After International Visits, Japarov’s Foreign Policy Comes into Focus
In late February, Sadyr Japarov flew to Russia for his first international visit as the newly elected President of Kyrgyzstan. Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Japarov on his win in the January 10, 2020, election and thanked him for his efforts to preserve the official status of Russian as the language in Kyrgyzstan. Putin then promised to give more opportunities to prospective Kyrgyz migrant workers for learning Russian. Japarov emphasized the importance of preserving the Russian language and promoting its teaching and stated that there are plans to bring Russian teachers to rural areas in Kyrgyzstan.
Japarov and Putin also discussed coronavirus aid to Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz president stated that his country is working to import Russian vaccines and that the Kyrgyz Health Ministry has included the vaccine on a list of special medicines that are allowed to be imported without the same registration requirements as other medicines. He also requested that Kyrgyz citizens living and working in Russia be eligible for vaccination programs in Russia or for vaccinations on a payment basis.
Japarov’s first international visit with Putin demonstrates that Russia remains one of Kyrgyzstan’s most desired foreign policy partners. In December 2020, Russia provided $20 million in budget support funds, and $1.3 billion of $1.5 billion of Kyrgyzstan’s trade turnover in 2020 was attributed to Russian exports. Kyrgyz-Russian relations have continued to be close after Japarov’s election. In February, Russia provided $5.2 million for anti-narcotics operations to the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry.
Japarov then made an international visit to Kazakhstan, March 2-3. He said that he visited Kazakhstan first out of the four other Central Asian nations because Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was the first to invite him to a state visit after his election. He met with President Tokayev and the two discussed joint efforts to fight the pandemic, military technical assistance, and trade. New trade agreements that would reduce trade barriers, expand ties between small and medium-sized businesses, and strengthen cooperation between customs and tax authorities were also mentioned. Tokayev stated that infrastructure at the Korday/Akzhol international border crossing point has been updated in order to ease the movement of people and goods between the two countries. Kazakhstan has also increased its number of educational grants to 50 and its quota for Kyrgyz students by 10 times. The leaders also discussed close cultural ties and considered the building of a monument to Abai, a 19th-century Kazakh poet, in Bishkek, and monuments to Manas and Chingiz Aitmatov, a legendary Kyrgyz hero and the country’s national poet respectively, in Nur-Sultan, signaling the emphasis placed on Central Asian unity.
On March 12, Japarov visited Tashkent and held talks with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev about border issues. After the visit, Mirziyoyev said that for the first time “we have agreed who should do what and when at the border” and that if everything runs according to schedule, the issue would be resolved in three months. Subsequent talks in Tashkent on border demarcation that included a Kyrgyz delegation led by the chief of the State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiev, and a group of Uzbek officials led by Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov started on March 24. These talks are aimed at solving the border disputes in the Ferghana Valley where Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan meet and intertwine in a classic example of early-Soviet border drawing. In recent years, violence has broken out in this region resulting in fatalities. Both Japarov and Mirziyoyev have prioritized improving the border situation as part of their foreign policy priorities.
Japarov’s second and third international visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan demonstrate regional collaboration, cooperation, and integration as a primary foreign policy priority for Kyrgyzstan. Furthermore, a clip from their meeting that shows Japarov and Mirziyoyev speaking with each other in Kyrgyz and Uzbek, rather than Russian, highlights their desire to promote Central Asian unity through linguistic and cultural ties. Japarov has also stated that he plans to make visits to China and Turkey, highlighting Kyrgyzstan’s prioritization of its regional partners. Though Japarov’s term has only recently begun, his foreign policy is coming into focus. Kyrgyzstan’s historic closeness with Russia seems set to continue, as Japarov also seeks robust cooperation with its more populous and wealthy neighbors. While the friendly relationship between Bishkek and Moscow might be a potential cause for concern in Washington, it does not come as a surprise. Indeed, policymakers in the United States and Europe should work with Japarov to encourage his ambitions to promote Central Asian unity and collaboration.