Mapping Threats and Kyrgyzstan’s Security Development

Adina Masalbekova is an independent Bishkek-based researcher, focusing on China’s foreign policy in Central Asia. She formerly served as a Research Fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek and the Centre for European Security Studies in Groningen. You may follow her on X @a_masalbekova.

While some talk about humanity being on the brink of another world war or other forms of major global conflict, others openly state that the world has already entered an era of World War III, with prolonged conflicts already taking place in eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. With no end to these conflicts in sight, there is a renewed global shift to strengthen security. In the meantime, cooperation is being strengthened both at the regional level and for ideological reasons—liberal democracy vs. growing authoritarianism.

Strategically located between China and Russia, Central Asia often finds itself at the very center of its authoritarian neighbors’ focus. With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, this former Soviet region is also forced to reconsider its close ties with Russia on matters of security and political alignment. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a number of statements emphasizing his commitment to the territorial integrity of independent states during a visit to Central Asian countries in 2022, contributing to the perception that China is also seeking to strengthen its security position in the region as part of its new Global Security Initiative. Since its independence in 1991, the concept and question of security in Kyrgyzstan have gained prominence due to various regional and global events. This is perfectly justified since Central Asian states have experienced some of the highest rates of chaotic power shifts.

Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov with Chinese Premier Li Qiang

As a small country of the Central Asian region bordering China’s Xinjiang Province, Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as an island of democracy. The country has taken a fascinating path towards safeguarding its territorial unity and security, having overcome revolutions, demarcation issues, inter-ethnic conflicts, and turbulent events dating back to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Addressing security developments in Kyrgyzstan lifts the curtain on the region’s geopolitical peculiarities and territorial conflicts. At the same time, it plays a significant role as a trade and energy transit route connecting Asia and Europe, where Kyrgyzstan’s stability impacts regional, environmental, and economic development.

With the ongoing invasion of Ukraine driven by Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, understanding the security issue in Kyrgyzstan also plays a key part in grasping Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. The strengthening of ties with China serves as one example of how Beijing uses the relationship to promote its Global Security Initiative, largely seen in the West as a threat to liberal democracy.


“Unity and Cohesion of the Nation”

Kyrgyzstan established its modern-era sovereignty only in 1991, becoming a full member of the UN. However, the country’s history of preserving its territories and ensuring a safe existence dates back thousands of years. The first mention of Kyrgyz ethnicity can be traced to 201 BC, as indicated by the historical records on the Qin Dynasty and “Unity and cohesion of the nation,” an opening statement of The Seven Commandments of Manas, the warrior and spiritual leader of the Kyrgyz people in the Epic of Manas. The cultural heritage of Kyrgyzstan represents the idea of great unification of the discordant Kyrgyz tribes against external opponents and in the defense of the homeland.

Having once been part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, modern Kyrgyzstan still experiences remnants of the Soviet approach to security. The key impact the Soviet administration left on security, not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in the Central Asian region, was the national-territorial demarcation, which greatly influenced the formation of the region’s five independent states (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) with large ethnic groups of Turkic and Persian origin.

Beginning in 1924, the demarcation of the Central Asian territory by the Soviet authorities was focused on preserving the country’s integrity and that of various ethnic groups living in it. The demarcation had been repeatedly adjusted by Soviet cartographers, leading to the creation of numerous enclaves and exclaves, as well as territorial and ethnic conflicts after the collapse of the USSR. The results of the territorial demarcation later became a direct threat to the stable development of the region. Apart from the problematic demarcation, Soviet-era distribution of water resources no longer corresponds to the realities and needs of sovereign countries, posing additional security concerns.

As the principal successor and carrier of Soviet legacy, including on security issues, Russia initiated the formation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Kyrgyzstan joined along with several other former Soviet states. However, the CSTO has repeatedly failed to resolve emerging security issues among its members.


Modern History and Geopolitics

Broad security debate in the sovereign-era Kyrgyzstan has primarily focused on economic stability. To survive and stabilize its economy, Kyrgyzstan needed to rely on assistance from external actors and humanitarian aid. Unlike many of its neighbors in the region, Kyrgyzstan embarked on a democratic development path under the leadership of its first president Askar Akayev, having gone through a revolutionary transition from a centralized to a free market economy. Although economic reform stimulated the growth and development of small- and medium-sized businesses in the long term, it also led to the destruction of industrial facilities on a massive scale, exacerbating already high corruption levels. These developments, in turn, prevented the creation of a favorable environment for foreign investors. It was in the 1990s that mass labor migration from Kyrgyzstan to Russia began—a trend that continues to this day. The “bazaar” economy played a major role in the country’s recovery after the post-Soviet economic shock caused a prolonged economic crisis. Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 1998, followed by China’s accession a couple of years later, significantly contributed to Kyrgyzstan’s stable economic growth. The two largest bazaars that were established during those days, Dordoi and Karasuu, still remain one of the key engines of the country’s economy through the import of goods from China. Thus, the economic aspect of security was brought onto a relatively stable path, generating tangible GDP growth.

While Kyrgyzstan was conducting its peaceful democratic reforms and adapting to new economic realities, the same cannot be said about the rest of the region. At that point, a five-year civil war broke out in neighboring Tajikistan, claiming the lives of more than 100,000 people. This prompted Central Asian countries to actively strengthen their borders, sensing the threat of an expanding conflict throughout the region. Kyrgyz leaders played a key role in mediation and negotiation efforts between the conflicting parties, as many veteran civil servants recall. A participant in the process, former Kyrgyz diplomat Erik Asanaliev shared in a 2019 interview a detailed overview of how Bishkek served as a key mediation point for warring parties in May 1997. A peace protocol, which came as a result of the three-day negotiations in Bishkek, finally brought the bloody war to an end.

Global events of the early 2000s provided collective impetus to Kyrgyzstan and the region more broadly, promising a more dynamic security discourse, and paving the way for a maximal diversification of foreign relations and a multi-vector foreign policy. Having suffered casualties in the armed assault on the south of Kyrgyzstan by Uzbek security forces opposing the regime of Uzbekistan in 2000, the Kyrgyz government established the Batken oblast, its seventh administrative region. This region borders Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and contains three exclaves that belong to these two Kyrgyz neighbors. The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. intervention in Afghanistan were not just in the domain of news articles for Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government hosted an American base to support U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan for 10 years. In the east, China, concerned about how possible unrest in the region could affect its internal security, founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to fight “three forces of evil”: terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Kyrgyzstan became one of the first five member states in 2001. As a result of the country’s historically close ties to Russia—both bilaterally and within the CSTO—Kyrgyzstan welcomed the opening of a Russian military base in 2003, which has been operating ever since. In addition to nurturing ties that derived from a shared Soviet past, Kyrgyzstan also began to actively strengthen military cooperation with Türkiye, based on the two nations’ Turkic identity and brotherhood—eventually resulting in the creation of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) in 2009.


At the Edge of War: Ethnic Clashes

Over time, the consequences of Soviet territorial demarcation took their toll, leading to numerous conflicts and demarcation issues. In turn, these conflicts lasted for decades after the collapse of the USSR. Their consequences have acutely affected the stability of southern Kyrgyzstan, where the regions of Osh, Batken, and Jalal-Abad are home to a large number of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. In addition to those who settled in the Fergana Valley centuries ago, many refugees relocated to Kyrgyzstan following the civil war in Tajikistan and the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan.

During the 2010 revolution that toppled the regime of Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Uzbek community leaders and activists such as Kadyrzhan Batyrov, Inomzhan Abdrusalov, and others attempted to establish Uzbek autonomy in the territory of Osh and Jalaabad regions. These attempts ended in a bloody confrontation between the state and the separatists and a brutal suppression of the separatist movement the same year. In the country’s southwestern Batken region, disputes have repeatedly occurred on the border with Tajikistan on the division of territorial waters and pastures, as well as the states of the exclave. In April 2021, these disputes first turned into a military clash with significant casualties. However, the conflict only escalated in 2022, both militarily and in the information sphere—bringing the two countries to the brink of interstate war. Despite the fact that the clashes were stopped, and the risks of further escalation subsequently reduced, border disputes persist.


The Rise of Civil Mobilization as a Force of its Own

It is worth noting that another force has been emerging in Kyrgyzstan in moments of crisis and instability since the country’s independence: civil mobilization. In fact, civil mobilization has been a force for both stability and destabilization. On the one hand, the growth of civil society organizations in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan comes as a fruit of years of NGO activity, civic engagement with democratic institutions, and long-term support from foreign donors. On the other hand, Kyrgyz society also has strong historical and cultural aspects. Its way of life (for example, weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies) is determined by a high degree of collectivism and mutual assistance, especially in non-urban settlements. Regardless of the reasons behind it, civil mobilization represents a separate force that can play a significant role in society, including in security. Mobilization of ordinary citizens proved incredibly valuable when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance and fundraising for military procurement, but also in opposing CSTO initiatives that would involve Kyrgyzstan’s territory or the deployment of Kyrgyz troops abroad. One such example is the attempt to withdraw Kyrgyz forces from the CSTO’s peacekeeping mission in Kazakhstan and the cancelation of a CSTO exercise in Kyrgyzstan in 2022. With the advent of social media, this kind of civic engagement is emerging with renewed vigor online.

The scale of civil mobilization is often unpredictable—dependent on the specific circumstances of the event at hand—and has repeatedly contributed to power transitions in Kyrgyzstan, with each regime having attempted to control inconvenient forms of civic activism. One of such instruments of the sitting Kyrgyz government is the April 2024 adoption of the Russia-inspired foreign agents law, albeit after a number of failed attempts.


Existing Security Challenges

For a long time, Kyrgyzstan has had a reputation of both a chaotic democracy and the most politically unstable country in the region. This is largely due to frequent protests and three revolutions that took place in 2005, 2010, and 2020. Political regimes in Kyrgyzstan have each confronted the opposition and critics in a bid to strengthen their grip on power and prolong ruling periods without truly adhering to democratic principles of governance. Their official narrative often depicts repressive measures as a fight for national security. The sitting regime in Kyrgyzstan prioritizes crackdowns on dissent and any criticism directed at the stated as one of the top national security matters. This is demonstrated by continued persecution of opposition leaders, the mass arrests of independent journalists in early 2024, and, finally, the recently adopted bill on foreign agents. At the end of 2023, the Chief of the State Committee for National Security declared that the state had spent $2 billion on strengthening the security apparatus over the past two years, particularly on preventing popular uprisings—much like the one that helped the regime take power in the first place.

Besides, one of the hard-pressing realities burdening contemporary Kyrgyzstan are the country’s unaddressed infrastructure needs, which have been increasingly evident in recent years due to a serious shortage of electricity. As of late, the height of water in the country’s rivers basins has been hitting a record low, which compelled the government to declare a three-year energy emergency in August 2023 because of a decrease in water levels in hydroelectric power stations. Water is one of the most important resources for Kyrgyzstan, the distribution of which also ensures regional stability to some extent. In addition, the water shortage issue in neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan is of even greater concern, as each of them rely on the high alpine glaciers and snowfields in Kyrgyzstan to provide nearly half of the region’s water resources. Kyrgyzstan thus faces a high priority of not only having to address its own water management, but also of carefully navigating water distribution in the region so that it doesn’t escalate already frequent disputes between countries.

However, water infrastructure and its maintenance further deepen existing concerns. The outdated infrastructure, built back in the Soviet era, has run its course. Lacking its own funds for the implementation of large strategic projects, Kyrgyzstan has been strengthening energy cooperation with China. Thus far, this partnership has included the construction of a hydroelectric power station and a thermal station in Kyrgyzstan, among other deals. In addition, the two countries concluded the final agreement on new projects with the participation of the Ministry of Energy of Kyrgyzstan during the Kyrgyzstan-China business forum in April 2024. The agreement’s worth was estimated at over $1 billion without yet disclosing what the specific terms of payment would be.

Despite China’s large investments in strategically important assets in Kyrgyzstan, this adds to existing “debt trap” concerns. Kyrgyzstan’s debt to the Chinese Exim Bank alone amounts to $1.7 billion out of its total $6.2 billion external debt as of 2023. There is widespread concern among the Kyrgyz public that if the debt is not repaid, some Kyrgyz territories might be transferred to China.


The Impact of Ongoing Conflicts in the Region

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan has once again returned to the economic and energy security agenda, trying to navigate comfortable neutrality in the context of Russian neo-colonial influence—exercised both economically and politically. The Soviet legacy has been completely appropriated by the Kremlin. Furthermore, Moscow’s repeated references to former Soviet republics as artificial creations have compelled Kyrgyzstan, along with other nations, to begin to rethink the roles of Russia and the CSTO as regional security guarantors. This shift in strategic thinking comes at the expense of historical ties with Russia, increasingly taking the contours of a decolonization process. In the meantime, Russia continues to exert influence in the fields of information and security, shaping anti-Western narratives in Kyrgyzstan—as the adopted bill on foreign agents demonstrates.

With Sadyr Japarov assuming the presidential office in 2021, there has been a notable positive shift in the dynamics of Chinese-Kyrgyz bilateral relations. Xi Jinping’s trip to Central Asia in 2022 left the impression that China, against the backdrop of the events in Ukraine, is more openly strengthening its position in the region, gradually diminishing even what was once Russia’s undisputed political influence. Discussed for decades, the China-Uzbekistan-China railway project has reached a new level, entering the planning and implementation phase. The project carries enormous potential to reduce economic ties with Russia. Moreover, at the 2023 China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an, China put forward the Global Security Initiative—a plan it launched a year earlier at Boao forum for Asia—promoting its vision and approach to global peace and security, which differs from the one offered by Western countries.

Against the backdrop of global events, the OTS, which has doubled its activity in recent years, has become another alternative for cooperation. If cooperation with Russia and China is largely due to close political and economic ties, then the OTS carries a cultural and identity-based connection at the heart of the organization. Nonetheless, the OTS seems to have ambitious long-term plans, often signaling potential for cooperation in military production and mutual assistance.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its consequences have finally given an impetus to the Central Asian countries to take another look at each other. Since 2022, regional integration has noticeably improved, despite the brief Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have been finally coming to terms of its border delimitation, having signed a new agreement allowing their respective citizens to travel to the other country using their ID cards only—an unprecedent development since the ethnic clashes of 2010. In April 2024, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan signed a number of documents expanding their security cooperation, including the exchange of information on citizens. In addition to bilateral initiatives, a historic joint military exercise of Central Asian countries (with the exception of Turkmenistan) with Azerbaijan will be taking place in the summer of 2024.

Throughout the years since gaining independence, Kyrgyzstan’s trajectory has been adapting to the realities of shifting global events, often taking a neutral-passive position on foreign affairs, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As history has repeatedly shown, every regime that rose to power in Kyrgyzstan has had a tendency to prioritize strengthening its position by suppressing civil society, the inconvenient critical tones, and opposition parties. Security issues tend to vary and are often dealt with on an ad hoc basis, indicating a lack of a systematic approach to identifying and preventing existing risks. Nevertheless, the government continues to attempt to navigate and carefully welcome bilateral and regional cooperation initiatives with diverse actors.

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