Kyrgyzstan: Between Two Worlds

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen.

First published in The National Interest on November 4, 2011.

The Chinese government, via China Aid, donated more than 50 public buses manufactured by Yaxing Motor Coach company to Bishkek in 2009 with commitment for more in 2011. Each bus has a China flag and China Aid logo on the side, and the words “Chinese-Kyrgyz Friendship Bus” written in Chinese and Cyrillic. Photo by Sue Anne Tay

In the midst of a relatively calm election season, we have been travelling to Kyrgyzstan’s cities, villages and border posts to track the rise of China in Central Asia. The atmosphere around this election is less tense than in previous years, when governments have been ousted by street revolutions and transfers of power have yielded ethnic violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not alone decide the country’s fate.

Kyrgyzstan is a place between powers, and not just geographically. This is reflected in Jalal-Abad University, located in the country’s third-largest city, where respective wings of the central administrative buildings are run by the U.S. embassy-sponsored American Center and a Chinese government-funded Confucius Center subsidiary. In between sit Kyrgyz administrators.

The American Center provides the students with language courses, access to the Internet (only twenty-five minutes at a time) and a selection of educational movies to help with English (including Pulp Fiction, which struck us as maybe not the best English to be learning). In the Chinese wing, a pair of dedicated teachers provides various language courses for about 60 students. The best students get to go on paid trips to China. A bright display at the back of one of the classrooms shows groups of them in Xian, Shanghai and Urumqi.

Behind all this lies the reality that the lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan is Russian. The Chinese teacher used it to translate phrases. The English teacher in the American Center was Russian. Stuck between mountain ranges and great powers, Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined and dominated by what surrounds it.

This is most obvious in the economics, where the nation is now almost completely dependent on the reexport of cheap Chinese goods. A further 20 percent of GDP is generated in fees from the American “transit center” outside the capital Bishkek, with much of the rest coming from remittances from Kyrgyz men working menial jobs in Russia. Apart from charming handicrafts (and these are increasingly being replaced by Chinese-made look-alikes), the country itself produces very little.

This dependency worries the leadership. Some have proven adept at playing the great powers off each other, but others, like the former cabinet-level minister we met, are deeply concerned about where this leaves their nation. As one foreign observer based in the south of the country put it, “the country has not been allowed to develop by itself.”

But the Kyrgyzstan traveler can easily see why it has continued to be dominated by those around it. A picturesque land of nomads, it was forced through a period of industrialization by the Soviets that left them the inherited infrastructure they still depend on today. But it is falling apart, and foreign-aid agencies are only really interested in helping alleviate poverty. Into this steps China, a neighboring power eager to see the country stable and prosperous to provide knock-on stability in its underdeveloped Xinjiang province. It builds new roads, offers refining facilities to reduce dependence on foreign energy imports and is planning a railway project to connect the country to the broader region. It dispatches groups of teachers from Xinjiang universities to help teach Mandarin to young Kyrgyz and has even distributed free television receivers to homes across the south of the country.

This serves China’s interests. But it also offers opportunities for Kyrgyz who can “look at a map,” as one young Bishkek businessman put it. Being in the middle means you can serve as a transit point. This businessman coordinates shipments from Dubai and Guangzhou, bringing electronics to Bishkek for reexport to the Russian market. Like impatient businessmen everywhere, he played with his phone throughout our conversation, saying “next question” as he tired of subjects. But his success demonstrates what is possible when you are stuck in between. With an advanced degree and a smattering of Chinese and fluent English and Russian, he would have been the perfect candidate to administrate the Jalal-Abad University; instead, he focuses on profit. Once he contributed articles to English-language publications, but that policy stuff is not for him anymore, he said.

For good or ill, the future of a small Central Asian state such as Kyrgyzstan will be shaped not by government policy makers. Their power will never match the military; they will never have the economic and cultural clout of global powers with stakes in the region. But Kyrgyzstan’s businessmen, large and small, can turn what seems like dependence into opportunity. This is a lesson for many small countries stuck in between, geographically or otherwise. You may have to play the hand you’re dealt, but you can play it with clever resolve.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (Praeger, 2011). They are conducting research for a book on China’s role in Central Asia and have a website at www.chinaincentralasia.com.

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3 comments

  1. Linar Zairov

    The authors need to check the publicly available data before making silly remarks. For example, 20% of GDP for Kyrgyz Republic is approximately 1 billion US dollars. The US has never and most likely will never pay that much for a small transit airport. The annual pay number is roughly 50 to 65 million US dollars (not 1 billion as authors claim). As for the remittances, that number is roughly around 900 million to 1 billion US dollars (publicly available data from National Bank of Kyrgyz Republic, Statistical Committee of Kyrgyz Republic, IMF and World Bank databases).

    If the authors had spent extra 15 to 30 minutes to look up the data or read user-friendly reports available on IMF and WorldBank websites, they would have realized that Kyrgyz Republic actually produces things, such as mining precious metals, manufacturing, agriculture, and services, in addition to re-exporting Chinese made products.

    The bottomline is these authors are either incompetent or lazy, possibly both. If you want to spend money learning what is going on in ‘stans’, you will get a better story out of me. I will accept half the amount these clowns are charging and I will donate it to the Orphanages in Kyrgyz Republic.

  2. Raffaello Pantucci

    Whilst somewhat harsh, this is a fair comment in some ways as in a later piece we have just published with Jamestown Foundation we verified the information about the US “transit hub” costs better. According to a Congressional Research Service report it only accounts for about 5% of GDP.

  3. Linar Zairov

    In retrospect, I realize my comments were not only harsh but also disrespectful to your work. For that I apologize.

    Nonetheless, I do believe that your claim about that the composition of Kyrgyz GDP is primarily made up of remittances from Russia and fees from the US military is reckless. For an audience not familiar with Kyrgyz Republic, it reads as if the people there engage in no productive activities. People of Kyrgyz Republic maybe poor but they do not live on handouts from the West or Russia. Many of them, apart from politicians who extort and steal from aid money, make their living doing honest and valuable work.

    Having said that, I look forward to your book. I am sure the fundamental arguments you make are sound and useful for understanding complex interactions among China,Russia, and Central Asian countries.

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