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 Since the stark armada of events, the pro-Russian President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has resigned, the Prime Minister has been replaced by Sadyr Japarov and the dates of the new elections have been announced to be held in January of 2021.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 h