A Review of Russian-Chinese Rivalry in a politically susceptible Kyrgyzstan

Updated: May 26

Ishita Thakur,

Research Contributor,

Internationalism Research.

Kyrgyzstan’s October 2020 revolution was sparked after a series of events that took place after the Parliamentary elections in the country. Following the elections, the supporters of those political parties which failed to gain seats in the national legislature staged overnight mass rioting in the capital Bishkek and freed the country’s former president, Almazbek Atambayev, and several other politicians, including Sadyr Japarov, from a detention centre. More clashes between the supporters of different opposition forces followed in the city of Bishkek. Consequently, the Prime Minister and the Speaker resigned and a state of emergency was imposed in the capital city. Since the stark armada of events, the pro-Russian President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has resigned, the Prime Minister has been replaced by Sadyr Japarov and the dates of the new elections have been announced to be held in January of 2021.

The country is seeing a third revolution while it was also playing a component in the Russian-Chinese brawl to assert their influence, both economically and geopolitically, in Central Asia. The Central Asian region serves as a political, military and economic buffer for Russia against the West. Apart from the strategic significance that Central Asia stands for, states such as Kyrgyzstan are important to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). EAEU, while aiming to retain Russian influence in Central Asia, is also considered to be Russia’s attempt to create a front against the expansionism of EU and NATO.

Russian-Kyrgyz relations began more than 150 years ago with the absorption of the latter into the Tsarist Empire. Kyrgyzstan, despite gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, continued to be characterized by relative poverty and isolation which permitted Moscow to retain its strong ties with and also influence over the country. Cultural and political familiarity with Russia allowed it to retain this influence despite the newly acquired Kyrgyz statehood, offering other opportunities. Kyrgyzstan is often known as a ‘client state’ firmly under Russia’s sphere of influence, especially since its integration to the EAEU in 2015. Russia contributed a total of $700 million to help Kyrgyzstan integrate into the EAEU and to implement various economic projects in the country. Kyrgyzstan’s accession to EAEU is sometimes narrated as proof that Kremlin was able to cajole Kyrgyz elites into joining against the economic interests of the country.[i]

The economic dependence of Kyrgyzstan is apparent not just through the massive investment made by Russia in Kyrgyzstan, but also through its reliance on migration to Russia and remittances flowing from there. In January 2019, the Kyrgyzstani State Migration Service reported that 750,000 Kyrgyzstanis work outside the country, with more than 640,000 in Russia. Remittances from Kyrgyzstani labourers in Russia are critical to the domestic economy with expatriates sending home to Kyrgyzstan more than $2,685,000,000 in 2018 - of this, more than 98 per cent came from Kyrgyzstanis working in Russia.

Beijing, however, has now hindered this decades-long Russian attempt at establishing regional control through its contemporary economic involvement in Central Asia. Central Asia’s proximity and economic and cultural ties to China led it to serve Xi Jinping’s ambitions of reconstructing the Silk Road and stabilising China’s western provinces through the direct and indirect economic benefits provided by the OBOR (One Belt One Road – now ‘Belt and Road Initiative’). Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is expected to increase the Chinese influence over Central Asia while the strategic investments made by the Chinese state were intended to create greater dependence on China[ii]. BRI has the potential to bring out a ‘Sinocentric Eurasia’ which is detrimental to both Russian and American interests.[iii]

Russia, nevertheless, possesses several important advantages in Central Asia. It still retains the main elements of the Soviet ‘hard power’ - security pacts, arms sales capacity, most of the former Soviet military bases as well as a military presence in the region. Furthermore, talking about Kyrgyzstan specifically, the two countries share a common history, legacy of integrated infrastructure, and similar transitional challenges allowing them to build strong economic relations that have persisted to the present day. These factors give Russia a comparative advantage not only over China but the US and European Union as well. Russia also remains one of Kyrgyzstan’s top trade partners with the latter depending on the former economically, in many ways. For Moscow, the prime question should have been how to retain and even expand its dominance, however the Chinese influence, in the recent years, has proved to be remarkable and has managed to act as a major deterrent to this expansion of dominance.

It’s interesting to note that despite such cultural and political similarities, Russia’s hold on Central Asia has been weakening. Central Asia’s economic dependence on Russia makes the region even more vulnerable after Western sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. Russia has also been dismissed from the G7, one of the evidence to the loss of its former power and glory. As Russian-Western relations are not expected to get better, it is also likely that Central Asian economies will suffer due to the weakening of Russian economic performance. This makes China, a continuously developing economy, a better option for future prospects of Central Asia. The notion of China and Central Asia makes perfect sense - the two share a border of more than 3,000 kilometres and many of the vital energy corridors for China have already passed through Central Asia. In that sense, BRI, bringing a wave of economic opportunities, is not a force to be avoided.

With this loss of Russia’s global potentiality and inclination to the economic virtues offered by China, it seemed more rational for Russia to consider this Chinese intrusion, altogether, as an opportunity. If one is to consider the BRI in a purely economic sense, Russia needed the BRI infrastructure projects to cope with the region’s state of underdevelopment. Initially, Russian authorities were divided in their response to Ji Xinping’s announcement of OBOR, Security authorities considered it a threat against Russian influence in Central Asia however the economics/trade authorities saw it as a positive move. While the US, also a contestant in asserting its influence over Central Asia, opposes the project, Russia has no chance other than accepting it due to “the demographic winter, its structurally weak economy, the abysmal distance in financial capacities, and the constant military pressures coming from NATO and other neighbours”.[iv]

While Russia and China share core strategies in the region, they are unlikely to react to one another’s movements with hostility. Both countries are making consistent efforts to deepen their influence in the region, but in general, are avoiding conflict and rivalry, and instead have been focusing on wielding soft power and emphasizing cooperation.[v]

In fact, Sino-Russian cooperation in Eurasia and, specifically, the Russian proposal of linking EAEU and BRI are unanimously supported and approved as a strategy that suits Russia’s international status.[vi] The connection between the BRI and EAEU is predominantly crucial for the mutual coordination of China's and Russia's economic interests in Eurasia and the search for the greatest common denominator for the interests of all parties. Apart from the economic benefits, Sino-Russian cooperation in Central Asia will allow the two countries to overshadow Washington’s regional initiative. It will also reduce the influence of the European Union, Turkey and Iran, all of which emerged as players in the region through soft-power policies following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.[vii]

Presently, however, the political situation in Kyrgyzstan remains precarious. The current political chaos in Kyrgyzstan has not elicited much response from Russia while China has proved to be more receptive. On October 30, Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Du Dewen met with Japarov in amicable terms with Japarov stating that Kyrgyzstan “prioritizes developing friendly cooperation with China.” Du congratulated Japarov on his becoming Prime Minister and the embassy’s statement of the meeting referenced the usual Silk Road imagery to root the bilateral relationship.

Despite the history of support Russia enjoyed from Jeenbekov, the Kremlin has openly sided with neither Japarov nor Jeenbekov, instead stressed the need for stability. It is doubtful whether Kremlin would likely involve itself in this domestic turmoil, given the current heightened level of unrest elsewhere in the post-Soviet space with the uprising in Kyrgyzstan, mass protests in Belarus and a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

China is Kyrgyzstan’s top lender, and the latter is also heavily dependent on Russia in terms of both the economy and security. While both countries continue to have unhindered relations with Kyrgyzstan, the contemporary Sino-Russian cooperation is unlikely to permit either country politically exploiting the present debacle in their favour. However, with Russia’s absence of involvement and China’s deceptive actions, it is yet to be seen if Kyrgyzstan’s third revolution factors in as a tool to tip the scale in either’s favour.


[i] Handbook on the Changing Geographies of the State: New Spaces of Geopolitics, Edited by Sami Moisio, Natalie Koch, Andrew E.G., Edward Elgar Publishing, (2020) ISBN: 978 1 78897 804 0 [ii] Başar Gezgi̇n, U. (2020). Russian and Central Asian Views on China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart Üniversitesi Uluslararası Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, 5 (1), 135-148. [iii] Ibid. [iv] Ibid. [v] Mher Sahakyan. Russia, China and Central Asia: Cooperation over Competition. AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong, 2020. ffhal-02553425f [vi] Anna Kuteleva & Dmitrii Vasiliev (2020) China’s belt and road initiative in Russian media: politics of narratives, images, and metaphors, Eurasian Geography and Economics, DOI: 10.1080/15387216.2020.1833228 [vii] Supra note v.

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