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Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections 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

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.