Kyrgyzstan’s Political Crisis: An Exit Strategy
Kyrgyzstan’s Political Crisis: An Exit Strategy
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 37 / Europe & Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan’s Political Crisis: An Exit Strategy

ICG’s first report on Kyrgyzstan, published in August 2001, highlighted the potential for crisis facing the country. International attention was then rarely focused on Central Asia but since September 2001 the region has suddenly registered on policy-makers’ agendas.

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Executive Summary

ICG’s first report on Kyrgyzstan, published in August 2001, highlighted the potential for crisis facing the country. International attention was then rarely focused on Central Asia but since September 2001 the region has suddenly registered on policy-makers’ agendas. Nearly 2,000 U.S. and Coalition troops are now located at Manas Airport near Bishkek, as part of the forces active in Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan is playing a key strategic role in the region. Stability in this country is now of fundamental concern to the international community but, since early 2002, it has declined sharply.

The leadership has taken an increasingly authoritarian line towards the opposition, perhaps believing that the U.S. presence gave it more leeway. A popular deputy, Azimbek Beknazarov, was arrested in January 2002, and several opposition newspapers were closed. His arrest provoked protests in the south of the country, particularly in his home territory of Aksy district, in Jalal-Abad province. In confrontations with protestors in March, police shot dead five demonstrators, the first time political protests had turned violent in Kyrgyzstan.

After the shootings, thousands of supporters of Beknazarov protested in the South, demanding the dismissal of charges against him and the punishment of those responsible for the killings. President Askar Akaev dismissed the prime minister and interior minister in late May 2002, leading to the resignation of the whole government. But the protests continued, with demonstrators staging mass marches between southern cities. Tensions mounted as their demands became more radical, including a call for Akaev’s resignation, and they threatened to march on Bishkek. It was only when the appeal courts lifted the charges against Beknazarov that the protestors were finally persuaded to go home.

This move calmed the situation temporarily, but the anger of the protestors has hardly abated. And it has not solved the underlying political and economic problems in Kyrgyzstan that have given rise to widespread discontent. Long-term stability remains under threat unless a more comprehensive review of policy is undertaken and serious measures introduced to calm the situation. Many protestors have been emboldened by their apparent success, and it is likely that demonstrations will be renewed. Even if these grind to a halt, Kyrgyzstan is entering a period of uncertainty, as it approaches the end of Akaev’s term in office in 2005. As the struggle for power gathers pace during this transition period, there is considerable potential for further conflict.

The way the crisis develops depends on a number of factors, each of which can contribute to escalation or de-escalation.

First, the political system and the struggle for power. The increasing concentration of power around Akaev, his family and his close colleagues has led to discontent among rival elites, who seek more participation in both the political sphere and business. The usurpation of power in all branches of government by the ruling elite has led to a crisis of legitimacy – in the leadership, in the courts and in the political system itself. As the leadership has gained more power, it has become more authoritarian in an attempt to defend itself from rising criticism. This move towards authoritarianism has effectively provoked the current crisis. Whether the forthcoming struggle for power will remain peaceful depends on whether the authorities accept the need for fundamental changes to the political system and the electoral process.

Secondly, the opposition. Increasingly radicalised, it has little faith in the present political system and now seeks the resignation of Akaev through popular pressure. The president is unlikely to resign voluntarily, and the result of such a strategy is likely to be more confrontation. Only a genuine compromise by the authorities, involving efforts to deal with the roots of the crisis in the political system and to take measures to guarantee free elections in 2005 will dampen some of the radicalism of the opposition.

Thirdly, the security forces can either play a neutral role in preserving order or become a political force in their own right. Recent strikes by the police in the South and rising dissatisfaction among the security forces represent a potential threat to peace. Reform of security structures is badly needed.

Fourthly, popular protest, provoked by the increasing authoritarianism of the government, but with its roots in a deep socio-economic crisis and a lack of political representation, will continue regardless of agreements made by elites, unless real attention is focused on the problems of the mass of the population. This must cover political issues – winning back people’s faith in the constitutional process – economic issues – raising real living standards – and social issues.

Fifthly, the growing geopolitical competition in Central Asia may also have a destabilising impact. The U.S. military presence, attempts by Russia to reassert its influence, and the fears of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China that any unrest could destabilise the region, will all affect the internal situation in Kyrgyzstan. States with interests there can either use the political situation to try and improve their own positions at the expense of others, or can cooperate with the aim of promoting stability in the country.

These five factors will decide whether Kyrgyzstan’s political crisis is resolved through constitutional means, or develops into a wider crisis, possibly degenerating into conflict. Since the implications of a conflict in Kyrgyzstan are significant for the region as a whole, the interests of the international community are in attempting to prevent any escalation of the crisis.

The main effort in resolving the crisis must be made by Kyrgyzstan’s political forces. A genuine effort on the part of the elite to reach a ‘new deal’ of power-sharing, in politics and in business, would limit the potential for further unrest and ensure that future political struggles remain within the constitutional framework. But the international community can play a significant role in promoting and supporting such a deal, and making clear to the leadership that future political, economic and strategic relationships depend on real measures being taken.

The international community should become actively engaged in pushing political reform. Without it, economic assistance will at best be wasted, and at worst contribute to the increasing divide between the rulers and the ruled. A common platform among Western states and international organisations should push for real implementation of policies that are currently just government rhetoric. Continued inaction on the part of the leadership poses a serious threat to stability in the country and to the region as a whole.

Osh/Brussels, 20 August 2002

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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