After his election as Kyrgyzstan’s president in October 2017, Sooronbai Jeenbekov inherited an economically uncertain state, which has failed to address more than twenty years of misrule despite emerging from two episodes of upheaval. Central Asia’s only nominal parliamentary democracy, Kyrgyzstan is divided along ethnic and regional lines, deeply corrupt and facing religious radicalisation in absence of a strong state. Crisis Group monitors ethnic and political tensions as well as wider regional relations.
This week on War & Peace, post-Soviet security expert Dr Erica Marat joins Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope to discuss the drivers of anti-establishment protests and the policing thereof across Central Asia and globally.
Efforts to crack down on independent media and civil society drew condemnation from human rights groups and UN.
Authorities moved against several media outlets and over a dozen journalists. Law enforcement agents and security services 15 Jan searched offices of news agency 24.KG and detained outlet’s director and two chief editors, Makhinur Niyazova and Anton Lymar, for several hours on charges of “war propaganda”; Niyazova told reporters actions linked to outlet’s coverage of Ukraine war. Ministry of Interior next day searched several other independent media organisations and detained eleven journalists and media workers on charge of “calls for disobedience and mass riots”.
Human rights groups warned of growing threat to freedom of expression. Eight international human rights groups 16 Jan said raids came amid “worsening campaign against free speech in Kyrgyzstan”; UN human rights office 20 Jan echoed warning, saying actions “appear to be part of a larger pattern of pressure against civil society activists, journalists and other critics of the authorities”. Days later, parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Legislation 23 Jan endorsed draft law on “foreign representatives”, prompting number of human rights organisations 25 Jan to issue statement urging parliament to reject “Russia-style ‘foreign-agents bill’”.
In another important development. During visit to Tajik capital, Dushanbe, Türkiye’s FM hinted at imminent border deal between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (see Tajikistan).
Four Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – have argued over their water resources since the collapse of the Soviet Union. At times these disputes have seemed to threaten war. The forthcoming presidential summit in Astana can help banish that spectre.
The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
While Kyrgyzstan’s 15 October elections are a rare milestone for Central Asian democracy, the campaign is exposing dangerous fault lines. In the largest city of Osh, the new president will have to face down robust local power brokers, defuse Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions and re-introduce the rule of law.
Recent political protests in Kyrgyzstan signal the possibility of deeper trouble ahead of presidential elections in November. For the first time in the country’s pro-independence history, there is real competition for leadership in Central Asia’s only semi-functioning democracy.
Crisis Group’s Publications Officer Julie David de Lossy, formerly a freelance photographer of Central Asia, travels to Kyrgyzstan to take a look through her camera lens at the context of our conflict-prevention work.
The rapid rise of alternative interpretations of Islam, often at odds with the state’s concept of traditional identity, are being fueled in part by endemic corruption and perceptions of incompetency. The government must end economic marginalisation and improve inadequate institutions, or risk not just threats to internal security but also the resurfacing of ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan’s relative stability belies the country’s brittle Central Asian neighbourhood, simmering ethnic tensions, religious extremism and political frustration. Russia, the West and China share interests here, creating a unique opportunity to work together for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development during and after the upcoming 4 October parliamentary elections.
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