On the 10th of January 2021, Kazakhstan’s border state, Kyrgyzstan, elected its new president. Sadyr Zhaparov, 52, a former deputy of the Kyrgyz parliament, was elected the new head of state by 79 percent of the votes cast.
Кazakhstan, which has long looked on with much concern at the political instability and internal strife in its smaller, but very much beloved neighbor, immediately embraced this election as a new chance to improve relations. (Kyrgyzstan has a population of about 6 million people, the coups in the years of 2005 and 2010, as well as the recent bout of political violence in October of 2021, provided it a reputation of being a freedom-loving, but unruly and unstable country.)
As soon as the results of the vote in Kyrgyzstan were officially announced, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev congratulated Zhaparov on his victory in a friendly phone conversation. Tokayev noted that the outcome of the vote was an evidence of popular support for Zhaparov’s program of developing Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan’s president expressed his hope to see further strengthening of his neighbor’s statehood and the sustainable socio-economic development of Kyrgyzstan.
Zhaparov, in response, thanked his Kazakh colleague and all the people of Kazakhstan for their “unwavering support” for the Kyrgyz Republic and for its aspirations. The two presidents agreed to have a summit meeting soon, most likely during an official visit by Zhaparov to Kazakhstan.
Behind these diplomatic formulas lies a dramatic story of instability and power struggle in Kyrgyzstan. Just recently, in 2017, Zhaparov, who had lived in Russia and Kazakhstan since 2013, was arrested on the border, upon entering Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan’s territory. After a brief trial, he was sentenced to 11 years and 6 months in jail. The true reason for the severe sentence was Zhaparov’s political activity in 2012, when he with a group of supporters protested the alleged mismanagement by the government of Kyrgyzstan’s gold fields.
Zhaparov returned to the political scene of Kyrgyzstan in October 2020, when, after a violent protest action that left more than 1000 people wounded or bruised, he was released from jail and cleared of the charges. That development made it possible for him to participate in the election of January 10, 2021, which he won triumphantly.
For Kyrgyzstan, the period of political instability and constant replacement of ruling groups started in March 2005, when as a result of the so called Tulip Revolution, the “professor president” Askar Akayev, who had ruled the country for the initial 15 years of its independence, was ousted by groups of organized protesters. A chain of unstable ruling coalitions followed, with the new president Kurmanbek Bakiyev ousted in his turn in 2010. That same year, ethnic violence erupted in Kyrgyzstan’s southern city of Osh. The policies of the new governments were frequently marked by what some characterized as a distinct lack of continuity and professionalism.
What could Kazakhstan do in this situation? Respecting the sovereignty of its brotherly neighbor, Kazakhstan’s presidents tried to improve relations and share expertise in spheres such as making the country attractive for foreign investment, providing ideal conditions for the development of small and medium business startups and education reform. In 2013-2015, Russia and Kazakhstan welcomed Kyrgyzstan joining the Customs Union and later the Eurasian Economic Union. Kazakhstan tried to provide as many opportunities as possible for its neighbor.
But, of course, instability and political infighting on the Kyrgyz side of the border did not help, sometimes putting the cooperation between the two countries in “pause” mode.
The political rise and subsequent election of Zhaparov is seen as a new opportunity. Immediately after the end of turmoil in October 2020, the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met Kyrgyzstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ruslan Kazakbayev and called for a higher level of cooperation between the two countries.
“Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the countries most close to one another. We are not divided by anything. On the contrary, there are many factors that unite us. Kyrgyzstan is a reliable ally, an important strategic partner and a brotherly state to Kazakhstan.”
Let us hope that Zhaparov, who started his career as a simple agricultural worker in a kolkhoz, who became a self-made man and entrepreneur in the 1990s and an active parliament deputy in the 2000s will not pass on the opportunity offered by Kazakhstan.
The author is Dmitry Babich, a Moscow-based journalist with 30 years of experience of covering global politics, a frequent guest on BBC, Al Jazeera and RT.
The opinions and viewpoints of authors in the Op-Ed section do not necessarily reflect the opinions and viewpoints of the editorial team.