Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

Kyrgyzstan: After the Revolution

The March 2005 popular revolt ended President Askar Akaev's increasingly authoritarian fourteen-year rule and gave political and economic progress a chance.

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The March 2005 popular revolt ended President Askar Akaev's increasingly authoritarian fourteen-year rule and gave political and economic progress a chance. However, the new leaders face significant obstacles. If the situation is mishandled, and people conclude nothing has changed except the names at the top, Kyrgyzstan could become seriously unstable.

When Akaev came to power at independence in 1991, he seemed an ideal president: young, energetic, and apparently committed to political change and an open economy. He encouraged economic reform and a certain political openness, at least relative to his Central Asian neighbours. However, following his controversial 2000 reelection, he moved in a more authoritarian direction, and his popularity faded.

Above all he failed to stem corruption or develop the rule of law. Instead the political system was increasingly dominated by his family and a small group of supporters. The corruption which developed around Akaev's family was a main cause of his fall.

Akaev overcame challenges through co-option of elites and occasional repression of opponents. His main rival, former Vice President Feliks Kulov, was imprisoned on trumped-up corruption charges in 2001 and remained there until March 2005. Key media outlets, except for a few opposition newspapers, were almost completely under government control.

The president survived politically in 2002 when six people were shot dead by police in the southern Aksy district, leading to several months of protests. But the government did not learn its lesson, and Akaev increasingly seemed out of touch with reality, promoting unrealistic programs and not understanding the socio-economic crisis besetting the population. He had always been much weaker in the south but was losing popularity even in the north. This regional divide, though sometimes exaggerated and manipulated, remains important in political life.

The ouster of Akaev should not have been entirely unexpected. He had not only lost popular support, but also was increasingly losing the backing of key national and regional elites, who were irritated at family control of the economy and rising corruption. There had been many warnings[fn]For example, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°81, Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects, 11 August 2004.Hide Footnote  that unfair elections could create a climactic crisis, but Akaev and his aides had become complacent about their ability to manipulate and suppress opposition.

Akaev failed to develop key state institutions. When protests started in the wake of parliamentary elections in February, it was quickly clear the state was weak, and few elites were willing to defend the president. At the end, the regime collapsed in a few hours.

As they prepare for presidential elections in July 2005, Kyrgyzstan's new leaders face critical challenges that risk undermining the country's important step toward real democracy:

  • the need for political reform, particularly to redress imbalances created by Akaev's centralisation of power in the presidency and the weakness of state institutions;
  • a looming economic crisis that could be worsened by tax collection problems and weak administration;
  • a crisis over land seizures, squatters and enduring problems with land tenure; and
  • the growing security risk from criminal groups with economic and political power.

Bishkek/Brussels, 4 May 2005

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.

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