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Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Report 109 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: A Faltering State

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Executive Summary

Kyrgyzstan’s post-revolution government lurches from crisis to crisis in the face of worsening political violence, prison revolts, serious property disputes and popular disillusion. There is a growing sense that it is barely less corrupt than its predecessor and perhaps less competent. The security services are slipping out of government control, raising the prospect of more chaos and criminality. If Kyrgyzstan is not to become a failed state whose fate reinforces the views of its neighbours that the path to stability lies not in democracy but in dictatorship, the U.S., European Union and other donors need to give the shaky government more political and financial backing.

Fraudulent parliamentary elections in February 2005 led to a popular uprising the next month that deposed President Askar Akayev and replaced him with Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was elected president in July. Formation of a new government, however, has been slow and hampered by divisions among the revolutionary leaders – mostly former office holders who had broken with Akayev. The most crucial relationship – the “tandem” between President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov – has held but there are concerns about its longevity.

Property is being redistributed in a chaotic and sometimes violent manner as government, criminals and other interests scramble for the country’s valuable assets, including many that the Akayev family monopolised. The incidents listed below present a troubling picture of a society on the brink:

  • A long-simmering dispute over a vital bazaar in Karasuu (Osh province) led to street violence and the murders of two key figures, including parliamentarian Bayaman Erkinbayev.
  • Popular anger at the abuses of a former Akayev ally led to a workers’ uprising at the Karakeche coal mines in Naryn province; the authorities’ lack of response paved the way for the rise of a local populist leader, Nurlan Motuyev, and produced the possibility of conflict over a key national asset.
  • Corruption and ineffectual government land reform policies have resulted in the occupation of much farm land by squatters and drawn thousands of people from the countryside to Bishkek, leading to worsening tensions with city dwellers and the government.
  • Endemic problems in prisons – including a cash-strapped administration, deteriorating infrastructure and increasingly harsh conditions – sparked revolts in October 2005, one of which resulted in the murder of another parliamentarian, Tynychbek Akmatbayev. Subsequent demonstrations in Bishkek, which demanded that Prime Minister Kulov be fired, raised doubts about the government’s authority and the state’s stability.

None of these specific problems, much less the underlying issues, have truly been solved. Instead, the authorities have deferred decisions and let events run their course, while a growing pool of discontented individuals and groups forms, and confidence in the administration wanes. Most worryingly, the government has largely lost control over public security. The law enforcement agencies lack resources, are severely demoralised, and have become susceptible to outside pressure. There is growing concern about the influence of criminal groups.

Rather than face up to these problems, the government has been struggling with internal dissent. Two of its best-known members, acting Prosecutor General Azimbek Beknazarov and acting Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, have been ousted and may now form the nucleus of a new opposition movement. In Beknazarov’s home region of Aksy, anger at his dismissal and a lingering sense of injustice from police killings in 2002 have fuelled protests and demands for the president’s resignation.

The arrival of thousands of Uzbeks who fled their homeland after the violent suppression of the Andijon uprising in May 2005 produced the new government’s first international crisis. After an initial misstep accepting a request from Uzbekistan to return forthwith a handful of the refugees, it subsequently rejected Karimov’s demands for wholesale return and cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the European Union and the U.S. in finding asylum for the bulk of the refugees. The transport to Romania of some 450 who applied formally for refugee status eased tensions somewhat but an unknown number of unregistered fugitives remain, and relations between the neighbours are at an all time low, with Tashkent applying pressure over energy, trade and security issues. At the same time, Russia and China have pressed Kyrgyzstan to reconsider use by the U.S. of an airbase near Bishkek, though the government is unlikely to accede, in part at least because the facility provides important revenue.

If Kyrgyzstan is to succeed as a test case for democracy in Central Asia, there must be a genuine commitment by the new government to be transparent and develop the rule of law. There also need to be greater efforts by donors to help it achieve these ends. Otherwise, there is a real risk that the central government will lose control of institutions and territory, and the country will drift into irreversible criminality and permanent low-level violence.

Bishkek/Brussels, 16 December 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.