Kyrgyzstan and the changing geopolitics of Central Asia

Shairbek Dzhuraev, PhD, is co-founder and president of Crossroads Central Asia.

Three characteristics of Kyrgyzstan, a newly independent state as of 1991, determined its foreign policy priorities for years to come. First, it was an economically and militarily small state in its neighborhood, making the pursuit of security relationships the most significant task in international relations. Second, Kyrgyzstan was a resource-poor country, and this turned foreign policy into a quest for securing external aid. Third, as of 1991, Kyrgyzstan was the only Central Asian state where the Soviet-time communist party leadership was in the opposition, not in power, paving the way for more genuine liberalization reforms in the 1990s. 

Combined, the three factors above shaped the contours of Kyrgyzstan’s international engagement, best described in President Askar Akaev’s favorite phrase: “small states need big friends.” Russia emerged as the country’s main political and military ally, particularly valued in the context of unfamiliar China and taciturn Uzbekistan. In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan’s liberal policies attracted much needed support from the U.S. and Europe. For most of the 1990s, Bishkek’s “Russia first” policy sat well with building relations with the rest of the world.

Kyrgyzstan’s economic and political reforms largely followed those of Russia, where President Boris Yeltsin, like Akaev, enjoyed the backing of the West against their biggest internal rivals, the communists. Balancing became more difficult as Russia’s relations with the West deteriorated in the late 1990s. In the wake of the “war on terror” following 9/11, the U.S. set up an airbase at Manas airport. A year later, Russia followed suit, placing a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) airbase at Kant, also near Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan’s ”multi-vector” foreign policy came under increasing criticism in Russia, with commentators likening it to attempts to sit between two chairs. Acknowledging the pressure, President Akaev felt compelled to argue in writing that Kyrgyzstan’s special relations with Russia allowed a “corridor of opportunities” to develop relations with “third countries.” However, the color revolutions in 2003-05 and the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 did not leave space for such a corridor. 

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The article was published by Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst on 30 August 2022. 

* Photo credit: Sultan Dosaliev

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