Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has a history of engaging pro-Russian opposition parties across the former Soviet empire to elect leaders more amenable to the Kremlin’s desire to reassert Russian dominance in Asia. The strategy may have worked in Georgia last month. Now, mineral-rich Kyrgyzstan may be witnessing the early stages of a similar ploy in Bishkek.
The signs seem innocent enough, but sharp-eyed observers in Kyrgyzstan are crying foul over newly released campaign posters from the opposition Ar-Namys party. The banners feature party leader Omurbek Suvanaliev alongside a blue and red flag bearing the party logo at the center. To some, the horizontal blue-over-red bars of the Ar-Namys flag look suspiciously like that of the Russian Federation, which features the blue-over-red configuration on its lower two thirds.
Kyrgyz activist Ilya Lukash calls the posters a blatant attempt by Ar-Namys to win sympathy and votes among Kyrgyzstan’s 200,000 ethnic Russians. Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in Ukraine and Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition both came to power on platforms promising reconnection with historical Russian ties, although Ukraine has since publicly split with Russia since Yanukovych’s election. Ar-Namys seems intent on aping Georgian Dream.
The controversy reminds Lukash of the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections of 2010. Leaders of all the major parties made the trek to Moscow ahead of the election to cozy up to the country’s largest trading partner and the regional superpower. But only Ar-Namys signed a “cooperation agreement” with United Russia. The agreement pledged the two parties to work toward, “…equal and mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and Kyrgyzstan in the economic sphere, [and] the creation of beneficial conditions for the development of entrepreneurial, investment, and scientific activity.”
United Russia officially endorsed Ar-Namys in the 2010 elections. The party trumpeted the endorsement, featuring a picture of then-party leader Feliks Kulov with Russian president Dmitry Mevedev in its campaign literature. The resulting furor over the use of a foreign leader in political advertisements led to the Kyrgyz Parliament banning such images from future campaigns.
This latest controversy comes in the run up to crucial local elections that will establish control of village and city councils. The big prize is control of the city council in Bishkek. The city council in turn elects the mayor, whose office serves as a stepping stone into national politics. Activists see Moscow attempting to set up a pro-Russian mayor and council in the capital, providing an instant rival for new Kyrgyz Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev – himself a former mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, Osh.
Kyrgyzstan’s economy, driven by its mineral wealth, has fallen on hard times as nationalists have taken to attacking foreign mining companies. Foreign expertise is critical to developing Kyrgyzstan’s vast natural resources for the benefit of its people. Stability both in government and society at large is the key to enticing Western companies to invest their talents and dollars in the country. Conditions are ripe for exploitation by parties promising a return to the old order. Ar-Namys and Moscow are no doubt banking on it.
If the level of suspicion surrounding the posters is any indication, United Russia is unlikely to succeed in its attempt to influence the local elections. However, the episode should serve as notice to Satybaldiev, the Kyrgyz people, and the political leadership in Bishkek that Moscow has its sights set not just on Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, but on the steppe of Central Asia as well.