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Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan

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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Executive Summary

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

A Kyrgyz opposition supporter waves the national flag near the main government building during an anti-government protest in Bishkek on 7 April 2010. AFP/ Vyacheslav Oseledko

Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan

As Kyrgyzstan prepares to mark the sixth anniversary of a bloody rebellion, there is a growing sense that the overthrow of two presidents has failed to revolutionise politics. Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy, but the system remains remarkably unchanged despite elections and upheaval. Those who can leverage their connections enjoy impunity, while many ordinary people live in poverty and lack access to justice.

The government’s failure to deliver adequate leadership, provide basic services to citizens and enforce the rule of law fuels religious radicalisation, ethnic tensions and lawlessness. The poor and politically disenfranchised are turning elsewhere for support. Underneath the political status quo, there are signs of agitation. Several opposition leaders were arrested in late March for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

The April 2010 revolution was supposed to represent a fresh start for Kyrgyzstan, despite its violent beginnings. A national day of protest called for 7 April exploded into a massive uprising, with some 89 protestors gunned down by security forces in central Bishkek. Opposition forces seized power after a chaotic day. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ultimately fled into exile in Belarus, just five years after Kyrgyzstan’s first President Askar Akayev fled to Moscow in the wake of popular protests.

The new interim government said it would deliver reform, accountability, and an end to the staggering corruption of the Bakiyev era. It said it would dismantle the schemes that concentrated political and economic power in the hands of a clannish few. It did not. Under any circumstances, this would be a massive undertaking, but President Almazbek Atambayev, elected to the post in October 2011, has not overseen a real effort to combat political or economic corruption. The spoils have simply been redistributed.

The parliamentary election in October 2015, though peaceful, was in many ways an auction: it is well reported that securing a place on a party list can cost politicians upwards of $500,000. Confidence in government suffers as a result. Politicians lack the initiative to tackle the difficult questions that still face the country such as the persistent north-south divide, ethnic tensions, a breakdown of social and physical infrastructure, increasing religious radicalisation and a chronic lack of economic opportunities. The parliament is semi-functional at best, and national unity is a brittle façade.

Russian influence is growing as the Kyrgyz government depends on financial handouts from Moscow and rests its national security interests with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Meanwhile, the economic downturn in Russia has resulted in a drop in remittances from migrant workers, leaving households across Kyrgyzstan strapped for cash.

The scars of 2010 have not healed.

Central Asia is a tough neighbourhood. Uncertainty in Afghanistan, increasing authoritarianism in Tajikistan and the possibility of a chaotic political succession in Uzbekistan pose serious threats to Kyrgyzstan’s stability. The state’s foreign policies are at best premised on short- to medium-term objectives and financial needs, not on long-term interests. Its relationship with its nearest neighbour, Uzbekistan, is deeply dysfunctional, with frequent border spats underscoring Kyrgyzstan’s inability to protect its frontiers in the face of the overwhelming might of the Uzbek military.

Bazar in Osh city in June 2011. A year earlier, hundreds of Uzbeks from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, were killed and their houses set on fire. To protect their belongings from destruction, Kyrgyz businesses wrote “Kyrgyz” on their shops in the bazar. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Kyrgyzstan’s domestic trajectory is perhaps the most troubling. While the state becomes increasingly impotent, it has allowed strident Kyrgyz nationalism to define what it means to be Kyrgyzstani. In June 2010, some 400 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, died during inter-ethnic violence in Osh. Those scars have not healed. Today, the Uzbek community has retreated from politics. The government blames ethnic Uzbeks for not doing more to assimilate.

Officials estimate that 70 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic extremists are ethnic Uzbeks, however the underlying ethnic tensions and drivers of religious radicalisation are largely ignored. Families troubled by youth radicalisation are reluctant to seek support for fear they will become targets of police extortion. Senior police officers acknowledge the problem, but say they are unable to prevent this. Public doubts grow when security forces shoot suspected “terrorists” under questionable circumstances, with little verifiable information provided by official statements.

The thinking in Bishkek seems to be that if you ignore a problem it will go away.

Against this backdrop, divergent ideas about national and religious identities are splintering what little agreement there was about the future of the country. Informal systems of justice and governance have supplanted the state. International aid is of limited value given the weaknesses of the structures it is designed to bolster. But the thinking in Bishkek seems to be that if you ignore a problem it will go away; the other tactic is to blame outsiders for the country’s challenges.

Kyrgyzstan remains deceptively calm if viewed from afar, but at the local level, there are familiar signs of discontent. Protests across the country are gathering pace with legitimate concerns over the socio-economic situation and the prospect of increased electricity tariffs. Opposition leaders are using these issues to fan anti-government sentiment.

White House, Bishkek, on 3 April 2016. Changing of the guard. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Kyrgyz politics can deliver sudden and violent change, as shown by the events of March 2005 and April and June 2010. Presidential elections scheduled for 2017 will test the cohesion of the state. Expectations are growing in the south that the next president should be from there.

According to such transactional thinking, power is to be negotiated among regional strongmen, not decided by the democratic will of the people. Even a smooth transition of power is unlikely to ensure reforms. Many members of the political elite survived the convulsions of 2005 and 2010 to emerge with different portfolios and their private businesses intact.

Kyrgyzstan should remain a conflict-prevention priority, as the risks of further upheaval and fresh inter-ethnic clashes have not truly diminished. In a region where most presidents have been enshrined as leaders for life, the Kyrgyz political environment is unique. However, the long-term stability and growth of the country depends on meaningful reconciliation in the south, promotion of a national identity that includes all ethnic minorities inside Kyrgyzstan, and a robust anti-corruption campaign. It will take strong leadership to reform a system of governance that, two upheavals later, remains fundamentally unchanged.