy heavily depends on a single gold mine’s production and funds sent home by migrant workers and lacks the energy reserves of some of its neighbors, is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet Republics.
Apart from widespread poverty, another key problem in the country is drug trafficking and consumption. The country is situated on the so-called drug trafficking Northern Route, transporting drugs from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe. More than 20 percent of the trafficked drugs remain in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s south is particularly criminalized, as extremist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is involved in the shipment of illicit drugs and selling it in the southern part of the country, where children as young as 12 and 13 start taking drugs. Anti-drug efforts continue to fail, to some extent because of corrupt southern police officers who, instead of striving to prevent drug traffickers, cooperate with drug lords or accept bribes to release petty pushers.
While Kyrgyzstan has yet to effectively confront drug trafficking and consumption, some positive economic prospects have recently opened from China. On December 5, 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev pledged to increase bilateral cooperation in several fields, particularly trade and agriculture.
The Chinese government has encouraged Chinese businesses to augment investment in Kyrgyzstan, while encouraging more exports from its neighbor country. The two countries also plan on pressing ahead with the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and the joint exploitation of the hydro-power resources of the Saryjaz river.
This expansion of China’s extensive partnership offer comes in an effort to counterbalance the Russian and U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan, where both countries have established military air bases. Since 2003, Russia had set its Russian Air Force units at Kant Air Base. On September 20, 2012, Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement allowing Russia to maintain a joint military base in Kyrgyzstan for 15 years since 2017 to add stability in the country and the whole country. The U.S. set up its Air Force base in 2001, but has decided not to renew its lease after 2014.
If China, the U.S. and Russia have made an effort to increase their influence in Kyrgyzstan, the European Union (EU) has certainly been lagging behind in engaging with the Central Asian country. Atambayev’s visit in Berlin strives precisely to explore potential fields of cooperation between the regional body and Kyrgyzstan. In the same vein, emphasizing how important Central Asia is, Merkel stressed that the EU must be honest with all countries situated in the region and not exclusively focus on those that have raw materials or are strategically important as withdrawal routes from Afghanistan.
During the Berlin press conference, Merkel also brought up the question of human rights in the country, including the well-known case of Azimzham Askarov, a journalist campaigning against police brutality who received a life sentence in 2010 allegedly for inciting ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the city of Osh. The Committee to Protect Journalists awarded him in absentia the 2012 International Freedom of the Press Award.
The Kyrgyz president emphasized that Askarov’s case will only be reopen if, in accordance with existing legislation, the courts decide to do so, but that he will not interfere in the case, given his country’s history of decisions been imposed by the President, based on nepotism and corruption.