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Kyrgyzstan at Ten: Trouble in the “Island of Democracy”
Kyrgyzstan at Ten: Trouble in the “Island of Democracy”
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 22 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan at Ten: Trouble in the “Island of Democracy”

For most of the decade since it gained independence, Kyrgyzstan has been described as an island of democracy and stability in Central Asia. In comparison with other countries in the region, it has indeed carried out deeper economic reforms and allowed more room for civil society and opposition political activity. Recent developments, however, indicate that this stability is fragile, and that hard-won democratic gains are being eroded.

Executive Summary

For most of the decade since it gained independence, Kyrgyzstan has been described as an island of democracy and stability in Central Asia. In comparison with other countries in the region, it has indeed carried out deeper economic reforms and allowed more room for civil society and opposition political activity. Recent developments, however, indicate that this stability is fragile, and that hard-won democratic gains are being eroded. If the government of Kyrgyzstan resorts to authoritarianism or crumbles under the weight of the country’s moribund economy, the international community will suffer a setback for its hopes of promoting a model for economic and political reform in Central Asia.

The greatest threat to political stability remains public discontent with the economy. More than 60 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. While the government has pursued some of the most ambitious economic reforms in the region, these efforts have yet to translate into the significant economic growth that would reverse the steady decline in the standard of living.

In 2000 and 2001 protests broke out in Bishkek, Narin, Jalal-Abad and elsewhere in reaction to rising costs, stagnant wages and unemployment. Although protests have been modest in scope thus far, widespread public demonstrations and unrest could be on the horizon if the economic situation remains bleak. Food prices will likely increase again this fall, exacerbating social strains in a country already struggling with sharp internal political divisions, ethnic tensions, military incursions by the guerrilla group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and disputes with neighbour states over resources, security and borders.

All this comes against a backdrop of efforts by the government to curtail both personal freedoms and political opposition. During the last several years, and particularly during the 2000 presidential election, President Askar Akaev has tightened his grip on the country. Although he had a reputation for being the leading democrat in the region, he began his campaign to diminish  any opposition early in his rule. In recent  years harassment of opposition politicians and journalists has been on the rise and the executive branch has increasingly used a largely compliant judiciary as a key tool to silence political opponents and critical media.

In 2000, former Vice-President and former Minister of National Security, Feliks Kulov — viewed by many as the strongest potential challenger in the presidential race — was sentenced to a long prison term after being denied the right to stand for the presidency on a technicality. Similarly, the human rights activist and leader of the Erkindik Party, Topchubek Turgunaliev, was also jailed although he has now been released. Charges against both men were clearly politically motivated, as was the decision of the Supreme Court of Arbitration to close down Asaba — one of the country’s most popular opposition papers.

As they have come under mounting pressure, opposition parties have recognised that they will need to join forces if they hope to survive. Ten major opposition parties formed a broad coalition, the People’s Patriotic Movement, in April 2001. The ability of this opposition coalition to provide an effective counter-weight to President Akaev and his supporters remains unproven. However, the opposition has effectively galvanised public concern about plans by President Akaev to make territorial concessions to both Uzbekistan and China to resolve border disputes. A memorandum signed by the Uzbek and Kyrgyz prime ministers on the exchange of land was voted down by the parliament in 2001 and the government has struggled to minimise the fallout from the leak of two secret border agreements signed with China in 1996 and 1999.  If ratified, these would give China more than 100,000 hectares of Kyrgyz land. The parliamentary opposition has even threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against President Akaev for the conduct of the border matters, and while this is likely an empty threat, it does highlight the many fault lines in the current political environment. There are also signs that President Akaev may be facing some opposition from within his own ranks. All of these elements combine to suggest that the potential for a political crisis that could spark violent conflict in Kyrgyzstan has risen considerably.

Efforts by the government to suppress religious movements such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which have established a solid foothold in southern Kyrgyzstan, add to the current atmosphere of instability, as have security concerns about renewed incursions by the IMU and disputes with neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan about how best to deal with this threat. There remains substantial risk that Uzbekistan might intervene militarily in southern Kyrgyzstan if it deems the government in Bishkek is not effectively acting to halt the IMU. Even a small-scale intervention on Uzbekistan’s part would raise fears that Tashkent was seeking to annex territory and possibly provoke clashes between the ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities.

Kyrgyzstan is faced with a choice of reinvigorating genuine economic and political reform or following the path of authoritarianism. Economic reforms have failed to deliver improved living standards because they have been hobbled by corruption and cronyism. A weak legal system and fickle government interventions in businesses have meant the country has not developed an attractive investment environment.

International support — and constructive pressure — will be crucial in helping President Akaev embrace a more responsible political direction. Indeed, if the president continues on his current course, the likelihood of violence that would further cripple prospects for progress in the region will only continue to rise, and the once heralded “island of democracy” will disappear into a sea of instability.

Osh/Brussels, 28 August 2001

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.