Kyrgyzstan at Ten: Trouble in the “Island of Democracy”
Asia Report N°22
28 Aug 2001
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
For most of the decade since it gained independence, Kyrgyzstan has been described as an island of democracy and stability in Central Asia. In comparison with other countries in the region, it has indeed carried out deeper economic reforms and allowed more room for civil society and opposition political activity. Recent developments, however, indicate that this stability is fragile, and that hard-won democratic gains are being eroded. If the government of Kyrgyzstan resorts to authoritarianism or crumbles under the weight of the country’s moribund economy, the international community will suffer a setback for its hopes of promoting a model for economic and political reform in Central Asia.
The greatest threat to political stability remains public discontent with the economy. More than 60 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. While the government has pursued some of the most ambitious economic reforms in the region, these efforts have yet to translate into the significant economic growth that would reverse the steady decline in the standard of living.
In 2000 and 2001 protests broke out in Bishkek, Narin, Jalal-Abad and elsewhere in reaction to rising costs, stagnant wages and unemployment. Although protests have been modest in scope thus far, widespread public demonstrations and unrest could be on the horizon if the economic situation remains bleak. Food prices will likely increase again this fall, exacerbating social strains in a country already struggling with sharp internal political divisions, ethnic tensions, military incursions by the guerrilla group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and disputes with neighbour states over resources, security and borders.
All this comes against a backdrop of efforts by the government to curtail both personal freedoms and political opposition. During the last several years, and particularly during the 2000 presidential election, President Askar Akaev has tightened his grip on the country. Although he had a reputation for being the leading democrat in the region, he began his campaign to diminish any opposition early in his rule. In recent years harassment of opposition politicians and journalists has been on the rise and the executive branch has increasingly used a largely compliant judiciary as a key tool to silence political opponents and critical media.
In 2000, former Vice-President and former Minister of National Security, Feliks Kulov – viewed by many as the strongest potential challenger in the presidential race – was sentenced to a long prison term after being denied the right to stand for the presidency on a technicality. Similarly, the human rights activist and leader of the Erkindik Party, Topchubek Turgunaliev, was also jailed although he has now been released. Charges against both men were clearly politically motivated, as was the decision of the Supreme Court of Arbitration to close down Asaba — one of the country’s most popular opposition papers.
As they have come under mounting pressure, opposition parties have recognised that they will need to join forces if they hope to survive. Ten major opposition parties formed a broad coalition, the People’s Patriotic Movement, in April 2001. The ability of this opposition coalition to provide an effective counter-weight to President Akaev and his supporters remains unproven. However, the opposition has effectively galvanised public concern about plans by President Akaev to make territorial concessions to both Uzbekistan and China to resolve border disputes. A memorandum signed by the Uzbek and Kyrgyz prime ministers on the exchange of land was voted down by the parliament in 2001 and the government has struggled to minimise the fallout from the leak of two secret border agreements signed with China in 1996 and 1999. If ratified, these would give China more than 100,000 hectares of Kyrgyz land. The parliamentary opposition has even threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against President Akaev for the conduct of the border matters, and while this is likely an empty threat, it does highlight the many fault lines in the current political environment. There are also signs that President Akaev may be facing some opposition from within his own ranks. All of these elements combine to suggest that the potential for a political crisis that could spark violent conflict in Kyrgyzstan has risen considerably.
Efforts by the government to suppress religious movements such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which have established a solid foothold in southern Kyrgyzstan, add to the current atmosphere of instability, as have security concerns about renewed incursions by the IMU and disputes with neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan about how best to deal with this threat. There remains substantial risk that Uzbekistan might intervene militarily in southern Kyrgyzstan if it deems the government in Bishkek is not effectively acting to halt the IMU. Even a small-scale intervention on Uzbekistan’s part would raise fears that Tashkent was seeking to annex territory and possibly provoke clashes between the ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities.
Kyrgyzstan is faced with a choice of reinvigorating genuine economic and political reform or following the path of authoritarianism. Economic reforms have failed to deliver improved living standards because they have been hobbled by corruption and cronyism. A weak legal system and fickle government interventions in businesses have meant the country has not developed an attractive investment environment.
International support – and constructive pressure – will be crucial in helping President Akaev embrace a more responsible political direction. Indeed, if the president continues on his current course, the likelihood of violence that would further cripple prospects for progress in the region will only continue to rise, and the once heralded “island of democracy” will disappear into a sea of instability.
To the Government of Kyrgyzstan:
1. Reinvigorate economic reforms by focusing on poverty alleviation and improving the investment environment.
2. Allow free association of political groups and ensure that laws requiring their registration are not used to restrict political organisations. Grant amnesty for those political opponents jailed in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election.
3. Step up legal reforms by allowing true independence for the judiciary, approving anti-bribery statutes and introducing regulations on lobbying.
4. Privatise the state print media and turn the national television into an independent corporation controlled by a non-political board and with its own source of funds. Reform libel laws to make it a civil rather than criminal matter and limit awards so that libel is not be used to bankrupt opposition media.
5. Reduce the number of government employees, be more transparent in recruitment and grant ethnic Uzbeks greater representation in government, the judiciary and the police.
6. Lift restrictions on the Hizb ut-Tahrir and pursue a dialogue with its members, Muslim scholars, media and NGOs.
7. Elect rather than appoint provincial governors to reduce corruption and provide stronger local representation.
8. End the use of referenda to circumvent parliament, and in particular end the “bundling” of issues in referenda to circumvent the specific will of the electorate.
To the Donor Community:
9. Major donor countries – in particular the United States, the members of the European Union and Japan – should make it clear that any rescheduling of Kyrgyzstan’s debt and continued aid will be contingent on further economic reforms and an immediate improvement in the treatment of opposition groups, journalists and the other components of a civil society.
10. Donors should work closely with the Kyrgyz authorities, local NGOs, the media and the domestic/international business community to reduce corruption, and make clear that future co-operation will hinge on major improvements in the rule of law. Encourage parliament to pass laws governing lobbying and outlawing bribery. Step up assistance for legal training.
11. Donors should assist the Kyrgyz authorities to improve training for journalists and provide financial support to the independent media to reduce its technical dependence on the state, by funding, for example, an independent publishing and printing house.
12. These countries should help the Kyrgyz authorities in their current efforts to restructure government administration through training of public officials and by aiding the introduction of new standards of personnel management.
Osh/Brussels, 28 August 2001