• The Red Line

Episode 08. The Crossroads of Kyrgyzstan

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Rundown:

Kyrgyzstan stands at one of the most important decisions the country will ever make about its future, to look toward Moscow or to look toward Beijing.... The Kyrgyz people live upon some of the most important real estate in all of Asia, and now all the superpowers are beginning to compete for access to this vital crossroad.

 

Guests:

Chris Schwartz

  • Researcher and Expert on Central Asian Politics with the University of Leuven in Belgium

  • Resides in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan

Erica Marat

  • Born in Kyrgyzstan

  • Associate Professor at the National Defence University in Washington D.C.

  • Author of The Politics of Police Reform: Society Against the State in Post-Soviet Countries

Alexander Cooley

  • Director of the Harriman Institute, specialising in the fields of Russian and Eurasian studies

  • Professor at Columbia University

  • Author of one of the greatest books of all time on Central Asia: Dictators Without Borders

 

Part 1: The Mountains in the Middle (1:03)

  • Schwartz overview the uniqueness of Kyrgyzstan; a Central Asian state that chose a Liberal, Democratic path after its independence from the USSR, electing technocratic leaders and maintaining civil liberties. In its neighbourhood, it is alone in that respect, and we analyse how that impacts its economics, politics, and regional relationships.

  • He guides us through the Turkic-Mongolic heritage of the country, and how that plays into the country's Muslim majority and high support for secularism. We look at its unusual geography, and what about its location and geographic makeup makes it such a critical crossroads in Central Asia.

  • Turning to the consequences of its internal geography, we examine the North-South divide in the country, and how the regions that politicians emerge from has played into their political efficacy. Similarly, we look at how Kyrgyz people see themselves, internally and internationally, and what about their unique system they value most.

 

Part 2: The Buckle in the Belt (15:00)

  • Marat takes us through the reasons that Kyrgyzstan is so unique, why exactly it is that while all the countries around it had generals and spies take control, in Kyrgyzstan they've elected physicists and philosophers. Most importantly, there is no key extraction resource around which an elite can form and build wealth.

  • We compare the influences of Russia and China in Kyrgyzstan, with the former being focused on security and military apparatus, which has transformed into political influence throughout the region, and the latter being focused on economics, which as yet has remained largely out of the political influence game.

  • We get into the details of Kyrgyzstan's international ties; its former status as the only country to simultaneously host a Russian and US air base, before the latter removed theirs, as well as their cooperation with Russian armed forces, their membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the Eurasian Economic Union.

  • Next is the Belt and Road Initiative, a massively important influence in Bishkek which has seen considerable investment growth in the country. We look at the cultural affinity that Kyrgyz people have with Uighur people in China's Northwest, and the limitations of that affinity, as well as the question of whether and when China may start to flex its diplomatic and political position in the region that it has earned through its extensive investments.

 

Part 3: The Hammer to be Wielded (33:04)

  • Cooley analyses the mutual consent of the Russo-Kyrgyz relationship, including political links, security links, economic links, and critically migration links, which has only grown over the past couple of decades, as Russia has been a good place to turn for higher wages and more opportunity, and a good relationship ensures those migrant workers are treated well and continue to send remittances back to Kyrgyzstan.

  • We overview the United States' role in Kyrgyzstan and the region as a whole, with its relations largely declining from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, and only recently has outreach increased in some ways. This is, in Cooley's view, largely motivated by China's growing role, and a view from Washington that America should be at the table and involved in security and economic decisions in the Central Asian region.

  • Leading from that we look at Beijing's role in Bishkek, where narratives of the former's domination of the latter being wildly overblown. That said, there is a huge amount of debt owed, particularly to China's EXIM bank, an increasingly close security relationship, and a close eye from China due to certain groups inside Kyrgyzstan being very vocal about China's treatment of its Uighur population.

  • We examine China's motivations in spending so much in Kyrgyzstan, including giving away Facial Recognition Technology. In Cooley's view, this is motivated by the critical focus on ensuring stability near China's unstable Xinjiang region, by growing economic opportunity through trade links, gaining significant political and economic insight into a direct neighbour, and using the Facial Recognition network to gain a huge amount of data about Kyrgyz people and actors, in order to have a greater ability to act to pursue Beijing's interests if needed.

 

The Red Line's Kyrgyzstan Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Kyrgyzstan.


Books:


The Politics of Police Reform: Society Against the State in Post-Soviet Countries

Erica Marat


Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia

Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw


Articles/Journals:

 

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This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Aymen Elmasri.