Among the more than a dozen executive orders signed by newly sworn-in U.S. President Joe Biden on January 20 was a proclamation revoking a series of orders issues by his predecessor, Donald Trump, which limited the issuing of visas to citizens of certain countries.
The revoked orders included Executive Order 13780 (known colloquially as the “Muslim” or “Travel” ban), and Proclamations 9645, 9723, and 9983 which expanded the entry restrictions with more countries. The last of those revoked orders, 9983, issued on January 31, 2020, unveiled new restrictions on the issuance of visas to citizens of six countries: Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Kyrgyzstan.
The Trump administration said it had established a system to assess three criteria — “whether a foreign government engages in reliable identity-management practices and shares relevant information; whether a foreign government shares national security and public safety information; and whether a country otherwise poses a national security or public-safety risk.” Failure to measure up landed the six countries on the ban list.
Kyrgyzstan, the Trump-era proclamation stated, did not issue “electronic passports or adequately share several types of information, including public-safety and terrorism-related information.” The proclamation went on to comment that “Kyrgyzstan also presents an elevated risk, relative to other countries in the world, of terrorist travel to the United States, though it has been responsive to United States diplomatic engagement on the need to make improvements.”
Nonimmigrant visas — for tourism, business, students and exchanges — were not affected by the new restrictions. The whole matter was soon after eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic, which saw many world borders closed for months.
The tone of the proclamation incited anger in Bishkek, even as Kyrgyz commentators pointed out that the country had bungled its rollout of modern biometric passports and had a history of scandals related to its easily forged documents.
In December 2020, the Kyrgyz government announced the introduction of biometric passports. The new passports, made by a German company, were slated to be available as of January 1.
Kyrgyzstan happily greeted the news of Biden’s repeal of the Trump orders. A statement from the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry congratulated Biden on his inauguration and welcomed the decision to lift the ban.
“The Kyrgyz side welcomes the decision of President of the United States of America to lift the previously unilaterally imposed visa restrictions on the Kyrgyz citizens,” the statement noted, adding that Kyrgyzstan had taken active measures to “achieve the goal of lifting the restrictions.”
“We consider this decision as an evidence of the constructive and open approach of the new US Administration to the issue of human contacts and exchanges between the two countries. We hope that in the spirit of this new approach the parties will take real steps to further simplify the visa regime between the countries, as previously discussed by the parties.”
The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek echoed the same sentiments. “We commend the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic for the significant travel-related security improvements they have made over the past 12 months,” its press release reads. The release notes that due to COVID-19 restrictions, visa processing remains limited and the U.S. government maintains a level 4 “Do not travel” advisory for Kyrgyzstan.
The ban set aside, Kyrgyzstan and the United States may still have some difficult days ahead. The United States, for example, did not directly congratulate Kyrgyzstan’s President-elect Sadyr Japarov on his January 10 election. Instead the U.S. embassy’s statement said it “recognizes Sadyr Japarov on his election as President of the Kyrgyz Republic,” but saved its congratulations for the Kyrgyz people (This was a departure from the embassy’s 2017 congratulations for Soornbay Jeenbekov). The statement pointed to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s election monitoring mission, which “noted that one candidate benefited from disproportionate financial means and misuse of administrative resources, resulting in an uneven playing field…” The one candidate isn’t named in the statement, but it’s Japarov. He sailed to landslide victory in the vote with nearly 80 percent after rising to the political surface amid Kyrgyzstan post-October political turmoil.
Central Asia, as a region, seldom tops priority lists in Washington so it may be some time before the Biden administration gets around to defining its own regional strategy. The Trump administration released a strategy for the region in February 2020 which, in my assessment, spoke to a clear continuity of U.S. policy in the region, under better conditions in Central Asia. Certainly, the Biden administration’s pledges of greater focus on democracy and human rights in comparison to the Trump administration could engender tensions with Central Asia’s largely authoritarian governments, but it may also endear it to local democrats and civil society in the region. The repeal of Kyrgyzstan’s travel ban, if nothing else, gets the Biden administration off on a positive foot in Kyrgyzstan at least.