Russia is refocusing its attention on Central Asia.
As Alisher Khamidov and Peter Leonard discussed in the latest edition of the EurasiaChat podcast, last week saw a notable visit to Kyrgyzstan by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was in the country to attend a Commonwealth of Independent States leader summit.
Beyond the usual speechifying and deal-making, there was some symbolism of note. As Alisher said, Putin made a point while in Bishkek of laying a wreath at the Ata Beyit memorial complex, which was created to honor victims of the Russian Tsarist suppression of an uprising known locally as Urkun.
The Kremlin does not do apologies, but the gesture looked like a signal that Russia wants to be perceived as acknowledging its fraught historical relations with one of the few countries to remain a steadfast ally.
This is part of a broader charm offensive aimed at Central Asia and comes as the West is also making efforts to court the region.
In a development unrelated to the CIS summit, but indicative of Russia’s success in reasserting its influence in the region, was the fact that Gazprom began earlier this month delivering natural gas to Uzbekistan, via Kazakhstan. As part of a two-year deal, Uzbekistan, which has endured several chronic energy crises in recent years, will receive around 9 million meters of gas daily from Russia.
Turning to a narrower geopolitical question, the CIS summit provided an opportunity for the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to meet once again and talk more about the issue of border demarcation. This is the third time in a month that Kyrgyz leader Sadyr Japarov and his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon have met. A press release on the October 13 talks from Rahmon’s office noted that “special attention was paid to the issues of determining the state border line” and that “agreements were reached on this matter some time ago.”
Less than two weeks before, the powerful heads of the two countries’ security services met in the Kyrgyz city of Batken and later announced that their encounter had produced a “protocol” that would provide the basis for resolving all border issues.
“God willing, we will soon adopt a final decision so as to complete the demarcation of the entire state border,” Kyrgyz security services chief Kamchybek Tashiyev said at the time.
Alisher warned about raising too many hopes, however, that a landmark deal is around the corner. While the protocol represents an important “informal gentlemen’s agreement,” many sticking points remain to be resolved.
Tashiyev is having more tangible success in addressing a problem on the domestic front, though.
On October 5, Kamchybek Kolbayev, a gangland kingpin so notorious that he was even wanted by the U.S. government, was killed at the hands of GKNB special forces in an armed standoff in Bishkek.
Tashiyev followed up this incident by warning of an all-out war on the criminal underworld community. So far, he appears as good as his word and substantiated his pledges with a raft of arrests.
Zooming out, Alisher set these developments in the regional context.
“What’s happening here in this country is essentially what was happening in the neighboring countries about 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Uzbekistan launched an all-out campaign … against the criminal underworld in the 1990s, and that campaign continued until the mid 2000s and ended with complete eradication of all criminal underworld bosses except for those few that were loyal to the ruling establishment,” Alisher said. “The same thing happened in Kazakhstan.”