Kyrgyzstan: The void in Asia's heart
Kyrgyzstan: The void in Asia's heart
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

Kyrgyzstan: The void in Asia's heart

There is a hole in the map of Central Asia where Kyrgyzstan used to be. A country once considered an outpost of relative tolerance and democracy in a region of dysfunctional authoritarian regimes is today a deeply divided, practically failed, state. If the international response to its descent into political chaos is not swift and bold, the consequences will be disastrous.

After years of mismanagement and corruption President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in April by a provisional government that has not succeeded in establishing its authority over the country. An explosion of violence, destruction and looting hit southern Kyrgyzstan in June, killing hundreds and deepening the gulf between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities.

In the process the government lost whatever control of the south it once had. Melis Myrzakmatov, the ruthless and resolute nationalist mayor of Osh, the largest southern city, emerged from the bloodshed with his political strength and extremist credentials strengthened. This was only reinforced by an embarrassingly unsuccessful attempt last week to remove him. President Roza Otunbayeva ordered him to resign, he refused, and told cheering crowds in Osh that the government had no authority in the south. He even pledged to move the country's capital to Osh.

Now caught between a humiliated provisional government on one hand and the renegade mayor on the other, southern Kyrgyzstan is a serious security risk in the region and beyond. As long as the south remains outside central control, the narcotics trade – already an important factor – could extend its power still further. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 95 tonnes of heroin pass through central Asian states on their way to Russia and Europe every year, and it calls Osh a "regional hub of trafficking activity".

Southern Kyrgyzstan could also become a home to Islamist guerrilla groups. It is not just that the political vacuum could offer the opportunity to make recruits; the June pogroms deepened the gulf between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and another outburst is inevitable if the slide towards extreme nationalism continues. Next time, the victimised party could look to Islamist radicals for help.

The route back to stability will be long and difficult, not least because no reliable security or even monitoring force has been deployed in the affected area. Kyrgyzstan needs an internationally supported investigation into the pogroms; as visible an international presence as possible to discourage any recurrence; and close co-ordination on the rebuilding of communities.

The prospects are not promising. Even the delayed token force of 52 unarmed police advisers sent by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has been a target of Kyrgyz nationalist ire, which the central government and the OSCE itself are sadly reluctant to challenge.

When state authorities are unwilling or unable to stabilise the situation the international community needs to be more active – to support an investigation into the June events with central roles assigned to those with suitable expertise, such as the UN high commissioner for human rights and the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities. And it should be made clear that further aid to the Kyrgyz government will be conditional on such an investigation.

The outside world also needs to outline a unified strategy for the reconstruction of the south involving extensive ground monitoring to ensure no funds are diverted to extreme nationalists, or corrupt officials. In particular donors will need to ensure none go to the Osh regional government as long as it advocates an exclusionary ethnic policy and refuses to submit to the authority of the central government.

Unfortunately any efforts to help pull back the divided country from the brink of disintegration may simply be too late. The UN security council – in particular the US and Russia – needs to undertake some active contingency planning so the international community will be in a position to respond in a timely and effective manner to any future violence and consequent refugee crises.

It may seem over-optimistic to expect the international community to take such steps after its manifest lack of interest in becoming involved in Kyrgyzstan – even while the pogroms were unfolding during June. The alternative, however, is to sit back and watch the continuing implosion of an entire country.

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.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.