Guest Post: State Visits: Unprecedented and long overdue

Thanks to Casey Michel (@cjcmichel) for contributing. 

It’s been a long, grating 20 years in Central Asia. Broken economiesAcrimonious bordersDrunken bureaucrats, and attempts at ethnic cleansing.

There’ve been few moments of respite, and fewer moments of fraternity, to note. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are still toeing one another over electricity and hydropower. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are still picking at the flakes of ethnic enclaves sprinkled through the opposing nation. Turkmenistan’s still spinning off in its own world, while Kazakhstan sees the rumblings of an Islamic movement it’d gone two decades without. China and Russia paw at the area, combing for natural resources and arms markets, while the US is set to dispense all kinds of military swag to those participating in the Northern Distribution Network — not particularly a panacea for nations still jawing at each other and clinging to domestic power, two decades after independence.

So when you hear the news, 20 years on, that two nations are set to partake in something that can only be construed as a move in the right direction — when one nation announces it will host a certain Central Asian head of state for the first time since the fall of the USSR — all you can say is:

About damn time, guys.

Last week, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev completed his first state visit to Kyrgyzstan since both nations declared independence in 1991. The feat, for a few reasons, is somewhat remarkable: Geographically, Bishkek is the closest state capital to Astana, and the Kyrgyz capital is but a four-hour drive from Almaty.

More importantly, it can be argued that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have enjoyed the warmest relations of any pair of Central Asian states since independence bloomed in ’91. They are, in the least, the most palatable pair: In the broadest terms, Tajikistan is but a basket-case, Uzbekistan’s a relative pariah, and Turkmenistan sits as hermetically packed as any country you’ll find outside North Korea. Not the tightest band of compatriots. Not the best candidates for alliance.

Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is a swelling economic power — some economists stake Astana with the third-fastest-growing economy over the past decade, behind only Qatar and China — and is seeking to export of bit of that new weight where it can. And Kyrgyzstan, despite its revolutions, presents the region’s best stabs at democracy and pluralism — it’s most recent election, after all, posed the first contest in which the victor wasn’t predetermined. While the resulting governmental structure’s been bogged by marked charges of corruption, Bishkek still represents the best sampling of parliamentarism north of New Delhi. These successes, hitched to a shared Turkic history and a notably shamanistic take on Islam, seem to make these two nations salient candidates for cooperation.

But don’t take this to mean that any meeting is one of equals. Kazakhstan, backed by ever-swelling oil fields, has seen its PPP GDP rise to $13,000 over the last two decades, while Kyrgyzstan, at $2,400, owns one of the lowest per capita GDPs in Asia, stuck between Yemen and Papua New Guinea. The difference between the two ‘stans, in relative terms, is equal to the distance between the US and Romania — or, stretched a bit, between the US and Kazakhstan.

Likewise, this is no longer the halcyon day of intra-USSR visits — these are independent states, meeting with independent claims and concerns. Kyrgyzstan is looking for international aid to buoy its listing economy. President Almazbek Atambayev may also be looking to bolster his battered image, recently hamstrung by a broken coalition and a bizarre case of horse-based bribery. And Nazarbayev, long second fiddle to Moscow and Beijing, undoubtedly relishes a moment to look like the big man of the steppe, using a bit of regional politicking to influence his neighbors.

It seems to have worked, especially in the former’s case. Kazakhstan promised Kyrgyzstan not simply 200,000 tons of grain — an impressive number, considering the recent drought — but the two countries agreed to boost trade turnover to $1 billion per year. Additionally, Kazakhstan recently pledged a $100 million valve for a ‘joint Kyrgyz-Kazakh investment development fund,’ set for business projects in Kazakhstan, and has announced both new funding for both Kyrgyz schools and opportunities for Bishkek’s students to study in Kazakhstan.

As with any aid, however, strings will remain. In this case, Kazakhstan will be looking for assurances on security along its southern border (which, massacres aside, is actually one of the more stable areas in the region). No reports have yet come out of any increased military cooperation, and it’s likely that any substantive coordination won’t come until after the Americans abscond, but don’t be surprised if there’s some form of concurrent troop training.

And don’t be surprised, likewise, if Nazarbayev begins to lean on Atambayev to consolidate the power he can. As has been shown in Central Asia — at least in the short-term — the most effective form of governance seems to be the soft autocracy that Kazakhstan employs, and which Kyrgyzstan has taken pains to avoid. Those supporting Nazarbayev’s grip merely point southward, to the tumult and poverty Bishkek experiences, when deflecting criticism of Nursultan’s rule. As such, if there’s a notable backslide to Atambayev’s tightening, don’t look to Astana for any encouragement otherwise.

But that remains to be seen, and is far from a certainty. Thus, all we have are a pair of Central Asian leaders meeting in a region that sees state visits as often as it does free press. Even if there’s a tightening to come in Kyrgyzstan, and even if the bilateral trade never reaches the aforementioned goals, this Kazakh-Kyrgyz reach-out is one of the more promising developments in the area in recent memory. As Atambayev noted, “Humanitarian aid and loans alone are not enough to raise a country.” Nor are they enough to tighten a region. But they’re a good place to start.
Casey Michel’s a former Peace Corps Kazakhstan Volunteer and current polling fellow at Talking Points Memo. 
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