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.
Violence erupted along disputed border with Tajikistan, killing almost 100 people and displacing thousands.
Fierce fighting flared along disputed part of Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Clashes 14 Sept erupted between Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards, killing at least two. Sides exchanged blame for flare-up; Kyrgyz guards accused Tajikistan of assuming military positions on part of border not yet demarcated, while Tajikistan said Kyrgyz guards had opened fire without provocation. President Japarov and Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon 16 Sept announced ceasefire agreement on sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, said they had ordered troop withdrawal. However, violence same day erupted again, marking deadliest escalation since conflict in April 2021 claimed 55 lives. Sides accused each other of breaching ceasefire and of using heavy weaponry including tanks, rocket artillery and assault drones to attack outposts and nearby settlements. Notably, Tajikistan accused Kyrgyzstan of firing toward Ovchi-Kalacha and Bobojon settlements in Gafurov district, and Vorukh and Chorkuh settlements near Isfara city. Kyrgyz border services, meanwhile, said Tajik forces “renewed gunfire at Kyrgyz border guards’ positions” in Kulundu and Jany-Jer settlements in Leilek district and attacked positions in Batken district, which lies 10km from border, signalling spread of hostilities deeper into Kyrgyzstan. Countries 16 Sept signed second ceasefire, after which sides 16-17 Sept reported sporadic shelling but no major incidents. Hostilities killed around 100 people, including at least 37 civilians. Authorities 18 Sept said they had evacuated 137,000 people from conflict area, 19 Sept said homes in Ak-Sai village (Leilek district) were deliberately burned and pillaged. Tajik authorities same day said civilian homes in Tajikistan were also burned, although there were no reported evacuation efforts.
Moscow urged “peaceful” resolution and offered to help stabilise border. According to Kyrgyz authorities, situation on border 18 Sept remained “tense” but “appeared to be stabilising”. Russian President Putin same day spoke with Tajik and Kyrgyz leaders, urging sides to “prevent further escalation and to take measures to resolve the situation exclusively by peaceful, political and diplomatic means”, highlighting “Russia’s readiness to provide the necessary assistance to ensure stability in the Kyrgyz-Tajik border region”. Both countries 25 Sept reached agreement to demilitarise conflict-affected section of border.
If mishandled, [Kyrgyzstan's] election could shatter [the country's] facade of democracy. A fragile stability is at stake.
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.