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    Central Asia
     Jan 20, 2012

Atambayev's Turkish affair needs domestic peace
By Fozil Mashrab

TASHKENT - When newly elected Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev traveled to Turkey for his first official bilateral visit from January 12 to 15, many Kyrgyz watchers were looking for clues on Kyrgyzstan's future foreign policy course in the next six years - the duration of the single term allowed for a Kyrgyz President.

Others immediately criticized former prime minister Atambayev, who took over as president on December 1, for making his first blunder by not traveling to Russia, which Atambayev has often in the past called Kyrgyzstan's "main strategic partner".

Since the first foreign visit of any newly elected president carries with it great symbolic meaning, should we also expect the resurgence of Turkey's influence in Central Asia in general and in Kyrgyzstan in particular in the near future, in a rerun of the heady


early 1990s? Then, Turkey unsuccessfully attempted to position itself as a "big brother" for newly independent Turkic countries of Central Asia, only to abandon such ambitions when it became clear that Turkey was trying to punch above its weight given the limitations of its economic strength.

Turkey's foremost priority and preoccupation for the past 40 years or so has been integration into the European Union, so Ankara's periodic surges of interest in other regions, including Central Asia, have waxed and waned based on the progress or lack of thereof in its talks with the EU.

This time, the new-found love between Kyrgyzstan and Turkey seems to suggest that it is not Turkey that is trying to reengage its Central Asian cousin more strongly; rather, President Atambayev is attempting to diversify Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy away from superpowers such as Russia, the United States and China and thus lessen his country's heavy dependence on them. Cultivating the so-called second-tier countries like Turkey may look a better bet, as they emerge as strong economies with increasing technological and investment potential.

In the past, the main foreign policy strategy of former Kyrgyz presidents has been to play one superpower against the other in order to gain maximum benefit for Kyrgyzstan and its ruling regimes. Such political brinkmanship and attempts to juggle superpower interests have been detrimental for Kyrgyzstan. They have led to two forced regime changes in a decade, each time as the balance was perceived to be tilting too much towards one superpower at the cost of the other.

It is widely believed that US threw its weight behind the so-called bloodless "Tulip Revolution" in May 2005, when president Askar Akaev was ousted - he then found asylum in Russia. The bloody overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010 was the result of a combination of economic sanctions and political pressure from the Kremlin.

In the aftermath of the violent regime change in 2010, former president Bakiev's all-powerful son, Maxim Bakiev, who was the central figure in his father's regime, found safe haven in London, while Kurmanbek himself is believed to have fled to Belarus.

Superpowers like Russia, US and China have looked at Kyrgyzstan with a view of furthering their own strategic and geopolitical aims. As such, the US has not really been interested in investing much into the Kyrgyz economy, largely limiting itself to securing its strategic and geopolitical interests related to continued access to the Manas airbase near Bishkek; Russian investments and economic assistance came with political and economic domination.

Politically, China has sought the Kyrgyz government's support for its repression of ethnic Uyghurs in its restive western Xinjiang province, and economically it has been interested in marketing its products in Kyrgyzstan and using the country Kyrgyzstan to penetrate the markets elsewhere in the region.

The week before traveling to Turkey, President Atambayev played host to Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister, who was in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, as part of a bilateral exercise to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Atambayev and Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov spared no effort in trying to convince their Japanese guests that Kyrgyzstan was safe for foreign investments in various sectors, including, first and foremost, mining.

Therefore, Kyrgyz government's recent attempts at courting Japan, Turkey and other second-tier countries are meant to diversify Kyrgyzstan's foreign partners and aim at attracting much-needed foreign investments into the economy, which was severely damaged by the violent regime change and bloody ethnic clashes in 2010.

A similar foreign policy strategy has benefited neighboring Uzbekistan, whose best friends in terms of economic and investment cooperation and transfer of technologies are South Korea, Germany, India, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, Oman and some other countries which have been courted and cultivated by Uzbek government over many years.

Uzbekistan has a number of inherent advantages over Kyrgyzstan, such as vast natural gas reserves, a rich mineral base, a larger market, relatively better infrastructure and internal transportation system - and most importantly political stability, which is the bedrock for attracting foreign direct investment.

Therefore, even if Uzbekistan's humble success is used as a yardstick, Kyrgyzstan will still have a tall order to follow since successful implementation of such a strategy will require many years, if not decades, of patient and persistent work and maintenance of political stability and continuity of reforms in Kyrgyzstan. A single six-year term is not really enough to see through such a long-term strategy.

To translate the political goodwill and warm inter-personal relations between the two leaders, President Atambayev and Turkish President Abdullah Gull have agreed that both sides will work towards increasing bilateral trade turnover between the two countries to US$1 billion by 2015 from $300 million in 2011. It is an ambitious plan given the size of the Kyrgyz economy and small total volume of its foreign trade, which reached $4 billion last year.

The Turkish president also promised to help Kyrgyzstan to attract Turkish investments to the amount of $450 million in the next few years - provided the Kyrgyz authorities create favorable conditions for foreign investors.

Foreign investors' confidence in Kyrgyz economy has been shaken recently not only because of the political instability in the country but also as a result of the weak government protection of foreign investments. Some businesses established with the participation of foreign direct investment during the rule of Kurmanbek Bakiev fell prey to the Kyrgyz authorities' "nationalization campaign" carried out in the aftermath of his violent overthrow.

This campaign targeted all businesses considered to have enjoyed too cozy a relationship with the former regime or which were illegally seized by the Bakiev clan and cronies. The new Kyrgyz authorities have refused to acknowledge that it was not possible to establish and run a successful business in Kyrgyzstan during the time of Bakiev without entering some kind of deal with Maxim Bakiev or some other high-profile representatives of the regime.

Some critics of the Kyrgyz government have accused the new authorities of "flagrant disrespect for private property and asset grabbing", which was actually just history repeating itself - since former president Bakiev and his team used the same tactic in taking over various businesses and property after the overthrow of the former Askar Akaev in 2005.

If President Atambayev's pronouncements made in Turkey are any indication of what might be in store for foreign investors, then we can expect that the biggest and most lucrative foreign investment in the country - the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine, which contributes around 60% of Kyrgyzstan's exports - might become the next target for Kyrgyz authorities in the near future.

While addressing the Turkish Parliament, Atambayev said that in the last 10 years gold worth of $10 billion was extracted from the Kumtor mine while Kyrgyz state coffers received only 3% of that money. Such coded accusations usually precede some real arm-twisting at a later stage.

As Turkey engages Kyrgyzstan more strongly both economically and politically, its immediate responsibility will be to apply strong but well-meaning brotherly pressure on Kyrgyz leaders to bring about genuine reconciliation among the ethnic majority Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzstan's largest ethnic minority Uzbeks. Both are Turkic speaking Muslim people.

So far, Turkish leaders have conveniently chosen not to raise this issue in their bilateral talks; or if it was discussed during the recent bilateral summit, that was not publicized.

If Turkey continues to remain an indifferent bystander and look the other way when it comes to the repression and systematic violence against ethnic Uzbeks by the Kyrgyz state in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalalabad, such a policy will be short-sighted and ultimately untenable.

So far, Turkey has only sponsored one conference on the 2010 ethnic clashes in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, which was held in the Kyrgyz Issik-Kul lake resort in their immediate aftermath. That is definitely too little for a country that considers itself as the champion of the unity and brotherhood of Turkic peoples.

Turkey will not be able to replace Russia as Kyrgyzstan's "main strategic partner" any time in the future, and Turkey does not seem to entertain any such plans. But if Turkey does indeed start to invest in the Kyrgyz economy and assist Kyrgyzstan in capacity building and military training with the prospect of establishing a complete visa-free regime between the two countries in the future, as was announced during the bilateral meetings, then Kyrgyzstan will definitely be able to lessen its dependence on Russia or any other superpower.

For that to happen, President Atambayev will be expected to ensure political stability, and a transparent and predictable environment for foreign investment in the country.

Fozil Mashrab is a pseudonym used by an independent analyst based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

A fraternal welcome for Erdogan in Kyrgyzstan (Feb 17, '11)

Sympathy for the Turkish devil (Jun 29, '10)

China plays it cool on Kyrgyzstan (Apr 20, '10)

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