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The Viral Video that Sent Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan Relations into a Tailspin

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev during happier times. Photo from Kazakhstan's presidential press service carried by RFE/RL.

Kyrgyzstan's outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev has sparked a diplomatic standoff by assailing his opposite number in Kazakhstan — long-reigning 77-year-old dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev — in a blistering attack on the eve of Central Asia's most competitive presidential election yet.

The two-and-a-half minute tirade launched by Atambayev has already scooped close to two million views on YouTube. In oil-producing Kazakhstan, where an economic downturn has raised questions about the autocratic path of Central Asia's richest country, many applauded Atambayev's words. But in semi-democratic Kyrgyzstan, where citizens travelling to Kazakhstan by land now face lengthy queues at the border, some are beginning to wish he'd kept his mouth shut.

For the second time (see also Will This ‘Toilet Cleaning’ Conflict Between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan Ever Stop?) Global Voices provides a blow-by-blow account of how relations between two brotherly ex-Soviet ‘stans’ broke down in farcical fashion.

1. He's my candidate

Babanov meeting Nazarbayev. Image from the website of the President of Kazakhstan. Creative commons.

First things first — Kyrgyzstan is having a very real and very competitive presidential election on October 15. That is important because Kazakhstan, which Nazarbayev has ruled since before it gained independence from the Soviet Union, doesn't bother with that sort of thing. Nazarbayev won the last Kazakh leadership contest in 2015 with nearly 98% of the vote.

A good neighbour might reasonably be expected to stay neutral in such a tense political contest, but Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have had their ups and downs in recent years and Nazarbayev decided to take a side by publicizing his meeting with Kyrgyz oligarch and opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov on September 19.

During the meeting Nazarbayev declared his readiness to work with the “next elected president” in Kyrgyzstan.

Although the content of the meeting seemed fairly innocuous, it caused a total meltdown in the Kyrgyz government. This is not least because the candidate Atambayev would prefer to succeed him, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, is facing a strong challenge from Babanov and could have benefited from a similar sort of endorsement.

Atambayev himself is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a second term.

2. ‘Interference’

‘Interference’ by Geralt. Pixabay image. Creative Commons CC0.

Thus, Kyrgyzstan's foreign ministry sent Kazakhstan's ambassador a strongly-worded note of protest on September 20 in which the smaller country accused the larger country of interfering in its domestic affairs:

The Kyrgyz side regards those comments and the wide coverage of this meeting by the Kazakh side as an attempt to influence the choice of the people of Kyrgyzstan and interfere in the domestic affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic.

3. Did we just do that? Really?

Kazakhstan's foreign ministry expressed its “extreme surprise” at Kyrgyzstan's reaction the same day.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev looking surprised. Russian government image licensed for reuse.

4. Atambayev takes the beef to the United Nations. Sort of.

Also on September 20 (but in New York) Atambayev used the opportunity of the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations to call on Kyrgyz citizens not to respond to the calls of “oligarchs and the presidents of other countries.” While not mentioning Babanov and Nazarbayev by name, he made his point.

Atambayev at the United Nations General Assembly. Photo from the press service of the President of Kyrgyzstan.

5. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz pro-government media bashes Babanov

Shame on [Kyrgyz state broadcaster] KTRK! They are discussing all this nonsense about Babanov — meetings with Kazakh oligarchs, [Babanov's] Kazakh passport and so on.

Widely distributed meme portraying Babanov as a slave to Kazakh interests.

6. Now for the bomb

Anyone that knows Kyrgyzstan's combustible President Almazbek Atambayev knows that it is not enough for him to make his point just once (see Will This ‘Toilet Cleaning’ Conflict Between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan Ever Stop?) and he was true to form again.

Below is a translation of Atambayev's comments made on October 7 at a routine state awards ceremony:

Правильно говорит Нурсултан Назарбаев, что даже ВВП Алматы в 5 раз больше чем ВВП всего Кыргызстана,что ВВП Казахстана больше экономики Кыргызстана в 20 раз. И средний валовой продукт Казахстана в доходах в 10 раз больше Кыргызстана. Почему тогда пенсии Казахстана больше всего в полтора раза, а не в 10, а тарифы выше в 5 раз? Потому что разворовывает правительство Казахстана. И мы подаем плохой пример, Атамбаев плохой пример. Я поддерживаю слова Назарбаева о том, чтобы молодой президент к нам пришел. Но у нас самый старший кандидат на 20 лет моложе Назарбаева. А я – на 16 лет. И кому нужен молодой президент? Нам или Казахстану? Казахи наши братья, мы знаем историю. Казахи – это мы, которые 500 лет назад поставили султаном чингизида и, кажется, до сих пор ими правят чингизиды, а не казахи.

Nursultan Nazarbayev is correct when he says that even the GDP of Almaty [Kazakhstan's largest city] is five times greater than the GDP of the entire Kyrgyzstan, and that Kazakhstan's GDP is 20 times the size of the Kyrgyz economy. And that Kazakhstan's GDP per person is 10 times the size of Kyrgyzstan's.

Why, then, are Kazakh pensions only one-and-a-half times the size and not 10 times the size, and why are tariffs [for electricity and gas] five times more expensive?

Because the government of Kazakhstan steals its national wealth!  It doesn't reach the people! And [Kyrgyzstan] sets a bad example, Atambayev sets a bad example. The example of a just government. Because if our revenues were ten times the size, our pensions would be ten times the size.

[…]

I support Nazarbayev when he says we should have a young president. But our oldest candidate is 20 years younger than Nazarbayev. And I'm 16 years younger. So who needs a young president? Us or Kazakhstan?

The Kazakhs are our brothers, we know their history. The Kazakhs are Kyrgyz people who fell under the rule of the descendants of Ghengis Khan. And sometimes it seems that they are still ruled by these descendants, and not by the Kazakh people themselves.

The speech was a typical Atambayev speech in that it contained inaccuracies.

Kazakhstan's social minister pointed out for instance that Kazakh pensions were not one-and-a-half times the size of Kyrgyz pensions, but two-and-a-half times their size, and would soon be three times the size when a new raise came into effect.

Atambayev's implicit suggestion that Kyrgyzstan does not have its own problems with corruption and authoritarianism — Central Asia's closest approximation to a democracy is still a long way from the democratic ideal — was also extremely far-fetched.

But the damage was done. While roughly half of the comments from Kazakhs under the viral video were defensive, the other half read along these lines:

Живу в Казахстане. И ничего не могу сказать против слов Атамбаева. Ни к одному слову не могу придраться, чтобы высказаться в защиту своей страны. Обидно… Но, правда есть правда.

I live in Kazakhstan. And I cannot say anything against Atambayev's words. I cannot say anything to defend my country. It is a shame, but the truth is the truth.

7. You said what???

Kazakh Prime Minister Bakyt Sagintayev. Screenshot from YouTube channel of the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan.

On October 10,  Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Bakyt Sagintayev waded in:

Bakytzhan Sagintayev noted that he made a statement in connection with the incorrect statements of the President of Kyrgyzstan A. Atambayev, which are based on manipulation of figures that have no grounds. The Prime Minister of Kazakhstan stressed that in his statement he gave the official position of the Government supported by reliable facts.

Bakytzhan Sagintayev noted that Kazakhstan's successes are undeniable, recognized by the international community and achieved thanks to the course and political leadership of the Leader of the Nation President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In conclusion, the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan noted that Kazakhstan has always maintained partnership relations with Kyrgyzstan. As an example, it was shown that all transport and trade outlets of the Kyrgyz Republic, as well as air, rail and road routes go through Kazakhstan, which has never taken restrictive measures. 

8. Kazakhstan starts taking restrictive measures

Although Kazakhstan did not initially admit to causing massive holdups at the border with Kyrgyzstan that began October 10, it admitted on October 11 that the delays were the result of a “planned” security operation. This has been a disaster for both small-time Kyrgyz traders and bigger businesses who rely on swift passage over the two states’ frontiers. Many Kyrgyz social media users posted footage of trucks queuing and heaped blame on Atambayev.

Trucks queuing at the border with Kazakhstan.

9. We've sorted things out. No, we haven't.

Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister Sapar Isakov. Wikipedia image. Author: Daniar, CC 4.0.

Awkwardly, Atambayev's attack on Nazarbayev came just before a summit of ex-Soviet leaders in the Russian city of Sochi where both he and Nazarbayev were expected to be present.

Instead of attending, however, Atambayev chose to stay at home, releasing a statement via his presidential website that explained he would not be making the journey because “politicians from foreign countries” were financing unrest to help upset the country's election. No prizes for guessing who he was referring to.

Thus, the task of unblocking the country's shared border fell upon Kyrgyzstan's smooth-talking Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, who claimed a diplomatic breakthrough after he returned from the summit.

After negotiations, President Nursultan Nazarbayev gave an order to the government of Kazakhstan to solve all issues at the border.

Unfortunately, Kazakhstan's foreign ministry swiftly responded that Isakov's achievement was a figment of his imagination.

As of this writing, Kyrgyz media were still reporting long delays at the Kazakh border, despite Kyrgyzstan's border service saying the situation has improved, while other media were reporting that Kyrgyz migrants working in Kazakhstan were being targeted for document checks.

The moral of the story? Never call the Khan a Khan.

Widely shared meme featuring Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev as a would-be Central Asian Pablo Escobar.

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