Kyrgyzstan breaks ranks on Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews March 12, 2014

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Breaking ranks with the Russian-led consensus in the region, Kyrgyzstan announced on March 11 that it does not consider deposed president Viktor Yanukovych to be the legitimate leader of Ukraine.

Kyrgyzstan is the first government from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to take a position that strongly conflicts with Moscow's, despite Kyrgyzstan's reliance on economic support from Russia. In a statement issued by the foreign ministry, Bishkek appears to blame Yanukovych's former government, which was ousted by massive protests in February, for the current crisis.

It's unlikely to go down well with Moscow, which pressed Yanukovych to refuse to sign a pact with the EU in November, hoping instead for Ukraine to enter its opposing Customs Union bloc. The crisis in Ukraine is now teetering on the brink of a full blown global emergency, centered on Russia's military occupation of Crimea and a referendum on secession set for March 16.

Other CIS states have either offered Moscow support for its claim that the new government in Kyiv is illegal, or at least refrained from taking sides as Russia faces off against the West. Moscow insists that the starting point for any talks over the crisis must be the EU-brokered deal signed by the then opposition and Yanukovych on February 21. It was never implemented, says Kyiv, because Yanukovych fled the following day.

However, the statement from Bishkek - coinciding with a press conference given by Yanukovych from within Russia - insists corruption and poor governance under Yanukovych caused the crisis. "The only source of power in any country is its people, and a president who lost his people's trust, who de facto lost his presidential authority and, moreover, who fled the country, cannot be legitimate," the statement reads, according to RFE/RL.

The ministry adds that it considers Yanukovych's March 11 statement, in which he claimed to still be Ukraine's legitimate leader to be "inappropriate and inadequate". The deposed president told a press conference in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, that he would soon return to Ukraine, and that the presidential elections scheduled for May 25 were "illegal".

Revolutionary echoes

Like Ukraine, which went through the Orange Revolution in 2004, Kyrgyzstan has twice seen its presidents violently ousted from office. The Tulip Revolution in 2005 toppled the country's first post-Soviet president, Askar Akayev; five years later his successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown.

The opposition coalition that ousted Bakiyev is believed to have done so with Moscow's blessing, after he reneged on a deal to shut down the US airbase at Manas International Airport in return for several hundred million of dollars of investment. Since 2010, Russia has increased its presence in the Kyrgyz economy.

Under President Almazbek Atambaev, who was elected in 2012, Moscow has pledged to co-finance two major hydropower projects, while Russian companies have taken over Kyrgyzstan's gas distribution monopoly and one of the country's largest banks. Bishkek has largely remained loyal to Moscow during this time, although recently some cracks in the relationship have started to appear.

In particular, there is a growing dispute over the roadmap for Kyrgyzstan's accession to the Customs Union. While Armenia was diverted from signing an EU pact just ahead of Ukraine, and has seen its membership of the trade club - which also features Belarus and Kazakhstan - fast tracked in the intervening months, Bishkek has been backpedaling on entry.

While it's not alone in being wary of Russian dominance, Kyrgyzstan's criticism of Moscow's position on Ukraine does stands it apart in the region. Other Central Asian governments have taken a more cautious stance.

Most have good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, but the violent overthrow of a leader in a nearby state is a cause of concern, especially in the likes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where there has been no handover of power since independence more than two decades ago. At the same time, many will also be mindful of Moscow's pretext of protecting ethnic Russians for its military incursion into Crimea.

The Uzbek foreign ministry, after remaining silent on the issue until early March, issued a statement expressing support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. "Uzbekistan sees the solution of the current situation in the refusal of the use of military force, relying instead on political mechanisms," the statement adds.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 10 that he "understands" the Russian position in Ukraine.

"Nursultan Nazarbayev stressed that Kazakhstan, as a strategic partner, treats with understanding the position of Russia, defending the rights of national minorities in Ukraine, as well as its security interests," says a statement posted on the Kazakh presidential website. As well as being a close ally of Russia, Kazakhstan has a substantial Russian minority.

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