Kyrgyzstan caught in a zugzwang
Germany, an initiator of the first-ever EU Strategy on Central Asia of 2007, played a crucial role in bringing the countries in the region to Europe's attention. The 2007 Strategy has "helped the EU and Central Asia to reach unprecedented cooperation". The strategy, renewed in 2019, led to initiatives like the EU's "Global Gateway on Water, Energy and Climate" and "Digital Connectivity". The above initiatives were announced in 2022 in Samarkand and constitute one of the primary issues on the mutual agenda.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Germany developed a unique approach towards the countries in the region. At the beginning of the '90s, Germany followed the steps of its minorities in Central Asia to control migration while creating favourable job conditions, primarily in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (the highest numbers of ethnic Germans). Until recently, Germany was the only EU member with embassies in all five countries. During the last 30 years led by the Troika representing official London, Berlin and Paris, European countries have had dozens of contacts with their Central Asian counterparts. However, Germany's steady and pragmatic policies have paid off, and it is now among the most trusted partners.
Russia's neo-imperialistic tendencies were another reason Western countries invested in Central Asia, in democratisation of its institutions and other joint initiatives, where Germany continued to be at the forefront. Although the region in close proximity to Afghanistan gained prominence after the 9/11 attack on the United States, it was mainly used to provide rear services. Until 2014, Kyrgyzstan hosted a US military base in Manas, which became an incremental transit hub for troops and cargo. Moreover, Germany was the last NATO country to give up its military presence in Central Asia after it departed from Termez, Uzbekistan, in 2015.
Central Asia was left under the shadow of the mission in Afghanistan up until NATO's abrupt exit in August 2021. For its members, the closure of the Resolute Support Mission meant losing a substantial regional presence. Additionally, Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and subsequent sanctions against Russia hurdled the supply of natural resources to Europe, causing German industries to suffer a higher cost. Consequently, Europe became more supportive of alternative sources; thus, it was the moment to revitalise the efforts in Central Asia and for Germany to leverage its network and favourable reputation.
What made Germany special in the region is that alongside pragmatic policies towards C5 countries, the Federative Republic was able to balance its cooperation with both China and Russia. Germany considers China both "a partner and systemic rival", while for Russia, Germany has traditionally been its number-one European partner. Therefore, it has a pivotal position in furthering Europe’s cooperation with Central Asia as, on these terms, the efforts tend to be less antagonised by Russia and China.
Generally, in its contacts with the Central Asian countries, Germany tries to foster collaboration with all the five instead of picking favourites. Germany is also the most significant EU contributor to Central Asia. However, the volume of cooperation depends not only on what the sides can offer each other but also on the readiness of the five post-Soviet states to cooperate. C5 countries are walking on thin ice when balancing between neighbouring powers and pursuing independent policies. Central Asian neighbours are concerned with the fact that the region can turn into a new battleground for global interests, especially as the Taliban took back the Afghanistan front. Subsequently, the regional leaders are seeking opportunities to progress on the path of strategic autonomy, the importance of which was also noted by Joseph Borell.
Utilising the above-highlighted beneficial stance, Germany also continued its active engagement and reciprocal high-level visits with five regional countries this year. On September 29, 2023, Germany brought the leaders together in Berlin for the first-ever summit in C5+1 format. Hosted by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, leaders of C5 discussed issues related to the economy, illicit trafficking, energy, natural resources, trade and investment, regional peace and security, including sanction regimes, and others. At the Summit in Berlin, the leaders stressed the importance of connectivity and the development of the Middle Corridor. They also welcomed EU Global Gateway and the Team Europe initiatives on water, energy, climate change and digital connectivity. The C5+1 format was agreed upon during the visit of the Uzbekistan president to Germany in May 2023.
Among Central Asian partners of Germany, Kyrgyzstan is remarkable for its democratic tendencies and politically alert society. Germany was the first European country to recognise Kyrgyzstan, as it attained independence from the Soviet Union, laying solid ground for future cooperation. Priority areas of collaboration between the two include enhancing digital skills and the rule of law, green economy, biodiversity, integrated water resource management and private sector development.
Throughout these years, Kyrgyzstan, on its part, continuously sought to learn from the German, as well as French experience and inject effective government practices into its political reality. Although efforts to apply European practices sometimes caused political turmoil and violent revolts, this cooperation was notable in achieving progress in the rule of law and civic freedoms in Kyrgyzstan. So notable was this progress that during his annual conference in December 2020, Vladimir Putin called the processes in Kyrgyzstan "playing musical chairs". He added that the latter is not ready to put "their domestic policy into the mould of some Western countries". However, as a result of this collaboration, Kyrgyz society is more active and swiftly consolidates its force when needed, compared to those in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is one of the core issues that resonate well with the European agenda, keeping Germany and the rest engaged in the political processes in Kyrgyzstan.
During the first eight months of 2023, trade turnover between Kyrgyzstan and Germany reached $273 million, a substantial increase compared to $65 million in 2020. During his recent visit to Hamburg, the chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Akylbek Japarov, highlighted that the sides are willing to increase the turnover as Kyrgyzstan invites German companies to explore further its potential in trade, transport, logistics, and minerals.
Nonetheless, lately, the Kyrgyz economy has been performing well, not just with Germany but also with China and Russia. Its trade turnover with Russia boomed in 2022 and reached the highest number since 1994 - US$3.2 billion. Beneficial for the country, especially as the economy stagnates and the local currency is volatile, these numbers raise questions as Russia is still at war with Ukraine. In July 2023, the US introduced another package of sanctions against Russia aimed at curtailing possible efforts to further its war in Ukraine. These measures again touched companies in Kyrgyzstan that assisted Russia in acquiring dual-use technology and served as "third-party intermediaries and transshipment points" with China.
Kyrgyzstan is also considered to be among the countries through which critical Western components pave their way to Russia. As a result, European parliamentarians are increasingly concerned about the loopholes in its sanctions against Russia and demand more robust enforcement measures and control. The European Union, on many occasions, through talks and other political means, called on Kyrgyzstan to strengthen its control and not to circumvent the sanctions. Kyrgyzstan, on its part, promises to take action to fight illicit trade and embrace international regulations. However, it looks like the Kyrgyz “bridge” between China and Russia is still active, and the European Union is discussing taking a more imposing stance.
Recent political changes in Kyrgyzstan are playing into the hands of governments in Russia and China rather than Europe. One should credit the regional hegemons as they spare no effort to keep the C5 countries within their sphere of influence. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin. The Central Asian region, except for Tajikistan, remains a travel safe haven for the Russian president. Following the warrant, Kyrgyzstan was his first destination on October 12. Here, Putin and his counterpart Sadyr Japarov marked two decades of the Russian Aerospace Forces' 999th Air Base in the Kyrgyz city of Kant and attended the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Summit in Bishkek.
Alongside discussing issues on economic cooperation, transport infrastructure, energy, security, digital transformation and others, CIS countries signed the Founding Treaty and Charter of the International Russian Language Organization. The document stresses the importance of this language in strengthening the shared cultural and humanitarian space of the Commonwealth. Led by the Ministerial Conference, the newborn organisation's goal seems benign as it builds upon what already exists. Nonetheless, knowing how the language claim was exploited in the war in Ukraine, the issue should be dealt with extreme care, especially as nationalistic tendencies are seething in the region. Moscow is looking into strengthening its ties with former Soviet Republics as further regional integration, mainly economic, will be its priority during the CIS chairmanship in 2024.
The Kyrgyzstan trip was not Putin’s only visit to the region. A week after French President Emmanuel Macron's departure, on November 9 the Kazakh leader saluted in Astana his Russian colleague. This visit ensured that no one forgets the region's "true big brother".
On the other hand, "China is ready to work with Kyrgyzstan to build a China-Kyrgyzstan community with a shared future of good neighbourliness and shared prosperity", said Chinese President Xi Jinping during the meeting with President Japarov, which took place within the framework of the China-Central Asia Summit in May 2023. The meeting marked the elevation of the bilateral cooperation to the level of comprehensive strategic partnership.
Currently, Kyrgyzstan owes China's Exim Bank around $1.7 billion. It is a sum that should be fully repaid by 2035. According to the Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers of Kyrgyzstan, in the scenario when the debt is not paid, projects like the Bishkek thermal power plant, the Datka-Kemin transmission line, and the alternative North-South (Bishkek-Osh) road can become externally managed by Chinese companies.
The financial situation in which the new government of Kyrgyzstan finds itself and its endeavours to foster closer cooperation suggests that the country is already entangled in the dept-trap diplomacy of China, potentially compromising national interests. Among those is an ambitious project in this context: China–Kyrgyzstan–Uzbekistan (CKU) railroad, a part of the Chinese Belt-and-Road Initiative. However, Kyrgyzstan relies on external financial support to fulfil this critical project, which also envisages the construction of 90 bridges and 50 tunnels through Kyrgyzstan’s mountains. Besides, the railway is stalled as it is not of immediate interest to China, which could otherwise easily finance it. Implementing the railway would harm China's relations with Kazakhstan, the region's top carrier of Chinese goods.
Kyrgyzstan's President Japarov raised the CKU issue during his recent visits to the United States of America and Germany. The Russian-Ukraine war and the fluctuating situation around the Taiwan Strait made the EU shift its focus to the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative. However, since infrastructure like CKU opens up even higher opportunities for smuggling, the prospects for Europe's support for the China – Kyrgyzstan - Uzbekistan railroad are doubtful. Instead, the Union aims to assist nations depending on Chinese financial tools through its Global Gateway Strategy. By mobilising up to €300 billion until 2027 and building various infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa, it also wishes to diversify access to natural resources and raw materials, consequently diminishing its own reliance on China.
Although the EU tries to enhance its image in the region, it still seems relatively nominal compared to China and Russia. For example, the European Union's Multiannual Indicative Program with Kyrgyzstan for 2021-2027 prioritises three cooperation areas - Governance and Digital Transformation, Green and Climate Resilient Economy and Human Development. There is no joint programming per se, and Germany is the only member country engaged in development cooperation.
Whether these efforts and plans led by Germany would suffice to support C5 countries, including rescuing Kyrgyzstan from the debt trap, remains uncertain. Alongside limited resources and appetite on the EU's part, recent political tendencies in Kyrgyzstan and rapprochement with Russia have garnered negative resonance in Europe, leading to a more cautious partnership approach. In any scenario, it is a reality to consider while building bridges with Central Asian nations; they will only disqualify partnerships with sanctioned neighbours and prioritise European principles and ties if only Russia and China do so.