Kyrgyzstan: A Faltering State
Asia Report N°109
16 Dec 2005
Kyrgyzstan’s post-revolution government lurches from crisis to crisis in the face of worsening political violence, prison revolts, serious property disputes and popular disillusion. There is a growing sense that it is barely less corrupt than its predecessor and perhaps less competent. The security services are slipping out of government control, raising the prospect of more chaos and criminality. If Kyrgyzstan is not to become a failed state whose fate reinforces the views of its neighbours that the path to stability lies not in democracy but in dictatorship, the U.S., European Union and other donors need to give the shaky government more political and financial backing.
Fraudulent parliamentary elections in February 2005 led to a popular uprising the next month that deposed President Askar Akayev and replaced him with Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was elected president in July. Formation of a new government, however, has been slow and hampered by divisions among the revolutionary leaders – mostly former office holders who had broken with Akayev. The most crucial relationship – the “tandem” between President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov – has held but there are concerns about its longevity.
Property is being redistributed in a chaotic and sometimes violent manner as government, criminals and other interests scramble for the country’s valuable assets, including many that the Akayev family monopolised. The incidents listed below present a troubling picture of a society on the brink:
A long-simmering dispute over a vital bazaar in Karasuu (Osh province) led to street violence and the murders of two key figures, including parliamentarian Bayaman Erkinbayev.
Popular anger at the abuses of a former Akayev ally led to a workers’ uprising at the Karakeche coal mines in Naryn province; the authorities’ lack of response paved the way for the rise of a local populist leader, Nurlan Motuyev, and produced the possibility of conflict over a key national asset.
Corruption and ineffectual government land reform policies have resulted in the occupation of much farm land by squatters and drawn thousands of people from the countryside to Bishkek, leading to worsening tensions with city dwellers and the government.
Endemic problems in prisons – including a cash-strapped administration, deteriorating infrastructure and increasingly harsh conditions – sparked revolts in October 2005, one of which resulted in the murder of another parliamentarian, Tynychbek Akmatbayev. Subsequent demonstrations in Bishkek, which demanded that Prime Minister Kulov be fired, raised doubts about the government’s authority and the state’s stability.
None of these specific problems, much less the underlying issues, have truly been solved. Instead, the authorities have deferred decisions and let events run their course, while a growing pool of discontented individuals and groups forms, and confidence in the administration wanes. Most worryingly, the government has largely lost control over public security. The law enforcement agencies lack resources, are severely demoralised, and have become susceptible to outside pressure. There is growing concern about the influence of criminal groups.
Rather than face up to these problems, the government has been struggling with internal dissent. Two of its best-known members, acting Prosecutor General Azimbek Beknazarov and acting Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, have been ousted and may now form the nucleus of a new opposition movement. In Beknazarov’s home region of Aksy, anger at his dismissal and a lingering sense of injustice from police killings in 2002 have fuelled protests and demands for the president’s resignation.
The arrival of thousands of Uzbeks who fled their homeland after the violent suppression of the Andijon uprising in May 2005 produced the new government’s first international crisis. After an initial misstep accepting a request from Uzbekistan to return forthwith a handful of the refugees, it subsequently rejected Karimov’s demands for wholesale return and cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Union and the U.S. in finding asylum for the bulk of the refugees. The transport to Romania of some 450 who applied formally for refugee status eased tensions somewhat but an unknown number of unregistered fugitives remain, and relations between the neighbours are at an all time low, with Tashkent applying pressure over energy, trade and security issues. At the same time, Russia and China have pressed Kyrgyzstan to reconsider use by the U.S. of an airbase near Bishkek, though the government is unlikely to accede, in part at least because the facility provides important revenue.
If Kyrgyzstan is to succeed as a test case for democracy in Central Asia, there must be a genuine commitment by the new government to be transparent and develop the rule of law. There also need to be greater efforts by donors to help it achieve these ends. Otherwise, there is a real risk that the central government will lose control of institutions and territory, and the country will drift into irreversible criminality and permanent low-level violence.
Bishkek/Brussels, 16 December 2005