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Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses
Kyrgyzstan: A Hollow Regime Collapses
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Tracing Political Circles 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

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.