America and Kyrgyzstan: An Equation with Many Unknowns

07.03.2017

Kyrgyzstan and the United States have never been linked by shared values, if only because Kyrgyzstan has yet to develop a national system of values. Other objective and subjective reasons exist, too. The growing influence of anti-American information waves from the Middle East, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries on public opinion in Kyrgyzstan must also be taken into account. Actually the people in Kyrgyzstan, as the number of Kyrgyz people visiting Islamic countries and returning with somewhat different views is growing from year to year.

“The United States of America is a neighbor to all countries” is a well-known line.

But how is it understood in Kyrgyzstan? How do we, the citizens of Kyrgyzstan, view and understand the United States today in the context of our national politics, public opinion, families or even as individuals? How do we see Washington’s interests in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia?

A simplified political analysis of the two countries’ positions in the global political and economic landscape is that America and Kyrgyzstan are at the opposite ends: the United States is the dominant power in the world, while Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Perhaps mutual understanding among those at opposite ends of the spectrum can still result from a shared system of values, guideposts and priorities. In this sense, any controversy that might arise, and sometimes put up obstacles to proposed or existing cooperation and partnerships, would not be seen as a sign of hostility or as insurmountable. It would affect the parties’ tactical maneuvering, but not the cooperation strategy.

On the other hand, it is clear that Washington, along with just a few other leading states, is shaping the main vectors of the global politics and economy, and Bishkek is compelled to stick to them – if it can, of course – and, importantly, understands why it needs to do so.

International politics is about the interaction of countries, regions and other    spaces brimming with diverse institutions, values, ambitions, contacts, cooperation among people, etc. The vectors I mentioned are worked out on the basis of so-called national interests, which are often selfish and cynical, and, most importantly, as a rule, conflict with the interests of other players. And this fact is fraught with the threat of rising tensions and the emergence of various kinds of conflicts, which prod such countries as Kyrgyzstan to build their foreign policy on mercantilist choices and the possibility of rapid changes of mind rather than on national interests.

It would seem that international law – with the UN being one specific embodiment thereof – should equalize all countries’ chances, as each country not only has a vote there, but also has the right to promote certain initiatives that provide, for example, for preventive protection of national interests. However, the system and the chartered framework of the UN Security Council, its other parameters and requirements, actually put everyone in their place, creating a sort of hierarchy of states where they are rated by their political, military, economic, and even geographic significance.

The hierarchy provides a list of options for each member. For example, weaker players cannot violate the principles of international law, including the UN Charter, and punishment is essentially unavoidable. And yet nations have not been able to come up with anything better over the course of their so-called civilized history, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

As for linking areas of shared or similar values as a plausible mechanism of long-term and mutually beneficial partnership or even alliance, we should note the caveat that the specific historical situation, with its own political, military, economic and other dimensions, forces countries to violate their own foreign policy principles, including, and above all, ignoring their own values and guideposts, and sometimes build privileged relationships with countries with value systems that are different, alien, and sometimes even hostile to their own.

These decisions are often justified with constructs known in formal diplomatic practice as national interests.

President Barack Obama said: “The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.”

In the last ten or fifteen years, Central Asia has become a space where the interests of leading states clash with the fundamental principles of their own foreign policy. The players present their fight against terrorism and the energy flows in the region as something akin to semantic structures and at the same time mechanisms of interaction. No one denies the relevance and importance of these issues, but democracy and development as the principles of cooperation have been pushed to the back burner, although, in general, they are still declared by official sources as the most important principles governing the way many countries, including the US, shape their foreign policies.

Kyrgyzstan and the United States have never been linked by shared values, if only because Kyrgyzstan has yet to develop a national system of values. Other objective and subjective reasons exist, too.

It must be said that US-Russian relations have a major impact on the makeup and status of the national elites and Kyrgyz society in general. This factor conditions the support for the development of relations with the West, as well as disapproval thereof. The fact that Kyrgyzstan is in the zone of Russian information influence plays a special role in this.

The growing influence of anti-American information waves from the Middle East, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries on public opinion in Kyrgyzstan must also be taken into account. Moreover, this is not only due to the internet, television, print media, and nationals of these countries and regions, but actually the people in Kyrgyzstan, as the number of Kyrgyz people visiting Islamic countries and returning with somewhat different views is growing from year to year.

One of the stages in Kyrgyz-American relations, which lasted nearly fifteen years, had to do with the Manas US air base. Over these years, bilateral meetings were almost entirely devoted to discussion of the lease payment for Manas. No more than that, unfortunately.

The C5+1 (Central Asian Five plus the USA) format established a few years ago marked the third phase of Kyrgyz-American relations. This format indirectly guides Kyrgyzstan’s relations with the US, through groups and a few bilateral programs, because there are no direct bilateral projects to date. Yet, this formula has two flaws, which, of course, can be overcome, if the parties need it. The first is the distrust between the United States and Central Asian countries, and the second is the lack of trust between the countries of the region.

The CASA-1000 project is now in the passive phase of development and its future, despite the optimistic statements by some government agencies in the participating countries, looks rather bleak. At any rate, its progress in many respects depends on three components: First, US political and financial sponsorship; second, the consent of Russia and China; and third, solvency of and effective cooperation among the Central Asian participants. Moreover, all three components are indispensable.

President Donald Trump’s ‘mercantile revolution’ has presaged certain changes in international affairs, which still might not come to pass. Still, Kyrgyzstan is trying to carefully monitor the moves of the new administration in Washington.

The principles of Washington’s foreign policy in regard to Central Asia remain unchanged – support for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the states in the region. US interests overlap with those of many countries in Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan.

Among the policies outlined and proposed by the US president, Kyrgyzstan needs to take into account the following: the sanctions against Russia, a possible escalation of opposition to China, a new round in the sanctions war against Iran, the Ukrainian issue and growing US presence in Afghanistan. These are country problems.

A special place in Donald Trump’s proposed foreign policy belongs to harsher anti-Islamic rhetoric and the possibility of abandoning support for color revolutions.

How the current US administration will pursue its foreign policy in Central Asia is an equation with many unknowns, including some that might never be used.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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