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Central Asia: The Politics of Police Reform
Central Asia: The Politics of Police Reform
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 42 / Europe & Central Asia

Central Asia: The Politics of Police Reform

The capacity of security forces to both prevent and provoke conflict is increasingly recognised. Police forces can play a vital role in providing the security environment necessary for peaceful political and economic development, and are at the forefront of tackling international security issues, including drugs trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism.

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Executive Summary

The capacity of security forces to both prevent and provoke conflict is increasingly recognised. Police forces can play a vital role in providing the security environment necessary for peaceful political and economic development, and are at the forefront of tackling international security issues, including drugs trafficking, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. A competent and democratised security sector is vital to enhancing governance and ensuring greater public trust in the state. Bad security forces, on the other hand, can provoke or deepen conflict and create environments where terrorism can prosper. Getting the security sector right is a key element in conflict prevention.

Unlike in many developing countries, the military in Central Asian states plays a more limited role in everyday political life than the interior ministries. Police forces in the region are much more powerful than the militaries and include their own armed units designed for internal control. They have a considerable role in political life that may grow further in the future. Although the role of militaries in Central Asian societies should not be ignored, the internal security forces pose the greater threat to stability and the greater opposition to deeper economic and political reform.

In Central Asia the structures of most police forces have changed little since the Soviet period. While societies and economic systems have undergone rapid transition, the organs of state security remain largely unreformed. In many ways they are actually worse than under the Soviet state: more corrupt, less responsive to the population, more involved in organised crime, and often out of the control of political masters. The police are feared, mistrusted and viewed as ineffective in protecting the population from crime.

The security sector in Central Asian states suffers from under-funding, lack of qualified personnel, and rampant corruption. The Ministry of Interior in Kyrgyzstan receives less than 25 per cent of its funding from the budget; the rest comes from a mixture of businesses, protection rackets and extortion. In Tajikistan the figures are even worse. The police have to break the law simply to carry out their duties, often starting the day by extorting petrol from drivers for their patrol cars and devoting much of their time to illegally boosting their small official salaries. They have become increasingly ineffectual at fighting serious crime and terrorism, partly because they have themselves become closely entangled in criminal networks engaged in contraband and drugs trafficking.

The entire security sector in these countries – including the military, the judicial and penal systems and the various forces charged with internal security – requires sustained, long-term reform. This report, however, focuses on the most problematic of the institutions, the police, which has the greatest potential to cause future instability.

There are three main areas where unreformed police forces have a serious detrimental impact on development and pose a threat to stability.

First, police forces and the justice system are not effective in countering serious criminal and terrorist threats. Although in some instances and in all three countries the police have done valuable work, a combination of high-level corruption, lack of professionalism, lack of cooperation with the general public, and serious resource limitations or misdirection of funds has allowed these threats to flourish.

Secondly, police forces are largely seen as the coercive branch of government rather than a neutral, service-oriented force that ensures law and order for all. They are involved in widespread human rights abuses that have estranged them from the society they are supposed to serve. In Uzbekistan they have led the repression against those accused of religious extremism and political opposition to the regime. Abuses by the police, including torture, have fuelled support for extremist groups and enhanced the risk the region faces from terrorism. In Kyrgyzstan’s recent unrest, shooting by police of five demonstrators set off much wider civil disorder and engendered a national political crisis.

Thirdly, security forces are acting as a brake on economic progress. Security is a key concern for domestic business and international investors but too often the police are not seen as defenders of business from criminals. Instead they are often involved in extortion rackets, costing business significant profits, or are directly involved in organised crime.

Bilateral agencies, such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), are looking at ways to promote security sector reform as a development issue. So far much focus has been on post-conflict situations but it also is important for conflict prevention.

Much international assistance to police forces in Central Asia continues to focus on bilateral training and technical assistance with little attention to structural reform or cultural change. Although all police forces in the region lack adequate funding, equipment and training, assistance in these areas on its own without wider reform is unlikely to make significant difference to their overall effectiveness. Most technical assistance actually goes for high-tech solutions determined by the donor’s policies. Not only is this seldom effective, but it can also on occasion merely legitimise existing practices and promote more corruption. Ideally, all technical assistance should be linked to reform-oriented outcomes and serve as a stimulus to changes in behaviour.

There is little coordination among donors and different government institutions involved in assistance to law enforcement agencies. Yet there is a wealth of experience of police reform among Western states, where many problems faced by Central Asian police forces have been evident at one time or another. International organisations have done little in this field, but the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has begun to take police reform seriously. The UN also has an important opportunity, through its Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) and the translation of UNDP’s research on security sector reform into on-the-ground projects.

The obstacles to reforms should not be underestimated. Interior ministries are politically powerful in each of the Central Asian states. In many cases, they have little incentive to change if that means undermining their personal political and financial power bases. Many have experienced previous reforms that have done little except shift personnel or introduce unrealistic concepts from outside. Reforms have to take into account this internal opposition and develop appreciation within security forces of their long-term benefits. Unless they do so, there is little hope that wider concepts of good governance, democratisation and economic development will flourish in this unstable region.

Long-term reform and democratisation of police forces will take many years and involve much wider policy shifts in governance, economies, judiciaries, intelligence services and legal systems. This report attempts to initiate a discussion of how the most immediate problems posed by security forces within each country can be addressed and to engage the international community in a problem that threatens to undermine other efforts to promote regional stability.

Osh/Brussels, 10 December 2002

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

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.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.