Kyrgyzstan: When patience runs out
Kyrgyzstan: When patience runs out
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

Kyrgyzstan: When patience runs out

For years the Kyrgyz people seem to have had an infinite tolerance for pain. During the harshest winter in years they froze uncomplainingly, despite rumors that the ruling family was selling electricity to its neighbors. Elections were rigged, but people simply joked that they did not have to vote: “The state handles that for me.”

The outside intervention that many hoped for — big brothers in either Moscow or Washington who would sweep in and restore justice — never materialized. The Kremlin congratulated President Kurmanbek Bakiyev on his fraudulent elections, the Americans seemed only interested in the Manas air base. And the country’s small, marginalized opposition could at best mobilize a few hundred people for a demonstration.

Everybody, including the United States, whose base here is a major way station for troops and supplies going in and out of Afghanistan, saw no reason to believe this would change.

Yet in one day last week the regime was swept away. The speed of the collapse has sparked talk of a foreign hand, with Russia as the favored culprit, but the explanation may be much simpler. Ordinary people carried out this rebellion (it was not a revolution; neither was the 2005 coup d’état): The opposition seemed at times to struggle in keeping up with them. President Bakiyev and his all-powerful family caused the revolt, with what a presidential staffer once described as their “pathological greed.”

The break came at the New Year, when Mr. Bakiyev finally exceeded the Kyrgyz threshold of pain. Crippling utility increases were introduced. Heating and electricity tariffs were doubled, with bigger increases promised later this year. A massive strain on the average budget, the measure was described as a free-market reform to raise funds for a desperately rickety power grid.

Few believed this, and skepticism turned to anger when a few weeks later the country’s most profitable energy provider was privatized. The new owner paid less than $3 million, although the government had valued it at $137 million in late 2008. The new owner also received a pleasant windfall from new utility prices. Many people believed the lucky person was the president’s son, Maxim Bakiyev.

People first came out onto the streets in late February, in the country’s coldest city, Naryn. Protesters moved on to Bishkek, then spread to areas of the south, the east, and back to Bishkek.

About a month into the protests the officially controlled Russian media turned on the Bakiyev regime, denouncing its nepotism and corruption. (If the Russians did anything else in the upheavals, it has not been discovered, and there was plenty of home-generated anger to keep protests going). Last week troops fired on demonstrators, but the people fought back, and the lid blew off the regime.

This has happened time and again in recent history, but we still seem surprised by it. A stable but undemocratic regime with a lavishly funded security machine suddenly crumbles when the foot soldiers decide they are not going to die in a ditch for the leader.

It happened in Saigon in 1975, when South Vietnamese special forces who were expected to fight to the end stripped off their uniforms in the street and went home; in Manila in 1986 when Ferdinand Marcos’s elite Presidential Security Command dissolved under popular pressure; in Moscow in 1991, when elite troops decided not to support a coup.

Washington gambled on the Bakiyev regime staying in power long enough to ensure the war effort in Afghanistan. This seemed plausible, but it was wrong. The Americans will now have to move fast to build relations with the small but somewhat fractious group of leaders — some long-time opposition figures, some newer recruits from the Bakiyev regime — who have largely felt ignored by the United States in recent years.

Kyrgyzstan will quickly fade from the news, but it faces a profoundly difficult future, with its decaying Soviet-era infrastructure and years of state sponsored theft.

For Washington and the West there are lessons, if anyone wants to learn them. The key one is that authoritarian regimes are not only unpalatable allies; they are unreliable ones. They block all safety valves — free elections and media, democratic discourse, opposition. Change usually comes in an explosion. Dependence on them is both miserable ethics and poor strategy.

Finally, Kyrgyzstan is not the exception in Central Asia. It is the rule. The region’s other leaders resemble Bakiyev in many respects, and some are worse. All are autocrats and most are extravagantly corrupt. (And all allow their territory to be used for the resupply of allied forces in Afghanistan).

There is no knowing when their citizens will reach their threshold of pain, but events in Bishkek show it could happen when we least expect it.
 

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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