The Central Asian Cauldron: Kyrgyzstan a Powder Keg?

Vishnu Sasikumar
December 6th, 2020


The Central Asian region is now turned into a cauldron of conflict, with the major republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan facing the heat.  In particular, the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan has been witnessing a major political upheaval lately. The political violence began soon after the results of October 4 elections were declared. Following the results, there were massive protests led by the Opposition against Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov and his government. Protesters stormed into important government buildings including the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan. In what was likened to storming the La Bastille under the French Revolution, Kyrgyz people freed political prisoners including the Prime Ministerial candidate Sadyr Japarov. Owing to popular and widespread protests PM Boronov and his government stepped down and the election commission annulled the vote. Japarov was ultimately voted in to become the Prime Minister. Soon after he assumed the Prime Ministership he demanded the resignation of Kyrgyz President Jeenbekov. Jeenbekov resigned a day after to avoid further political violence. Kyrgyzstan is the fourth ex-Soviet Republic which is facing a serious crisis (along with COVID-19)  after Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  

 Kyrgyz and Sino-Russian perspectives

This political conflict has a very high chance of translating into many other geopolitical effects in the strategic region of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan lies in close proximity to important regional hegemons- Russia and China. Kyrgyzstan owes nearly USD 1.6 billion to China as loans and foreign debt. This is exclusive of other investments which China has or wishes to have. Under such economic conditions, it is imperative for Kyrgyzstan to maintain a stable and peaceful society in order to have a stable and robust economy. Financial markets are highly sensitive to such turmoil and prolonged conflict in the region will keep financial markets of the country in bad light and health. This would have serious consequences on the Kyrgyz economy as a poor and negatively fluctuating financial market would be a big disincentive for major entities to invest in the Kyrgyz economy. This component becomes more important when we consider the fact that Kyrgyzstan is a relatively poor nation compared to its other Central Asian neighbours, with nearly 32 percent of people living below poverty. The Kyrgyz economy is already facing the heat of this conflict as Russia has suspended the economic aid of nearly USD 100 million to Kyrgyzstan due to the current scenario. 

Not only Kyrgyzstan but both China and Russia are anxious about this conflict. Both the countries fear a rise of radical extremists ideologies, with the possibility of extremist elements coming in from Afghanistan who is looking to make their inroads into Central Asia. The conflict in Kyrgyzstan and its demographics have a high chance of making this prophecy self-fulfilling. China and Russia’s fear can be explained by the Uighur factor (China) and the Chechen factor (Russia). This can pave the way for a series of terrorist activities against both countries.  Russia and China fear Kyrgyzstan turning into a hub or base for terrorism in the Central Asian region. Apart from this, Kyrgyzstan is a crucial link for China’s dream project of BRI. China has planned a series of projects under the banner of CAREC (Central Asian Regional Economic Corridor)  to link China with Western Europe passing through Kyrgyzstan. China is also looking forward to invest USD 1 Billion in the Kyrgyz energy sector. Under such circumstances, it is really important to have stable and peaceful conditions in the host country in order to get access to the raw materials required for manufacturing and protection of Chinese capital, labour and assets. Recently, the extraction of gold from Kyrgyz mines which were Russian owned was affected due to the political conflict which shows the implications of the turmoil on the foreign-led investments and activities in the region. If the situation is not back to normal soon, then China will have greater legitimacy to place its troops in the Central Asian region under the pretext of protection of Chinese assets- a strategic move which was played in Pakistan.

While we saw the Chinese interests and concerns, it is really astonishing for many people to see Russia’s lukewarm response to the major upheavals not only in Kyrgyzstan but in entire Central Asia. These Central Asian Republics were a part of the Russian dominated  Soviet Union and till recently Russia considered it’s ex-Soviet counterparts as a region which was to be under Russian response. But analysing the recent Russian responses, it is clear that Russian strategic thought is shedding away the ‘Soviet complex’ or the baggage of the Soviet legacy- a legacy which is associated when Russia was accorded as the successor state of erstwhile USSR. While it was expected that Russia would be a proactive role in Kyrgyzstan, Russia chose to be a passive spectator. Even though the upheavals in Belarus and the Central Asian region threatened Russia dominance in the ex-Soviet space, Russia chose to play a passive role. Perhaps Kremlin is now looking forward to present itself as a responsible ‘good’ and rule-abiding player of the global game. Moscow has been facing the brunt of sanctions imposed post the Crimean annexation. Post sanctions, the Russian economy has been heavily dependent on China and Chinese investments, which is a matter of concern for the Kremlin. The economic hardships for Russia exacerbated with the onset of COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore Russia might be looking forward to rebuilding its image post the Crimean annexation. At the same time, though Beijing-Moscow relations have reached a new strategic potential depth, there is still a considerable section of strategic thinkers who consider China as a threat. The history of Sino-Soviet split was preceded by a similar warmth in Sino-Russia relations. The dynamics and differences in the Far East are a potential point of conflict between Russia and China. Contextualising all these points, it might be clear that Russia would wish to get these conflicts resolved, without much interference from the Kremlin. This would be a win-win situation and the most desirable outcome for the Kremlin. 

The Big Picture

Thus it is imperative for both Kyrgyzstan and the external powers including Russia and China to resolve the political deadlock in the country so that they can expect a peaceful and stable neighbourhood. The Corona crisis coupled with the Nagorno Karabakh conflict has made matters really volatile for Central Asia. A prolonged conflict in Kyrgyzstan will add more vulnerabilities to the already vulnerable region of Central Asia (which has a rich resource of hydrocarbons)  in the current context. A stable and peaceful Central Asia would be the strategic imperative for many countries to ensure their energy security.

** The author is currently an intern in KIIPS. He is an undergraduate student pursuing graduation in the field of Political Science and Economics from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi.**