Kyrgyzstan Votes for a President, Feeling the Pull of Russia
The New York Times
By Michael Schwirtz

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — When Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, unveiled a plan this month to form a new alliance of former Soviet countries called the Eurasian Union, some of them cringed at the specter of some kind of U.S.S.R. version 2.0.

But not Kyrgyzstan.

On Sunday, a year and a half after the bloody overthrow of an authoritarian president and an explosion of ethnic violence that left hundreds dead, Kyrgyzstan will hold a presidential election, and many people here, worn down by instability, are looking to link up with their country’s former comrades, first among them Russia.

“Even those of us most concerned about the danger to sovereignty and national independence, we see that we need to integrate,” said Edil Baisalov, a prominent democracy activist and a former aide to the current president. “We had better chain our car to the train of Russia and Kazakhstan.”

Small and landlocked, Kyrgyzstan has long parlayed its strategic Central Asian location into an outsize role in geopolitics, hosting both American and Russia military bases and engaging both powers in a lucrative bidding war for its loyalty. Both Russia and the United States supported the interim government that took power last year.

But if the experts are right, Kyrgyzstan’s proximity and historical ties to Russia may prevail over what many here see as America’s temporary strategic interest.

Several prominent candidates in the election have endorsed Russia’s proposed Eurasian Union. The presumed front-runner, Almazbek Atambayev, met with Mr. Putin in Moscow this month, and has expressed support for Kyrgyzstan’s membership in a Russia-led customs union that already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Mr. Atambayev, who was prime minister until stepping down in September to concentrate on his campaign, even sponsored a bill this year naming a mountain in Kyrgyzstan after Mr. Putin.

Much of the Kyrgyz elite, even those seen as strongly pro-Western, seems to believe that the country has little choice but to cast its lot with Russia. Many are suspicious of growing Chinese influence in the region. But perhaps more important, they fear abandonment by the United States.

The American military base at Manas airport, near Bishkek, is crucial to supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan and is a big source of revenue for the Kyrgyz government. The lease on the base ends in 2014, the same year President Obama has vowed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, a prospect viewed with foreboding by some here.

“We will without a doubt move in the direction of the customs union and probably also the Eurasian Union,” said Roza Otunbayeva, who will step down as caretaker president at the end of the year. “The exit of NATO forces in 2014 leaves us no other choice if we want to preserve our security.”

Though some have warned that joining the customs union could harm Kyrgyzstan’s trade relations with China and complicate its standing in the World Trade Organization, which it joined in 1998, Ms. Otunbayeva said a decisive shift toward Russia made sense economically.

“Everything that we manufacture here goes to markets in Kazakhstan or Russia,” she said. “We can’t compete with China and we can’t compete with Europe. We are living in this space for now and see that for at least the next 10 years we will be stuck here.”

Such a position coincides with a recent shift in Russia’s regional policy. Early efforts by Mr. Putin to reassert authority in former Soviet countries were often ham-fisted. Attempts to influence the internal politics in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan backfired, when pro-Russian leaders were deposed with the help of Western governments in a series of so-called color revolutions.

Russia’s methods have evolved. A soft-power campaign that included documentary films on Russian television and denunciations by Russian officials of human rights violations preceded the uprising in April 2010 that overthrew Kurmanbek S. Bakiyev, a corrupt autocrat who had sometimes thwarted Russian interests, particularly regarding the American base, which the Russians wanted shut down.

Russia has expanded commercial relations here in recent years, including investment in Kyrgyzstan’s energy infrastructure. In September, the Russian energy giant Gazprom announced that it would open an office in Kyrgyzstan. Russia already supplies most of the country’s energy resources.

This month Mr. Putin vowed aid to help Kyrgyzstan’s economy. Russia has also supported the creation of several Russian cultural centers this year in Bishkek, the capital, aimed in part at promoting the Russian language, which many here have begun to forget.

“We’ve begun to learn from our mistakes,” said Aleksei V. Vlasov, a Central Asian expert from Moscow who has been working to forge ties between Russian and Kyrgyz universities. “We are now working with several internal players at once, diversifying our risks. And we are working not only with the elite, but with Kyrgyz society.”

Though Russia’s aid contributions to Kyrgyzstan pale in comparison with aid from Western countries, Russia’s strategy has earned dividends. A recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes democracy, found that 96 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population thought relations with Russia were “good,” compared with 45 percent who thought the same about the United States.

China, the region’s dominant economic power, has faced criticism for using Chinese labor instead of local residents for its infrastructure projects. Many here earn their living off the resale of imported Chinese goods to Kazakhstan, Russia and elsewhere in Central Asia, but sales have dropped since the creation of the customs union, merchants said.

Gulnara Kurumbayeva, the director of the history department at Kyrgyz State University, which hosts a Moscow-backed Russian cultural center, said interest among students in Russia, after falling off almost completely a few years ago, had begun to grow. In the last two years, the number of students in the department choosing to study in Russian exclusively has grown from close to zero to about 800 this year as many have sought to improve their chances of finding higher-paid work in Russia.

“Common sense and the desire to be competitive in the work force,” Ms. Kurumbayeva said, “is driving young people, for mercantile reasons, to study Russian.”

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