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.
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.
Ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov won 15 Oct presidential election with a count of 54.22% of vote, beating opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov with 33.49%; OSCE said election valid but noted numerous violations. Weeks leading up to elections marred by arrests and allegations of intimidation, abuses and vote buying. President Atambayev claimed foreign state was interfering in elections, while Babanov was accused of stoking ethnic tensions in Osh; National Security Committee (GKNB) investigating. At 16 Oct press conference, Babanov said he would stay in Kyrgyz politics and not flee the country. Up to 1,000 people protested in Babanov’s hometown Talas demanding fresh elections. OSCE election observers 16 Oct noted “generally positive example” although “cases of the misuse of public resources, pressure on voters and vote buying remain a concern”. Amid ongoing bilateral tensions, govt 20 Oct cancelled $100m aid from Kazakhstan; deputy PM said it “will look for funding in other places”.
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.
China’s influence is growing rapidly in Central Asia at a time when the region is looking increasingly unstable.
Kyrgyzstan’s disregard for its Uzbek community is pushing the ethnic minority to a breaking point.
Without prompt, genuine and exhaustive measures to address the damage done by the pogroms, Kyrgyzstan risks another round of terrible violence.
The collapse of the Kyrgyz regime is a case study of the risks facing authoritarianism in Central Asia. What happened in Kyrgyzstan could happen in most of its neighbouring countries. And the consequences could indeed be much worse.
If mishandled, [Kyrgyzstan's] election could shatter [the country's] facade of democracy. A fragile stability is at stake.
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.