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Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Briefing 76 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory

Kyrgyzstan’s relative stability belies the country’s brittle Central Asian neighbourhood, simmering ethnic tensions, religious extremism and political frustration. Russia, the West and China share interests here, creating a unique opportunity to work together for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development during and after the upcoming 4 October parliamentary elections.

I. Overview

Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s only even nominal parliamentary democracy, faces growing internal and external security challenges. Deep ethnic tensions, increased radicalisation in the region, uncertainty in Afghanistan and the possibility of a chaotic political succession in Uzbekistan are all likely to have serious repercussions for its stability. The risks are exacerbated by leadership failure to address major economic and political problems, including corruption and excessive Kyrgyz nationalism. Poverty is high, social services are in decline, and the economy depends on remittances from labour migrants. Few expect the 4 October parliamentary elections to deliver a reformist government. If the violent upheavals to which the state is vulnerable come to pass, instability could spread to regional neighbours, each of which has its own serious internal problems. The broader international community – not just the European Union (EU) and the U.S., but also Russia and China, should recognise the danger and proactively press the government to address the country’s domestic issues with a sense of urgency.

Since violent protests forced the 2010 ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, successors, including current President Almazbek Atambayev, have provided little economic direction or strong leadership. Relations with the West have soured. The country is increasingly dependent, politically and economically, on Russia, becoming a full-fledged member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in August 2015. The government struggles to control the south, where tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the largest minority, have not dissipated since ethnically motivated deadly violence in Osh five years ago. Border skirmishes with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are not uncommon. The Kyrgyz nationalist narrative that emerged after the Osh pogroms is now firmly entrenched and facilitated by a variety of groups across the country. Pockets of religious radicalisation and intolerance, sometimes presented as traditional Kyrgyz values, are also a challenge. Instead of confronting these trends, political parties are incorporating them.

The October elections occur against a backdrop of growing disillusionment with the only semi-functional parliamentary system. Priority tasks for the government should be to temper nationalism, promote political inclusion and genuine reform and manage expectations. It must first develop policies to protect and promote the state’s multi-ethnic, multi-denominational nature, rein in unchecked nationalism and tackle corruption. Failure to do so would deepen fault lines in a state and society fractured by the Bakiyev-era legacy and 2010 events. The international community, bilaterally and multilaterally through organisation such as the EU, UN and Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of which Russia is a member, should offer high-level, consistent engagement and expertise, while pressing for reform to support Kyrgyzstan’s stated aim of making parliamentary democracy work.

Bishkek/Brussels, 30 September 2015

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.