Crisis in Central Asia: Why conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan occured

Author : Viktor Ruzhynsky

Source : 112 Ukraine

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev accused official Astana of interfering in the internal affairs of his country
08:21, 15 October 2017

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October 15, the first round of presidential elections is held in Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps under other circumstances Ukraine public would take no notice of this event, but the latest news from the region has drawn attention to the will of the Kirghiz. A diplomatic conflict broke out between Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Kazakhstan: Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev accused the official Astana of interfering in the internal affairs of his country, and accused Kyrgyz opposition of "tuft-hunting before the Kazakh oligarchs." The shadow of suspicions fell on the richest man in Kazakhstan - Bulat Utemuratov, whom Bishkek suspects of financing and bribing opposition presidential candidates. Against the backdrop of a diplomatic scandal, problems began on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border, where kilometrical traffic jams appeared, and Kazakh military equipment was seen nearby. The elections themselves will be held in a tense atmosphere, and experts do not exclude even a disruption of elections.

Related: Opposition leader detained ahead of presidential campaign in Kyrgyzstan

The current stated wish in Kyrgyzstan should be the first democratic one in the history of the country's independence. First, there was Askar Akayev’s long-term rule, then two revolutions have put an end to the regimes of Akayev, and he was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiyev. After the bloody April 2010 revolution, Almazbek Atambayev first became prime minister and then the president. Atambaev considers himself to be a democrat, despite the fact that his entire government is marked by scandals, the sources of which often served as personnel appointments for high state positions of persons from the personal service of the president - his drivers, bodyguards. The last years of his power were marked by numerous civil and criminal lawsuits against journalists, activists, opposition politicians, and human rights defenders who criticized the regime.

Now Atambayev cannot run because the constitution of Kyrgyzstan provides only one six-year term for the president. However, the head of state prepared a successor, recent Prime Minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov, and appointed his protege Sapar Isakov before the elections. And he did not hesitate to tell it at the official events and even agitate for his people. Amendments to the constitution, proposed by Atambayev and approved at a referendum in December last year, expanded the powers of the prime minister in Kyrgyzstan, making this post an important link in the vertical of power.

Sooronbai Jeenbeko

Despite the frank administrative resources and the policy of continuity, President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambaev constantly speaks about the democratic character of the future voting. "These elections are of historical importance for Kyrgyzstan, for the stability of the country and its further sustainable development, and therefore it is especially important to ensure the holding of maximum transparent and clean elections, creating all conditions for democratic and open competition so that the results of elections that will be determined by the people do not cause any doubts neither with the citizens of the country, nor with the participants in the election campaign," Atambayev said.

For the first time in history of the country, elections will be held on the basis of an electronic information and electoral system, which includes automatic reading boxes, special secure data transmission channels, software, a central server and a website. At the end of voting, the ballot boxes will automatically transmit preliminary results to the CEC server. Voter lists are based on biometric population data. According to the head of state's plan, technological know-how in the rather poor 6 millionth country of Central Asia is designed to exclude falsifications and provide a transparent process of transferring power to Atambayev's successor. However, these plans of the current regime could collapse this Sunday, as there is still no confidence in Jeenbekov's victory, and his main rival, ex-prime minister and current representative of the parliamentary faction of the Ata-Jurt party Omurbek Babanov has quite real chances to win, using the support of neighboring Kazakhstan. Actually, this is the reason for the current confrontation between Bishkek and Astana.

Related: Turkish plane crashes in Kyrgyzstan: two houses burning in area

The roots of tension between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan go back to April 2010 revolution. Deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev took refuge in Kazakhstan, and the new authorities in Bishkek did not like it. With the accession of Kyrgyzstan to the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, economic tensions between the countries increased. It was the Kremlin's idea to invite Bishkek to the union, but Kazakhstan met the initiative in a cool manner. "Bishkek then believed that Astana creates artificial obstacles to prevent the production of Kyrgyzstan to the market of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)," said Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev.

Relations between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan during Atambayev's presidency were the coldest since the beginning of the 1990s. Kazakhstan likes to remember that Kyrgyzstan is a very unstable country, that two color revolutions took place there. Elite in Astana is slightly irritated by it.

Last year, Atambayev recalled that "in 2010, Kazakhstan imposed a blockade on Kyrgyzstan for a month and a half, and it caused human casualties."

At the same time, such exchanges of causticism were mixed with courtesy. Not so long ago Atambayev called the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, “a brother” and regretted that earlier Kyrgyzstan did not have such president. In turn, Astana allocated $ 100 million to Kyrgyzstan for infrastructure projects.

Related: Pranker’s ally caught in Kyrgyzstan

But with the start of the pre-election race the relationship finally deteriorated. Before the elections, Atambayev began to publicly call Kazakhstan a threat to his country.

In the middle of September Omurbek Babanov, candidate for presidency of Kyrgyzstan, arrived in Kazakhstan. In Bishkek, they saw this as an attempt by the Kazakh side to influence the outcome of the presidential election. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry handed a note of protest to its Kazakh colleagues and expressed its "bewilderment." Astana has denied interference in the elections.

Omurbek Babanov

Two weeks before the election, the Kyrgyz special services detained the leader of Kyrgyzstan political party, ex-head of the ruling coalition of the parliament Kanatbek Isaev, accusing him of preparing forcible seizure of power in case Babanov lost his election.

Then the press service of the President of Kyrgyzstan reported on the discovery of the facts of preparing mass riots on election day, and financial support was provided from abroad (that is from Kazakhstan). As a result, Atambaev canceled the planned visit to Sochi for October 10-11 – a meeting of the Council of CIS Heads of State.

October 7, Deputy Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Temir Djumakadyrov, head of the Republican Staff for holding presidential elections and curator of the power bloc under died on the road near Bishkek unintelligible circumstances. The truckload has suddenly drove into the oncoming lane and collided with the car of Djumakadyrov. A few hours after this misfortune, Atambaev delivered a lengthy, almost half-hour speech at the state awards ceremony, which became the most scandalous in all six years of his presidential term. He said that he saw the "next leader of Kyrgyzstan" dead, and promised "to hold fair elections," and then criticized the Kazakh authorities, which "impose such leaders еto the country." It was about Babanov. Atambayev's speech was very, very tough, he actually pointed out that Babanov is a project of Astana, which does not want to have a democratic neighbor.

Related: Turkish Foreign Ministry: Gülen’s supporters might commit coup in Kyrgyzstan

According to Yevgeny Klauber, an analyst at the Faculty of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, Atambaev’s speech, delivered in Russian, was addressed not only to the Kirghiz, but rather to the Kremlin. Gazprom and other Russian companies have big business in Kyrgyzstan, and Atambayev himself has signed strategic documents on military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Bishkek. They concern the creation of a unified air defense system, the confirmation of the status of Russia's unified military base in Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, Russia has written off 240 million dollars of republic’s debt. And now the president of Kyrgyzstan asks the Kremlin to influence Astana, to act as arbitrator.

Against the backdrop of verbal skirmishes, a crisis began on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border. Special services of Kazakhstan have adopted "additional security measures" in order to "prevent criminal elements from entering the country." As a result, traffic across the border practically stopped, creating kilometric traffic jams. Transit became seriously threatened. Kazakhstan reported that it detained more than 100 smugglers at the border. Kyrgyzstan suspected the political underpinnings of these neighbor's actions.

As the journalist Arkady Dubnov writes, the region has not witnessed such exacerbation of relations between its neighbors in Central Asia since 2002, "when the late Turkmenbashi accused neighboring Uzbekistan of being involved in so-called assassination attempt on himself." However, now the allies of the Kremlin are arguing. And only Russia can get some benefits from this conflict, requiring, for example, contracts for its companies instead of peacekeeping services.

Related: Germany offer rapprochement with EU to Kyrgyz Republic

Kyrgyz media are toying about Omurbek Babanov's dependence on Kazakhstan. Besides Babanov's visit to Astana, the public speaks about activity of people close to the head of Kazakhstan, in particular the country's richest man Bulat Utemuratov. The other day, audio recording of telephone conversations between Utemuratov and presidential candidate of Kyrgyzstan Temir Sariyev appeared in the internet. Sccording to the record, Kazakh oligarch and presidential candidate agree on a meeting in Almaty, and Sariev behaves like a Utemuratov’s subordinate and even complains to him that he "forgot him and does not help at all, although there is election campaigning." People are sure that Utemuratov offered Sariev (who has no chances to win) to support Babanov in the elections in order to win in the first round.

This high attention to Utemuratov means something. A non-public businessman is suspected of corruption. He himself told Bloomberg that "working for the Kazakh government, he started his own business." He began to resell abroad zinc and copper, purchased from Kazakhstan miners. And thanks to the benevolence of the political elite, he gained control over a number of gold and nickel deposits. Being a civil servant, he became a billionaire after a dubious deal to sell ATF Bank to Italian UniCredit for $ 2 billion on the eve of the financial crisis (ATF immediately went bankrupt, and the Italians lost another 2.7 billion, and then sold it altogether) and now Utemuratov is the richest man in the country. He has banking, telecommunication, mining, development and many other businesses both in Kazakhstan and abroad. For 15 years, he held various high positions in the country, and now he is a member of the political council of Nur Otan pro-presidential party.

Related: Kazakhstan bought Ukrainian An-74 aircraft for 15 million USD

In May 2010, Bulat Utemuratov became a special representative of the President of Kazakhstan on cooperation with Kyrgyzstan. He also owns several enterprises in this country, he personally knows many former VIPs of Kyrgyzstan, who are now in opposition to Atambaev. Therefore, Utemuratov, to build bridges with the official Astana, guides some politicians in Kyrgyzstan.

Omurbek Babanov also has a common business with Kazakhs. The richest businessman of Kyrgyzstan has made a fortune on smuggling of fuel and lubricants to Tajikistan. After Kyrgyzstan accessed the EAEU, customs officers recorded an increase in the volume of illegal imports of petroleum products from Kazakhstan, measured in tens of thousands of tons. The authorities of Kyrgyzstan are sure that there are agreements between Utemuratov and Babanov: support for the election in exchange for a shareholding of some companies, as well as several gold deposits of Kyrgyzstan after the victory.


In his speech, President Atambayev directly accused Utemuratov of financing the Kyrgyz opposition and looting the country.

The closer to the elections, and especially after the death of Djumakadyrov, a lot of statements about the possibility of a military coup in Kyrgyzstan in the event of a loss in the election Babanov appear. The mass media controlled by the government write about the broad financial possibilities of the opposition candidate and his support in Astana. In turn, Babanov's headquarters indicate that the authorities are preparing an excuse to cancel the voting results if Sioronbai Jeenbekov loses.

It is possible that against the background of the fall in the rating of the pro-government candidate, they decided to use the Kazakhstan factor as a political technology tool and to mobilize and consolidate the electorate around their candidate through mobilizing patriotic sentiments. Observers point out that President Atambaev's accusatory speech received a lot of praise. However, it is impossible to assess the impact of these statements on the ratings of the race leaders (due to the absence of sociological research in Kyrgyzstan).

It is noteworthy that the Kremlin has actually abstained from the conflict between its two allies. Moscow understands: nothing changes in interstate relations whoever wins in Kyrgyzstan.

So far, it look like in a tense first round the two leaders - Babanov and Jeenbekov - will gain the majority of votes and will go to the second round. We will find out in the near future whether the political tension in the country will lead to the riots and the forceful scenario of the transfer of power.


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