BISHKEK/TOKYO -- Kyrgyzstan is growing increasingly wary of China as details of a corruption case involving a project linked to Beijing are revealed. The country is heavily indebted to China and is now working to rebalance its diplomacy, moving closer to its neighbors.
The scandal,over a $386 million contract handed to a Chinese company in 2013, has led to the arrest of two former prime ministers, Sapar Isakov and Jantoro Satybaldiev, pointing up hazards facing Beijing's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
Central Asia sits at the crux of China's plans to improve transcontinental infrastructure links with Europe, but corruption remains endemic among the region's former Soviet republics. Kyrgyzstan ranked 130th out of 180 nations included in Transparency International's annual index, in which the most corrupt nations are listed lowest.
Worries over dependence on China and rising debt burdens are driving calls to get other powers involved in Kyrgyzstan's development. China accounts for around half of Kyrgyzstan's $4 billion in foreign debt, a heavy load given its annual gross domestic product of around $7 billion.
Since taking office as president last November, Sooronbay Jeenbekov has rebalanced Kyrgyzstan's foreign relations by repairing frayed ties with larger neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. He has improved links with Turkey, which maintains a strong interest in Central Asia due to ethnic connections, and traveled to Brussels to seek European Union support.
Jeenbekov made his first visit as president to China in early June, sealing what the two governments called a "comprehensive strategic partnership." He left for Beijing just after police arrested Isakov, who had served as prime minister until April, over the power plant scandal. Satybaldiev, another former prime minister, was detained on June 18. Several other senior officials are also in custody.
The wariness towards China extends beyond the scandal. Bishek's city council rejected an agreement to expand the site of China's embassy in the capital in a preliminary vote on May 30. While the vote was later reversed, it embarrassed the authorities ahead of Jeenbekov's Beijing trip.
In April demonstrators in the south of the country, worried about potential pollution from a new Chinese joint venture gold processing plant, burned buildings at the site. Other Chinese mining ventures in the south have also faced protests.
In Bishkek a Chinese-language translator expressed concerns over the growing Chinese presence. "I am amazed and scared at the same time as the number of Chinese people has grown," he said. "I guess our citizens cannot do anything about this. I am scared the moment will come that we will lose our country."
In an online commentary shortly after Jeenbekov's inauguration, Pavel Dyatlenko, an associate professor in history and cultural studies at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, wrote: "The rapid expansion of economic and other contacts between China and Kyrgyzstan is currently accompanied by a marked increase in Chinese cultural and humanitarian influence." There was "a gradual and systematic promotion of Chinese 'soft power' which promotes Chinese interests and projects."
Prosecutors investigating the scandal allege that officials awarded a contract to refurbish Bishkek Thermal Power Station to Tebian Electric Apparatus, a Chinese company active across Central Asia, without a proper tender. The contract was funded through a matching loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. A power outage that saw thousands go without heat for days in January when temperatures neared minus 30 degrees prompted a parliamentary investigation into how the contract for the plant's renovation had been awarded.
"Who initiated the negotiations to get a loan from China Exim Bank?" asked legislator Altynbek Sulaimanov, a member of a small party in the governing coalition. "Why did you not contact the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank or the International Monetary Fund? There you could get safe and cheap loans."
Isakov told parliament that Beijing had dictated that the power plant contract go to Tebian. The company has not commented on the investigation. It earlier carried out a $390 million contract to link the power grids of northern and southern Kyrgyzstan, also through a China Exim Bank loan.
While prosecutors have yet to detail their case against the detained government officials, some observers see the arrests as part of Jeenbekov's assertion of authority against predecessor Almazbek Atambayev.