Newly inaugurated Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has declared that Russia is Kyrgyzstan's "main strategic partner", although he also noted that during his six-year term his country would try to balance ties with Moscow, China and the European Union. He made the comments in a November 27 interview with Russia's TASS news agency.
Jeenbekov, who on November 29 flew to Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, was sworn in five days ago. He replaced former President Almazbek Atambayev in what marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected leader to another in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, often hailed as an island of democracy in the region, has this century toppled two autocratic regimes—one in 2005 and another in 2010—and has since only had one interim president and democratically elected Atambayev as its leader. Nevertheless, the transfer of power hints at an emerging dominant party system in the country.
"We intend to deepen our allied relations with Russia, our main strategic partner, and China remains our important strategic and trade partner," Jeenbekov said. "We surely [will] continue developing our cooperation with our European partners, especially in such issues as supporting parliament and developing the Open Society programme."
Though Jeenbekov did not bring up the ongoing Kyrgyz-Kazakh border dispute, he mentioned that Bishkek intends to strengthen "neighbourly" relations with other Central Asian countries "based on the principle of mutual respect and non-interference in each other's internal affairs". That reference appeared to refer to accusations that Astana tried to meddle in Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election by granting an audience with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Jeenbekov’s main challenger in the presidential election, ex-PM Omurbek Babanov. In the wake of that meeting, Nazarbayev’s press office issued a statement giving the impression that it was an encounter of leaders of equal standing.
Babanov is currently facing a criminal case in which he is accused of “stoking ethnic, racial, and religious hatred" and "publicly calling for the violent changing of the constitutional order." The first accusation is based on claims that Babanov tried to gain the support of ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan by discussing alleged discrimination and inequality they face at the hands of the Kyrgyz government" and then calling for the ethnic Uzbeks to actively fight against this situation."
One of the new president’s first decisions was to award predecessor Atambayev the title of national hero, granting him the “Hero of the Kyrgyz Nation and White Falcon Medal” on November 27. Some analysts believe Jeenbekov’s term will amount to an unofficial continuation of Atambayev’s rule, with the departed president ruling from the shadows. Atambayev himself maintains close ties to Putin. During his lame duck phase, Atambayev paid a visit to Russia, where he self-admittedly “complained” to Putin about the Kazakh-Kyrgyz dispute.
Some analysts see the dispute between Bishkek and Astana as a setback for reform-minded new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s hopes of reinvigorating cooperation between the nations of Central Asia.