Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Briefing 79 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: A Deceptive Calm

Long viewed as a relatively liberal aberration in Central Asia’s authoritarian landscape, Kyrgyzstan has since the autumn of 2007 transformed its political system into a functional one-party state ruled by a small elite, with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s family at its core.

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I. Overview

Long viewed as a relatively liberal aberration in Central Asia’s authoritarian landscape, Kyrgyzstan has since the autumn of 2007 transformed its political system into a functional one-party state ruled by a small elite, with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s family at its core. The key change came in December when, after an electoral campaign widely criticised for blatant bias in favour of the ruling party, a new parliament was returned that is dominated by Ak Zhol, President Bakiyev’s newly-created political machine, with decorative roles assigned to two parties that were apportioned seats in contravention to the electoral code. The opposition, sidelined by events, has lapsed into apathy, and a superficial calm has overtaken the usually boisterous political scene. This calm may, however, prove deceptive, given worsening corruption, increasing disillusionment with politics and a series of major economic crises that could strike before year’s end.

Thus far the changes have achieved one result: parliamentary democracy in Kyrgyzstan has been hobbled. The task of the new legislature, presidential aides say bluntly, is to implement the president’s will with minimal discussion and zero dissent. Though the innovations bear strong resemblances to both the Kazakh and Russian political systems, they were not introduced because of outside pressure. They are a good example of how the Vladimir Putin model of governance is being copied in Central Asia for personal interest rather than ideological affinity.

The president’s team was motivated purely by the desire to concentrate power in its hands. Bakiyev’s advisers claim they want to break out of the political paralysis and infighting that has marked the time since independence in 1991. The liberal democratic model has failed, they say; the Russian model of limited democracy, a marginalised opposition and strong presidential power is far better suited to the country at this stage in its development. They speak of pushing through over the next two years a program of radical privatisation, particularly of energy resources. Though there has been little sign of this so far, the ruling elite remains committed to selling off large parts of the country’s energy infrastructure as soon as it can.

The changes seem less a revolution than an intensified version of policies pursued by Bakiyev’s predecessor, Askar Akayev. The Akayev administration also concentrated power in family members and close supporters, played opposition factions off against each other, but was eventually overthrown in 2005 by the disgruntled political and business elite, led by Bakiyev, in the grandiloquently named Tulip Revolution. Instead of opening up politics, however, Bakiyev, too, is creating a system whose hallmarks are overweening control by the ruling family, widespread corruption and, most significantly, a monopoly over economic and< political patronage. Critics allege that the newly strengthened political dispensation will simply transfer key national assets to the president’s relatives and close supporters.

There is concern also that Bakiyev’s “national agenda” is in fact a collection of personal, short-term priorities, and that major issues in need of attention – among them grinding poverty, HIV/AIDS and narcotics – will be ignored. Given the opposition’s disarray, there is little likelihood that Bakiyev’s plans will face any serious political challenge in the short run. He seems determined to stay in office until 2015 and then hand over to a successor who can be trusted to defend his family interests.

First, however, the Bakiyev administration has to survive the next winter. The success of the election operation infused the president’s team with a sense of infallibity that borders on hubris. The challenges it is facing now, however, are infinitely more complex than choreographing an election.

Inflation is developing disconcerting momentum. Food prices increased in the first six months of the year by at least 20 per cent. A major energy crisis, triggered by domestic factors, not world prices, is looming. Government handling of these issues has not been impressive. Complacency and vague talk of emergency plans has given way to appeals for outside aid, calls for a 30 per cent cut in winter electricity consumption and warnings there will be only enough power for light, not heating. Even more disturbing for the regime, perhaps, is growing speculation within society that it is not just mishandling the economy, but that corrupt members of the Bakiyev administration themselves contributed to the energy crisis. Such street talk is often based on little more than gossip but is frequently a sign of eroding confidence in the state. Many observers, including some presidential advisers, feel that pent-up popular anger – at spiralling food and fuel prices, power cuts and drastically declining public services – could well erupt when the weather turns cold.

Bishkek/Brussels, 14 August 2008

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.