Kyrgyzstan: Saving Central Asia
Kyrgyzstan: Saving Central Asia
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

Kyrgyzstan: Saving Central Asia

A major crisis is taking place in Central Asia, but much of the world — and most governments — would prefer not to think about it. Kyrgyzstan has lost control of a significant part of its country.

Initial violence has caused many hundreds of deaths and, as of the latest count, over 400,000 refugees. This from a population of five million. The calm that has come over the area is temporary combat fatigue. Kyrgyzstan’s new provisional government is looking increasingly incapable of taking any measures to restore homes, livelihoods, destroyed infrastructure or trust. It can barely impose order. Yet world leaders are looking elsewhere.

Washington is obsessed with Afghanistan, and though the Americans have a major base in Kyrgyzstan at Manas, they seem disinclined to do very much. They may have given up hope for the base, but they are clearly not interested in getting involved with Kyrgyzstan’s police and military, whom they seem to regard as feckless at best.

Russia views Central Asia as its backyard, but it has no interest in cleaning up this particular bit of it. Moscow is not enthused that the provisional government, for all its many failings, talks of building a multiparty democracy. Kyrgyzstan does not have the abundance of natural resources that make its neighbors so attractive or “strategic” to the outside world. Finally, senior leaders in Moscow — Vladimir Putin probably among them — do not want to set a precedent. That is, they do not want to intervene in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic crisis, lest the international community suggest sometime in the future that they have a right to help search for peace in, say, Russia’s permanently bloody North Caucasus.

With rare, noble exceptions — the Red Cross and United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and the refugee agency U.N.H.C.R. among them — the world’s many international bodies have again been underwhelming. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is chaired by the venerable autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan’s neighbor. His country can barely hide its disdain for the new Kyrgyz regime. The U.N. Security Council has as usual been timid and risk averse.

But it is no use just hoping the crisis will go away. Many atrocities have been committed in the past few days in Kyrgyzstan, and there are many angry — and armed — people in the region. Sooner or later, the anger will once again well up. The crisis has weakened the government almost to the point of collapse. The south has no functional government. It is not inconceivable the same could happen to the north. There are dangerous signs of a political vacuum taking shape.

Perhaps people feel that a power vacuum in a country that few people could find on the map is no big deal. They are wrong. Even if they do not want to know about the last few days of sadistic and horrific violence, they should perhaps ponder for a moment two things that could move in the vacuum.

Kyrgyzstan is a major stop in the drug road from Afghanistan. Much of Afghanistan’s opiates are trucked and flown in to the south of Kyrgyzstan. The chances are, in fact, that drug dealers have been active in the violence. Much of the drugs move straight on — to Russia, which already has an enormous problem both with drugs and intravenously transmitted H.I.V./AIDS, and to China, which is developing the same problem.

Southern Kyrgyzstan is also a transit route for another commodity the West fears: Islamist fighters. They move to and from Afghanistan, on their way to Uzbekistan just across the border, but also to Western Europe. It is already a comfortable stop along their long march. A country without a government will make for an even friendlier environment.

If we want to stop this happening, if we want to forestall a growing humanitarian crisis and avoid years of political instability and insecurity, the international community needs to stop sitting on its hands. It is a horribly difficult situation, getting more intractable by the day. But with a modicum of political will certain things can be done fast.

In southern Kyrgyzstan two well armed communities, Kyrgyz and Uzbek, live in close proximity, angry and scared. First of all they need to be separated, right away: ideally by an international armed force if anyone has the courage to offer troops. Failing that, a political buffer zone of international mediators who can keep the communities at a safe distance from each other. We need medical teams, ideally Russians, who speak the region’s common language and who can treat Uzbeks who now refuse to have anything to do even with Kyrgyz doctors. We need a safe environment where cool heads from both sides can start the long process of searching for a middle ground. And we need to do this right now, before the middle ground ceases to exist.

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.

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