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Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Briefing 55 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan on the Edge

Street battles between thousands of pro and anti-government protestors broken up by police billy clubs and tear gas in the central square of the capital this week illustrate dramatically that Kyrgyzstan is on the verge of political breakdown and possible civil war.

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I. Overview

Street battles between thousands of pro and anti-government protestors broken up by police billy clubs and tear gas in the central square of the capital this week illustrate dramatically that Kyrgyzstan is on the verge of political breakdown and possible civil war. The government and opposition have begun talks to pull the country back from the brink, and the president signed a new constitution on 9 November that the parliament had passed the previous day. But tensions are still high. The talks will need to be widened if they are to resolve the underlying dispute, which is centred on the division of power between the president and the parliament, and related issues. The international community should become much more active in preventive diplomacy because if a solution is not found quickly, Kyrgyzstan’s instability could easily affect other states in the fragile Central Asian region.

For much of this year, two groups have been competing for control:

  • the government, headed by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Üsönov and State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov; and
  • the opposition movement “For Reforms!” (Za reformy!), led by parliamentarians including Ömürbek Tekebayev, Melis Eshimkanov and Azimbek Beknazarov; a number of former ministers in the Bakiyev administration, including Almazbek Atambayev and Roza Otunbayeva; and civil society activists such as Edil Baysalov.

A confrontation has been growing since the spring of 2006, with the opposition holding demonstrations in Bishkek and elsewhere, demanding political reforms. The troubles, which began over opposition demands for checks on presidential power, have taken on a regional character, with the government relying on support from the southern regions (particularly the provinces of Jalalabat and Osh), and the opposition relying heavily on support from the north (particularly the provinces of Chüy and Talas). The police and security forces are split between the two camps but so far they have been keeping both sides mostly apart in the capital.

The opposition had been holding large demonstrations in central Bishkek since 2 November, trying to force Bakiyev to approve a new constitution that would limit presidential powers and allow the largest block in parliament to form the government. Bakiyev, who under the constitution enjoys almost unlimited powers, refused. Both sides began rallying their supporters and what began as a dispute between political elites is rapidly drawing in larger numbers of ordinary citizens. The centre of the capital has been divided into two parts, with opposition supporters rallying at the main government compound, the “White House”, and government supporters gathering near the parliament building.

As further clashes appeared likely on 7 November, last-minute negotiations reduced tensions, but demonstrations from both sides are continuing and the possibility of conflict remains. The talks between Speaker of the Parliament Marat Sultanov and President Bakiyev produced agreement to present a compromise constitution to parliament, which adopted it on 8 November. President Bakieyev signed it the next day but it remains uncertain how he will implement it. Moreover, further action is required to shore up political processes. The truce remains very fragile.

Quick action is still needed from government, opposition and international community alike in order to take advantage of what may be no more than a brief lull. The following steps are needed:

  • the government and the opposition must both call on their supporters to vacate the squares in Bishkek they currently hold and urge their supporters in other parts of the country not to come to Bishkek to participate in demonstrations;
  • the EU, U.S., Russia, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and UN (through the Secretary-General in the first instance) must each appeal to President Bakiyev for restraint, especially to avoid using force to bring the situation under control;
  • the OSCE mission in Bishkek should be prepared to provide, if needed, a neutral venue for continuing negotiations between the government and the opposition;
  • the OSCE secretary general and the EU special representative for Central Asia should immediately visit Bishkek, work to draw in to the talks more representatives from both sides, and offer to mediate efforts to find a suitable mechanism for reaching a compromise on a plan for institution building; and
  • the Kyrgyz government and opposition, with active international support, should embark on a program of national reconciliation to ease tensions between the country’s various regions and factions.

Beyond the urgent need for rapid diplomatic action to defuse the immediate crisis, the OSCE, EU, Russia, Kazakhstan and U.S. all need to be more fully involved in helping negotiate an end to the political breakdown.

Bishkek/Brussels, 9 November 2006

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.