In the midst of a relatively calm election season, we have been travelling to Kyrgyzstan’s cities, villages and border posts to track the rise of China in Central Asia. The atmosphere around this election is less tense than in previous years, when governments have been ousted by street revolutions and transfers of power have yielded ethnic violence. But Kyrgyzstan’s new government will not alone decide the country’s fate.
Kyrgyzstan is a place between powers, and not just geographically. This is reflected in Jalal-Abad University, located in the country’s third-largest city, where respective wings of the central administrative buildings are run by the U.S. embassy-sponsored American Center and a Chinese government-funded Confucius Center subsidiary. In between sit Kyrgyz administrators.
The American Center provides the students with language courses, access to the Internet (only twenty-five minutes at a time) and a selection of educational movies to help with English (including Pulp Fiction, which struck us as maybe not the best English to be learning). In the Chinese wing, a pair of dedicated teachers provides various language courses for about 60 students. The best students get to go on paid trips to China. A bright display at the back of one of the classrooms shows groups of them in Xian, Shanghai and Urumqi.
Behind all this lies the reality that the lingua franca in Kyrgyzstan is Russian. The Chinese teacher used it to translate phrases. The English teacher in the American Center was Russian. Stuck between mountain ranges and great powers, Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined and dominated by what surrounds it.
This is most obvious in the economics, where the nation is now almost completely dependent on the reexport of cheap Chinese goods. A further 20 percent of GDP is generated in fees from the American "transit center" outside the capital Bishkek, with much of the rest coming from remittances from Kyrgyz men working menial jobs in Russia. Apart from charming handicrafts (and these are increasingly being replaced by Chinese-made look-alikes), the country itself produces very little.
This dependency worries the leadership. Some have proven adept at playing the great powers off each other, but others, like the former cabinet-level minister we met, are deeply concerned about where this leaves their nation. As one foreign observer based in the south of the country put it, "the country has not been allowed to develop by itself."
But the Kyrgyzstan traveler can easily see why it has continued to be dominated by those around it. A picturesque land of nomads, it was forced through a period of industrialization by the Soviets that left them the inherited infrastructure they still depend on today. But it is falling apart, and foreign-aid agencies are only really interested in helping alleviate poverty. Into this steps China, a neighboring power eager to see the country stable and prosperous to provide knock-on stability in its underdeveloped Xinjiang province. It builds new roads, offers refining facilities to reduce dependence on foreign energy imports and is planning a railway project to connect the country to the broader region. It dispatches groups of teachers from Xinjiang universities to help teach Mandarin to young Kyrgyz and has even distributed free television receivers to homes across the south of the country.
This serves China’s interests. But it also offers opportunities for Kyrgyz who can "look at a map," as one young Bishkek businessman put it. Being in the middle means you can serve as a transit point. This businessman coordinates shipments from Dubai and Guangzhou, bringing electronics to Bishkek for reexport to the Russian market. Like impatient businessmen everywhere, he played with his phone throughout our conversation, saying "next question" as he tired of subjects. But his success demonstrates what is possible when you are stuck in between. With an advanced degree and a smattering of Chinese and fluent English and Russian, he would have been the perfect candidate to administrate the Jalal-Abad University; instead, he focuses on profit. Once he contributed articles to English-language publications, but that policy stuff is not for him anymore, he said.
For good or ill, the future of a small Central Asian state such as Kyrgyzstan will be shaped not by government policy makers. Their power will never match the military; they will never have the economic and cultural clout of global powers with stakes in the region. But Kyrgyzstan’s businessmen, large and small, can turn what seems like dependence into opportunity. This is a lesson for many small countries stuck in between, geographically or otherwise. You may have to play the hand you’re dealt, but you can play it with clever resolve.
Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West (Praeger, 2011). They are conducting research for a book on China’s role in Central Asia and have a website at www.chinaincentralasia.com.