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Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses
Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Briefing 102 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses

The collapse of the Kyrgyz regime is a case study of the risks facing authoritarianism in Central Asia. What happened in Kyrgyzstan could happen in most of its neighbouring countries. And the consequences could indeed be much worse.

Overview

A swift, violent rebellion swept into the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in early April 2010, sparked by anger at painful utility price increases and the corruption that was the defining characteristic of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s rule. In less than two days the president had fled. Some 85 people were killed and the centre of the capital was looted. The thirteen-member provisional government now faces a daunting series of challenges. Bakiyev leaves behind a bankrupt state hollowed out by corruption and crime. Economic failure and collapsing infrastructure have generated deep public resentment. If the provisional government moves fast to assert its power, the risks of major long-term violence are containable: there are no signs of extensive support for Bakiyev or of a North-South split. The speed with which the Bakiyev administration collapsed is a salutary reminder of the risks of overemphasising Western security concerns in framing policy towards the region.

So far the provisional government’s perfomance has not been promising. Its members have largely failed to present themselves as a cohesive or coherent administration, or to be transparent about their activities at a time of great anxiety and uncertainty. They have displayed a lack of common ideology or strategy, and show signs of internal discord. Unless they quickly address these problems, they risk a rapid erosion of their authority.

Though their declared aim is to stabilise the country in preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections six months from now, the provisional government has to do much more. They must prepare people for the multiple crises – in the energy sector, for example – that could flare up at any time due to the neglect and pillaging of the country’s infrastructure. They have to take urgent measures to ensure that organised crime or the narcotics trade do not again infiltrate political life. They need to begin talking to devout Muslims – an increasingly alienated part of society who seem to have been largely bystanders in the April 2010 revolt. They will also need to convince donors that they can absorb aid. This is no small task, given the top-down corruption of the system of government they have inherited. They will, finally, have to move rapidly to reassure the public that they are willing and able to work for the country’s good, not just their own enrichment.

This briefing explains and analyses the events of the past five years, in an effort to provide context and background to the uprising. Bakiyev came to power in the so-called Tulip Revolution of March 2005, which ousted President Askar Akayev, whom opposition leaders accused of nepotism, corruption and growing authoritarianism. Once in office, Bakiyev quickly abandoned most semblances of democracy, creating a narrow-based political structure run by his own family and for their profit. A combination of ruthlessness and incompetence led to the regime’s downfall. Almost exactly five years after his victory, Bakiyev was charged with the same abuses as Akayev had been, by many of the same people with whom he had staged the 2005 “revolution”.

Despite the much-discussed theory that Moscow instigated or stage-managed the uprising, the evidence at this point does not support this view. For its part, the U.S., in its concern to maintain the Manas air base as a major hub for the war in Afghanistan, was unwilling to counter the Bakiyev regime’s increasingly abusive behaviour.

The fundamental lessons that can be drawn from the events of April 2010 are clear. First, the authoritarian model of government has not worked in Kyrgyzstan, and is unlikely in the long run to work in the rest of Central Asia. Its superficial stability is attractive to Western leaders who are looking for a safe environment to pursue commercial or security interests, such as the current effort to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. But the deep-seated and invisible instabilities of authoritarian regimes remove all predictability. A well-defended government, seemingly without a coherent challenge from its political opponents and apathetic populace, can be swept away in a day. By blocking all social safety valves – the media, public dissent, political discourse and the right to legal redress – the Bakiyev regime created a semblance of calm. But it was unable to control the underground currents of anger at the regime’s rapacity. The closure of all other channels of change made a violent response just about the only option for an angry population.

Second, the causes of the uprising – state theft and repression, a total lack of interest by rulers in their people – are common to all of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours. The collapse of the Bakiyev regime is a case study of the risks facing authoritarianism in Central Asia. What happened in Kyrgyzstan in terms of corruption and repression is already taking place in several other countries. What happened in Bishkek in April 2010 could happen in most of its neighbours. It could indeed be much worse.

Central Asia’s leaders will probably ignore this warning, but at their peril. The international community needs, in its interest and that of long-term stability, to change its approach of public silence leavened by the discreet word in the ear of the autocrat. It can start by conducting its relations with undemocratic regimes in an explicit, open way, where issues of social justice and development are given parity with the more classic concerns of security or trade – or at least expressed sufficiently in word and deed that the people know their conditions are part of the bilateral equation. Authoritarian and unresponsive regimes are not only embarrassing allies, but unreliable ones. A sudden push to try to create democracy in a few years from zero is too ambitious. Speaking truth to regional powers would be a good start.

Bishkek/Brussels, 27 April 2010

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.