Kyrgyzstan has canceled a two decades-old agreement governing U.S. economic aid in response to the State Department’s decision to recognize a jailed human rights campaigner with a prestigious commendation. The dispute concerns Azimjon Askarov, who was arrested in 2010 for “inciting ethnic hatred.” Askarov, a member of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority, filmed rioting by Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in June 2010 that claimed that lives of 400 people. The Kyrgyz-led government in Bishkek accused Askarov of encouraging the violence and handed him a life sentence. Since then, international NGOs and human rights groups have called for Askarov’s release, alleging he is the victim of political and ethnic persecution.
The State Department’s recent decision to bestow the Human Rights Defender Award on Askarov follows years of work to obtain his exoneration. In response to the award, Kyrghyz President Almazbek Atambayev accused the U.S. of “trying to stir up ethnic hatred,” and canceled the 1993 Bilateral Agreement governing American aid to the former Soviet republic. Atambayev suggested that Washington is deliberately destabilizing the country, darkly referencing unspecified “attempts to sow division [and] chaos.”
The move is part of a general trend in Central Asia that has seen U.S. influence decline and official commitment to human rights weaken, with Russia eagerly stepping into the vacuum.
Since 1993, Kyrgyzstan has received $2 billion in aid from the United States, mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Under the terms of the 1993 Bilateral Agreement, USAID and other U.S. aid organizations are exempt from taxation and auditing requirements and their personnel are granted the same immunity from prosecution as diplomats.
Atambayev’s dark hints that the U.S. is trying to “sow division” may sound paranoid, but one needs only look to recent events in Ukraine to see their underlying logic. USAID provided unaccountable millions in funding to various organizations and news outlets opposed to former President Viktor Yanukovych prior to his overthrow in February 2014. There’s no doubt that the work these organizations played some role in the Euromaidan protests that ousted Yanukovych last year. Atambayev has taken the lesson to heart: seemingly innocuous aid organizations can act as catalysts for unwanted political change.
But Ukraine is just the tip of the iceberg. Russia and the United States are involved in a Cold War-esque struggle for influence across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is a political football that has been tossed between the two superpowers for more than a decade.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the most politically volatile states in the world today. The so-called Tulip Revolution in 2005 overthrew the country’s pro-Russian president, Askar Akayev, with support from the United States. Five years later, Russia allegedly supported yet another revolution to overthrow Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. After two revolutions in the last decade, Atambayev is seeking security by decisively entering the Russian camp.
For more than a decade, the country was the only in the world to host both a US air base and a Russian one. The Manas Transit Center proved instrumental in supporting the troops fighting in Afghanistan – hundreds of thousands of passengers passed through Kyrgyzstan on their way to the frontlines. However, the base was closed in June 2014, coinciding with a $2 billion Russian loan for Kyrgyzstan.
Then, on Aug. 6, Kyrgyzstan officially joined the Eurasian Economic Union, becoming the fifth member of Russia’s response to the European Union. The EAEU now includes Russia and three other former Soviet republics: Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the EAEU marks a further step into Russia’s economic and political domain, away from the U.S. and the West.
In the realm of domestic policy, as well, Kyrgyzstan is increasingly modeling itself after Russia. On June 4, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed a “foreign agents” law modeled after Russia’s through the first stage of the legislative process. If successful, the law would require all NGOs that receive funding from foreign donors to register as “foreign agents” and submit to intrusive auditing by the state.
Russia’s own “foreign agents” law — passed in 2012 — has targeted NGOs and human rights groups including the GOLOS Association (Russia’s only independent election monitoring organizations), the Levada Center (the country’s only independent polling agency), and the Committee Against Torture, an investigative body that researches allegations of torture by Russian police and military forces. Since 2012, many Russian NGOs have been forced to close their doors or curtail important work to avoid scrutiny, fines and imprisonment by the state.
Kyrgyzstan looks to be following in Russia’s footsteps: the repeal of the 1993 Bilateral Agreement, the passage of its own “foreign agents” law, and its entry into the Eurasian Economic Union point to a decisive shift towards Russia and a further attenuation of U.S. influence in the former Soviet periphery. NGOs, aid workers and human rights groups will be the first to feel the wrath of Krygyzstan’s eastward slide.