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The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
A man walks past a monument depicting Kyrgyz folklore hero Manas in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, in March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election

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.

Kyrgyzstan’s forthcoming presidential elections on 15 October are a milestone for Central Asia: for the first time, a president from the region will voluntarily stand down at the end of his constitutionally mandated term. Kyrgyzstan has come far in the seven years since the tumultuous events of 2010, when President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in Bishkek and ethnic violence engulfed the southern city of Osh, killing over 400 people, mostly Uzbeks.

The presidential race is tight and unpredictable. Sooronbai Jeenbekov, from the southern province of Jalalabad and representing the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) party, faces Omurbek Babanov, a wealthy independent candidate from the northern province of Talas, still closely aligned with the party he formed in 2010, Respublika. But whoever wins the ballot will face renewed north-south regional tensions as well as rivalries within Osh, where the memory of violence is still fresh and small arms abound.

Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

The central government in Bishkek has long struggled to exert its authority over Osh, a city of 276,000 people situated over the mountains in the Ferghana Valley and lying along a route used by traffickers of Afghan opium. More than 43 per cent of the local population are ethnic Uzbeks. In a speech in the city on 28 September, Babanov inadvertently showed how high tensions are. After urging Uzbeks to protect their rights, he swiftly was denounced by leading government figures for inciting ethnic hatred and supporting Uzbek separatism. Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

Once controlled by the now-exiled former Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, a virulent Kyrgyz nationalist allied with former President Bakiyev, Osh has been transformed from the fiefdom of one powerful man into the playground of a handful. Today’s power brokers in the city, all ethnic Kyrgyz, owe little to Bishkek. After the new Kyrgyz government sacked Myrzakmatov in 2013, elections to replace him narrowly were won by Osh’s current mayor, Aitmamat Kadyrbayev. Since then, Bishkek has missed opportunities to rebuild its influence in the city or forge better relationships with the local government.

Kadyrbayev himself was accused of participating in confrontations against the central government that preceded the ethnic clashes in Osh. He was convicted for his alleged role in seizing the Osh regional administration building in 2010, but the judgment was overturned two years later and he was acquitted. Kadyrbayev maintained that the charges were politically motivated. He is now loosely aligned with two other powerful southern actors: Rayimbek Matrayimov, the country’s deputy customs chief, widely regarded as one of the richest people in Kyrgyzstan; and Suyun Omurzakov, the former head of the Osh city and regional police forces, who is now deputy minister of the interior. Although both men now hold national positions, they still exert significant influence in the city.

Reports in the polarised Kyrgyz-language press tend to portray Omurzakov as either a champion of law and order, or associate him with allegations that Osh authorities have allowed a local sports club to train thuggish youth, serving as another tool for power brokers. The club’s manager, Omurzakov’s brother Uluk, denies the accusations made against the club and its members.

Mayor Kadyrbayev meanwhile, has aroused irritation in Osh with high-handed behaviour reminiscent of his predecessor, Myrzakmatov. Notwithstanding Myrzakmatov’s own abuses, under his rule the Osh city administration was a unified force that was relatively accessible to residents and responded to their requests in a reasonably timely manner. This is no longer the case. Broadly speaking, the new Osh elite appears less interested in providing services and garnering popular support than in squeezing the city for its material enrichment.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky, as the city's local power brokers could react by mobilising their respective constituencies, banking on popular dissatisfaction that could spill over into violent confrontation. Outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev was a relatively skillful manager of the competing interests of regional strongmen, even if he did not seek to rebuild Bishkek’s authority in Osh. Should Jeenbekov, believed to be hostile to Matrayimov and Kadyrbayev, be elected president, he could seek to remove these power brokers and replace them with his own southern allies. Babanov, lacking roots in the region, might attempt the same. A struggle over control of elite networks in a city still full of arms and latent ethnic tensions could spell disaster.

Yet doing nothing about growing tensions in Osh is not a good option either. However difficult the task, the next president will need to promote genuine reconciliation between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in the south. Rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law should top his agenda. Foreign donors, including Russia and China, should engage the Kyrgyz government on these issues even as they recognise that things will be slow to change and difficult to discuss.

Supporters of detained opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the Ata-Meken party, hold a rally in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 26 February 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan

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.

What has led to the heightened political tensions in Kyrgyzstan?

On 26 February, authorities arrested Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the opposition party Ata-Meken, on charges of fraud and corruption. That incident sparked peaceful protests in Bishkek, including at the capital’s Ala-Too Square, the site of earlier demonstrations that ultimately led to the ouster of two presidents. The past week’s demonstrations were modest, however protests in Kyrgyzstan have previously started small and then snowballed. President Almazbek Atambayev’s government – and especially the judiciary – should ensure that its actions ahead of the November ballot are above reproach in order not to aggravate the already tense situation. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution limits the president to a single term in office, preventing Atambayev from running for re-election. All eyes are now on how the government and opposition conduct themselves.

Tekebayev has not declared interest in contesting the election, yet he was clearly an irritant to the president as in recent months he claimed the president’s wealth was hidden off-shore. Nevertheless, the manner of his arrest was an ill-advised demonstration of power bound to garner an angry reaction from the opposition. Tekebayev was reportedly detained at Bishkek’s international airport, at around 3 a.m. by officers in plainclothes. The next day, a court ordered him to be held for two months for alleged corruption. Two other members of Ata-Meken were detained in recent weeks as part of an alleged corruption investigation. Ata-Meken, established after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been a permanent fixture on the political scene since with varying degrees of power and popularity. Tekebayev has held a series of high profile posts under previous administrations and has never been far from the headlines.

Tekebayev’s detention seems to fit a familiar pattern in Kyrgyzstan: arrests of opposition figures, lack of due process, allegations of corruption on both sides, dubious documents purporting to prove wrongdoing, and the apparent use of criminal investigations to settle political scores. Much of this is possible because political reform in Kyrgyzstan, while ahead of its authoritarian neighbours, has been superficially and selectively implemented.

Do you believe that the protests could spark a nationwide political crisis or trigger violence, as in 2005 and 2010?

The successive ousters of President Askar Akayev in 2005 and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010 were traumatic events for the country. Some of the factors present then are absent today, such as widespread popular discontent with the head of state and his family. Yet President Atambayev’s strategy is risky. Popular opinion can turn if injustices are perceived. Atambayev needs to make sure there is a definitive marker between his administration and that of his predecessors. The arrests of opposition figures in an election year should be carefully weighed up against the perception that they are politically motivated and an abuse of power. The judiciary should ensure due process and impartiality.

The overthrow of two presidents never really revolutionized politics in Kyrgyzstan. Even after the spate of ethnic violence in Osh in 2010, Kyrgyzstan did not see the emergence of a new political elite less tainted by corruption. The country remains divided ethnically between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and geographically between the north and south.

For many politicians and officials, it has been business as usual. Kyrgyzstan’s regions remain poor and underfunded, services are patchy at best, and corruption is rife at all levels of society. High unemployment is masked by migration, and there has been little economic development to speak of. The government attempts to paper over the cracks but has not mustered the political will to address difficult issues such as ethnic tensions, marginalization and exclusion. As a result, Kyrgyzstan remains politically fragile and prone to potential unrest.

What are the regional and geopolitical implications of uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan is, in its own way, a democratic model in Central Asia, a region dominated by authoritarian states. Its neighbours often point to Kyrgyzstan as a chaotic place when in reality it is the only Central Asian republic that has attempted to dismantle the post-Soviet legacy of strong-man rule. Although the journey to democracy will continue to be a difficult one, the effort is laudable.

Russian influence continues to grow as the Kyrgyz government depends on Moscow for financial aid and security assistance. During a visit to Kyrgyzstan this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of maintaining an air base in the country to ensure stability and security in the region. China is also a key strategic partner, and considers the country a useful gateway to Central Asia. Both Moscow and Beijing are concerned about any potential for wider unrest, the rise of Islamist groups and the threat of radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. In August 2016, the Chinese embassy was targeted by a suicide car bomber – an attack that the government blamed on groups fighting in Syria.

The success or failure of Kyrgyzstan will have important regional implications. Kyrgyzstan’s legacy of violent upheaval should serve as a cautionary tale. The fear that it could happen again acts as a deterrent for some domestic actors, however the underlying causes that sparked previous electoral violence have not been addressed. In the past, Kyrgyzstan’s problems have been contained within its borders, but that can no longer be guaranteed. Neighbours Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan should be mindful that an orderly Presidential election is in their interests too.

What are the chances for a peaceful transition of power in 2017?

A peaceful transition is still possible, but much will depend on the actions of the government and opposition parties between now and November. The election should be an opportunity to strengthen democracy and stability, and could mark a milestone on Kyrgyzstan’s road towards political maturity. All political actors, and the government particularly, should be careful not to squander this opportunity for the sake of settling political scores.

The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe can play important roles by pushing for meaningful reforms now and over the longer term. In part, this means offering continued support for institution building. It will also require frank and timely discussions with the Kyrgyz government and political parties about how the upcoming presidential ballot – and the behaviour of the government and the opposition during the run-up to the election – will affect Kyrgyzstan’s credibility as a state moving, albeit tentatively, toward democracy.