The Washington Diplomat / July 2004
By Larry Luxner
If proper names were permitted in Scrabble, Kyrgyzstan would be one of the highest-scoring countries in the world.
Aside from its unusual spelling, this landlocked, weirdly shaped nation is probably the least-visited of the 15 former Soviet republics. Roughly the size of Minnesota and just as cold in the winter, mountainous Kyrgyzstan was intentionally isolated by Moscow for 70 years — a legacy that contributed to its remoteness, even by Central Asian standards.
"Even after the Sept. 11 tragedy and the events in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan is still not known here," says the country's ambassador in Washington, Baktybek Abdrisaev. "But the more we cooperate with the United States, the more information is becoming available, not only through the mass media, but also through the network of our American friends here."
Abdrisaev, who has represented his country here since November 1996, is Kyrgyzstan's second ambassador to the United States. The first was Rosa Otunbaeva, who was sent to Washington shortly after the country achieved its independence from the Soviet Union on Aug. 31, 1991.
The Kyrgyz Embassy occupies a four-story rented building along Wisconsin Avenue. At the entrance is a scale-model yurt, the traditional Kyrgyz nomadic dwelling made of birch poles, bent and tied with rawhide straps, around with a circular trellis wall is erected.
"As a country that was located along the old Silk Road, we have more than 80 ethnic nationalities," Abdrisaev told The Washington Diplomat last month. "Our 4.8 million inhabitants are primarily Kyrgyz Muslims, but we also have Uzbeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese Muslims, German Mennonites, Koreans and about 2,000 Jews."
Despite its incredible ethnic and geographic diversity, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet empire. Since independence 13 years ago, it has been struggling along the path toward democracy and free-market reforms, and in August 1993 was the first ex-Soviet republic in Central Asia to issue its own currency, the som.
Overseeing this transformation from Soviet backwater to independent nation has been Kyrgyzstan's only president, Aksar Akaev. First elected in 1991, Akaev was returned to office in 1995 and again in 2000 in balloting that some observers have said were tainted with fraud. According to Rowan Stewart's travel book Kyrgyzstan: Heartland of Central Asia, "political maneuvering during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2000 called into question the government's hitherto good record of running free and fair elections."
Yet Abdrisaev patiently denies accusations that Akaev is an authoritarian ruler, noting that Kyrgyzstan's press is considered the freest in Central Asia.
"We are not a dictatorship, and a lot of people, especially Americans, recognize that," he said. "How could you say this is a dictatorship? We have over 40 political parties in Kyrgyzstan, and very strong dissent. From the beginning, the president agreed to build an institution based on American standards."
Like the president, Abdrisaev, 46, is a physicist by training who specialized in applied optics and holography. In 1980, he graduated from the Bishkek Polytechnic Institute (now the Kyrgyz Technical University) and held a number of teaching positions there until joining the Akaev administration as an official — and later chief — of the international affairs department.
Along the way, Abdrisaev also served five years as a member of the Kyrgyz Parliament. He holds a Ph.D. in applied physics and is the author of more than 60 scientific articles.
As a result of his education, the ambassador speaks excellent English — one reason Akaev asked him to become Kyrgyzstan's envoy to the United States nearly eight years ago. He and his wife Cholpon have two children: an 11-year-old son, Bektur, and a 4-year-old daughter, Meerim.
"Washington is a great city, a kaleidoscope, changing every second. It is quite a challenge to work here," he said, noting that "the United States was among the first countries to recognize our independence and open an embassy in our country."
As ambassador, Abdrisaev heads one of the smallest Washington missions of any of the former Soviet republics. The embassy has only six diplomats, compared to the 30 diplomats working at the large U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Abdrisaev said his major goal is "to spread information about our country, not only in Washington but all around the United States," and secondly, to main a dialogue with the Bush administration and all the branches of government.
"We are paying special attention to our relations with Congress," he explained. "We also cooperate with think tanks and NGOs connected to promoting reforms and democracy-building. We're concentrating more on developing deeper trade and economic relations, but it's really difficult because of the small size of our country."
Abdrisaev noted that unlike Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan has no oil or gas reserves, though it does have hydroelectric power which it can export to neighboring China. The Chinese also represent a huge potential market for iron ore, wool, tobacco, cotton and other mineral and agricultural exports.
One export Kyrgyzstan can do without is drugs. Nearby Afghanistan is the world's largest source of heroin and opium, and most of it is transported through Central Asia — broadly following the old Silk Routes through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea, or north through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to Russia and Europe.
Stewart, in his 2002 travel book, writes that "regional instability is further exacerbated by the fact that the Central Asian states are newly independent, still struggling with weak economies, rampant corruption and minimal neighborly cooperation — all factors that underpin growing poverty and social unrest."
The ambassador said that in ancient times, Kyrgyzstan was the crossroads for trade.
"Now, we're the crossroads for drugs," he lamented. "This is a real problem for us. We don't border Afghanistan, but we are becoming a transit point for drug trafficking from Afghanistan via Tajikistan, because the final destination is Europe, and we lay right in the path."
An even more serious problem is the spread of terrorism by some fanatic groups dedicated to turning the republics of Central Asia into Islamic fundamentalist states. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization — has launched several attacks into Kyrgyz territory.
"As a result of three years of fighting with the IMU, we have had to appropriate a lot of money and resources to defense," he said. "We've become a victim of our geography."
In 2001, the Kyrgyz government gave permission for the Pentagon to build a large air base at Manas International Airport, about 19 miles outside of Bishkek and only 300 miles from the Chinese border. When completed, some 3,000 U.S. troops will permanently be stationed at the 37-acre facility, known as Ganci Air Base, along with two dozen fighter jets and support aircraft as part of the ongoing battle against terrorism.
American influence in Kyrgyzstan is extending to other spheres as well.
The ambassador, noting his country's 99% literacy rate, says Americans are often surprised to learn how much the Kyrgyz people know about the outside world. In 1994, when former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski visited Kyrgyzstan, he took an unannounced trip into the mountains and happened to meet a simple shepherd who recognized him from TV.
Former Vice President Al Gore has also visited Kyrgyzstan, and was instrumental in establishing a university financed partly by the U.S. State Department and partly by the Soros Foundation.
"We are trying to build a democratic society based on a market economy as soon as possible, but our initial expectations were really premature. We can see there are many factors which influence the real situation," Abdrisaev explained "A lot of people agree that Kyrgyzstan is most advanced in Central Asia in reforms and democracy-building, but everything is dominated by external factors."
For example, he said, "we did everything absolutely according to the recommendations of the IMF and the World Bank. In 1998, we became a member of the World Trade Organization. We thought this would make a big difference for us, but now we know that we have to wait longer, because there have to be more countries in the WTO in order to make any change in the economic situation."
Despite economic growth last year of 6.5%, "it is not enough on order to solve our problems of poverty. That's why regional cooperation is the key. If we're cut off from the global process, we will not survive."
To that end, on June 1, Kyrgyzstan signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with four other Central Asian countries and the United States.
For now, though, Russia and China remain Kyrgyzstan's biggest trading partners, and commerce with the United States is extremely limited. In 2003, Kyrgyzstan exported only $10.9 million worth of goods, mainly textiles and apparels, to the United States. Imports from the United States, mainly machinery and agricultural commodities such as wheat, came to $39 million.
At the same time, Kyrgyzstan is seeking improved ties with neighboring countries — particularly with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have jurisdiction over seven small ethnic enclaves within Kyrgyz territory.
"We want to develop relations on a friendly basis in order to maintain a dialogue, because they're our neighbors and we have to deal with them," he said. "In general, we have no big differences with them. We all have the same aim: to improve the lives of ordinary people and for our countries to become members of the world community."