Kazakh-Kyrgyz union: Borderline state
Kyrgyz measurers and parliamentarians have problems with sleep, these days. The national parliament is scratching its collective head over settlement of old property and territorial disputes with Kazakhstan so as to leave both involved parties pleased. Its time meanwhile is running out. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's official visit to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, is scheduled for April. His meeting with Nursultan Nazarbayev in Ak-Orda will be anything but a protocol function because the critical meeting of the Supreme Council of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (a supranational body) is expected to take place within the framework of the summit. As for the summit itself, it is expected to tally the progress the two republics have made in terms of economic integration and on the road leading to establishment of their union (the agreement to combine efforts to this end was made last April). According to Kyrgyz Ambassador Janysh Rustenbekov, problems of Kyrgyz-Kazakh border cooperation will be discussed as well.
Bakiyev in the meantime encounters trouble at home, trouble of the sort he could do without of course. The so called territorial issue stirred more than the national parliament alone. Seemingly defeated long ago, forces of the opposition came to and started using the issue as an argument in their anti-Bakiyev campaign.
Nazarbayev came to his Kyrgyz counterpart's rescue - moral and political - during his own official visit to Bishkek a year ago. It was a period when Bakiyev was harried by the opposition. Gaining strength in Kyrgyzstan then, Bakiyev's political enemies demanded constitutional reforms. Harassed and badgered at home, Bakiyev desperately needed some foreign political success to boost his international image. Astana's offer of help came in handy. The summit in Bishkek was a smashing success. The two presidents determined new spheres of bilateral cooperation and suggested, quite unexpectedly, establishment of a union at some later date. Bakiyev and Nazarbayev even set up two supranational bodies - Supreme Council of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and Council of Foreign Ministers.
Kazakhstan needed stability on its borders and economic partnership with the neighbor and therefore promised Kyrgyzstan the sky in terms of investments - anything to prevent political disturbances and upheavals. Nazarbayev informed the host that Astana was prepared to invest "billions" in the Kyrgyz economy as long as it kept demonstrating political maturity. The guest even offered advice to Bakiyev. "From my own experience and experience of Kazakhstan... I earnestly recommend privatization," Nazarbayev said. With the bait already dangling before Kyrgyz, Nazarbayev brought up the matter of property and territories. "Our businesses approach you and invest their capitals here. Once that is done, however, they are stripped of the license or they discover that the legislation does not work," Nazarbayev complained. "We would like to build a short road from Kazakhstan to lake Issyk-Kul, but the future of Kazakh property in the region remains obscure. Your parliament here does not ratify the border treaty. Regrettable as it all is, it breeds but distrust..."
Experts suspect that official Astana views solutions to these problems as an indicator of Kyrgyzstan's readiness for productive and fruitful cooperation.
As far as the head of Kyrgyzstan is concerned, it is up to the parliament now. The government forwarded to it a draft law on the lease of four resorts Kazakhstan had built on Issyk-Kul shores back in the Soviet era. The parliament is also expected to ratify the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border treaty (January 15, 2001).
The opposition in the meantime never misses an opportunity to smear and denigrate the powers-that-be. "Our party has always objected to this land distribution idea," Agym quoted Erkindik leader Topchubek Turgunaliyev as saying. "We've already handed over a dozen resorts to the Kazakhs. If you ask me, Issyk-Kul is becoming a Kazakh lake."
The rebellious south, the heart of the Tulip Revolution, insists on territorial integrity of Kyrgyzstan too. The so called People's Trial took place on March 17 in the Aksy district not far from Jalalabad (accomplices in the Aksy tragedy in 2002 were tried - mostly in absentia).
The opposition claims that the tragedy in Aksy was caused by the unjustified transfer of Uzengukuush lands to China and to the general practice of human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan. The People's Trial convicted ex-president Askar Akayev and the then premier Bakiyev. As for legitimacy of the verdict, Erkin Bulekbayev of the Kyrgyz Green Party called the verdict "moral rather than judicial".
Republican kurultai or congress is scheduled to take place on March 29. Once again, the opposition will be condemning the regime there. The list of kurultai organizers includes Azimbek Beknazarov. Earlier this year, Beknazarov founded the so called Revolutionary Committee (meaning that the revolution is not over yet?) and stated that the structure would be semi-legal in order to spare its activists harassment from the authorities.
Somewhat empty since the failure of April 2007 protest rallies, oppositionist political terrain is being filled again. There is the so called Public Parliament on it these days, and Movement for Justice established by ex-Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov. Omurbek Tekebayev, former parliamentarian and Ata-Meken leader, is also in the opposition camp. There is the widespread opinion in Kyrgyzstan these days that Ata-Meken came in first in the parliamentary election on December 16 but the Central Electoral Commission rigged the outcome and the party, actually popular with the Kyrgyzes, never made it to the Jogorku Kenesh. Ar-Namys and Asaba, other parties of the opposition, contribute to preparations for the kurultai too.
Organization of kurultais is permitted by Article 23 of the Constitution, their decisions serve as recommendations for the authorities. Delegates of the one scheduled for late March intend to tally Bakiyev's performance as the president. "The kurultai will elect the coordinating council to fulfill the decisions voted on," Beknazarov said. "If the kurultai tells us to go away, we will obey." Political enemies of the regime do not even rule out the possibility of nomination of the so called alternative president, something the Constitution does not allow for, of course. The Constitution or not, Kyrgyz democracy has its own rules. The public parliament and public baths do exist in Kyrgyzstan, why not a public president as well? Everything goes as long as it is not expressly banned by the law. Rocking the boat and unseating the regime is what counts. The opposition learned it in the Tulip Revolution several years ago.
When the allegedly tame parliament challenged the government in its efforts to settle property and territorial matters with Kazakhstan and refused to play ball, its revolt coincided with the traditional spring activeness of the opposition. Facing problems with the parliament and the opposition at once, Bakiyev knew that he was in trouble. Going to Astana as a leader up to his neck in domestic problems is the last thing he wants. His going there in this capacity will prove Bakiyev's inability to secure a most-favored partner status for a reliable and quite promising partner in the region. The bilateral Kyrgyz-Kazakh trade turnover in 2007 was estimated at $571 million (more than once third above what it had been a year ago). Kazakhstan is the largest investor in Kyrgyz economy ($151.4 million in 2007).
Shortly speaking, Bakiyev has less than a month before the summit in Astana to deploy state machinery and ease the tension in the relations with Kazakhstan. The work of the joint investment trust, the one Kazakhstan promises to invest $100 million into, depends on how pleased Bakiyev makes Astana now. "We are nearly finished with all paper work. Experts are putting finishing touches. We hope that the matter will be settled during the Kyrgyz president's visit," Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tajin meaningfully said.
What will triumph: caution and constructive cooperation with the opposition when the latter is determined to escalate the conflict with the powers-that-be or priority of long-term strategic tasks and mutually beneficial cooperation with neighbors? Bakiyev's choice is not going to be easy.