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.
Authorities repressed dissenting views over border delimitation agreement with Uzbekistan; tensions persisted along Tajik-Kyrgyz border as both sides traded accusations of military build-up.
Local tensions flared over final border delimitation agreement with Uzbekistan. Following govt’s breakthrough deal in March 2021 with Uzbekistan to resolve longstanding border disputes, sides drew closer during month toward agreement on definitive delimitation of shared border. However, frustration mounted among border communities over govt’s decision to hand ownership of Kempir-Abad reservoir, vital water source that lies between Osh region and Uzbekistan’s Andijan region, in return for land. Notably, opposition forces 15 Oct organised rally in Uzgen district’s Kyzyl-Oktyabr village near reservoir, where they criticised govt’s handling of border negotiations and demanded reservoir remain in Kyrgyz hands. In response, authorities 23 Oct repressed dissent, notably detaining at least 20 activists and politicians opposed to deal, accusing them of “organising and preparing mass riots”; court in Bishkek 25 Oct sent all detainees to pre-trial detention until at least Dec.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan accused each other of mustering forces along border. Following deadly violence in Sept along disputed segment of border with Kyrgyzstan, President Sadyr Japarov and Tajik counterpart Rahmon 13 Oct met in Kazakh capital Astana along with Russian President Putin, who offered to help resolve border dispute. Yet tensions persisted, with Tajikistan’s border guard service 19 Oct accusing Kyrgyzstan of “deliberate actions aimed at escalating the situation in the border areas”, including “preparing firing positions, creating trenches, continuing to pull in additional military equipment and regularly violating [its] airspace”. Security services same day rejected “absolutely untrue” accusations, blaming Tajik armed forces for “preparing firing positions, digging trenches and making incursions with unmanned aerial vehicles”.
Authorities called on regional security organisation to station troops along border. Authorities 19 Oct asked Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members, to deploy peacekeeping troops at disputed parts of Kyrgyz-Tajik border to uphold fragile ceasefire, saying “until an arbitrator comes between us, say a small contingent from the CSTO, peace will not be achieved”.
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.
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