In early October when the Presidential race was in full swing in Kyrgyzstan, its outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev affronted Kazakstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev, permanent leader of the country since independence. Atambayev, annoyed with the meeting of Nazarbayev with Kyrgyz Presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov in Astana, accused Kazakhstan of interfering in the Kyrgyz elections.
In a rather harsh manner Atambayev snapped at the Kazakh authorities to not teach Bishkek on how to live. The Kyrgyz leader added that despite the higher GDP per capita in Kazakhstan, the size of pensions in the two very economically unequal countries does in fact not differ that much. Atambayev suggested that this is due to rampant corruption in Kazakhstan. Another very non-diplomatic phrase of Atambayev was that Kazakhstan probably needed a young President more than Kyrgyzstan.
These statements were enough to throw the relations between the two countries into crisis. Soon, Kyrgyz authorities faced export problems for food products to Kazakhstan. Equally did the transit cargo, that just passed Kazakhstan on its way to Russia, encounter obstacles on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border. After that, Bishkek accused Astana of organizing an economic blockade of Kyrgyzstan and violating the rules of the Eurasian Economic Union (both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the EEU that also includes Armenia, Belarus and Russia). Also, Kyrgyz authorities refused to accept financial assistance of $100 million that had been offered by Astana. Bishkek also hinted that Kazakhstan may have problems with water supply to irrigate the fields in the coming spring – parts of Kazakhstan depend on Kyrgyzstan for its water.
The degree of tension in the conflict was significantly reduced only after the Presidential elections were held in Kyrgyzstan and Atambaev was replaced by Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Due to the fact that political relations in Central Asia are traditionally strongly personalized, the parties to the conflict could resume dialogue almost immediately. In mid-December, Nazarbayev and Jeenbekov met during a CSTO summit in Minsk and agreed that the crisis would be resolved through the implementation of a special road map. Strictly speaking, the problems at the border ended literally the day after this meeting.
Notably, the hassle between Astana and Bishkek actually contributed to Jeenbekov’s election victory – he simply had not been that popular before. But his positioning as a pro-Kyrgyz candidate and, accordingly, Babanov’s presentation as a pro-Kazakh candidate in the light of the squabble with Astana, helped the former to win votes in the elections.
Nevertheless, even though the conflict between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was quickly settled, it still had an impact on the region’s power constellation as Kyrgyzstan was maneuvering to strengthen its ties with Uzbekistan.
Jeenbekov soon made his second official visit to Tashkent (the first was to Moscow), where he assured the leadership of Uzbekistan of friendship and strategic partnership with Tashkent. Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has been reforming the country for more than a year and his foreign policy has been more “tolerant” towards his neighbors than that of his predecessor Islam Karimov. That is why Mirziyoyev supported the initiative of his Kyrgyz colleague claiming that there should be no borders between countries in due course. It should be noted, though, that an improvement in the Tashkent-Bishkek relationship was on the way despite the Kazakh-Kyrgyz clash, simply due to the significant transition of power in Tashkent. But the unexpected quarrel with Astana greatly boosted it.
As for the relations between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it’s hardly possible to say that they have deteriorated at all. The departure of Atambaev and the arrival of Jeenbekov stabilized the situation. At the end of December Jeenbekov made his third official visit: this time to Kazakhstan. In Astana he met the Kazakh President Nazarbaev and his Prime Minister Sagintaev. They discussed prospects for cooperation, both bilaterally and within the framework of the EEU, as well as the implementation of a roadmap to eliminate all points of contention.
However, one must understand that the conflict didn’t simply pass without a trace. Although short-lived, the economic blockade of Kyrgyzstan caused discontent among ordinary people and alerted the Kyrgyz establishment. This will force the Kyrgyz authorities to envisage measures to protect Bishkek from such actions in future. But frankly speaking, there is not too much that Kyrgyzstan can do. The tensions also forced the Bishkek to introduce a certain order in the sphere of cross-border control and certification of products – something that had never happened during “more friendly” times.
It is finally equally noteworthy that both Kazakh and Kyrgyz authorities sides appealed to the EEU rules in order to justify their position during the tensions. Bishkek stated that Astana violated the principles of the common market by “blocking Kyrgyzstan economically.” Astana, in turn, responded that it did not establish any new rules, but only strives to implement the existing norms of the EEU with respect to Kyrgyzstan. As for Russia, Moscow preferred to not publicly interfere in the conflict, which has caused some dissatisfaction among Kyrgyz experts. It should be noted also that the tensions did not have any serious impact on the outstanding frictions between member states of the EEU.