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Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
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.

A man walks past a monument depicting Kyrgyz folklore hero Manas in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, in March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election

While Kyrgyzstan’s 15 October elections are a rare milestone for Central Asian democracy, the campaign is exposing dangerous fault lines. In the largest city of Osh, the new president will have to face down robust local power brokers, defuse Uzbek-Kyrgyz tensions and re-introduce the rule of law.

Kyrgyzstan’s forthcoming presidential elections on 15 October are a milestone for Central Asia: for the first time, a president from the region will voluntarily stand down at the end of his constitutionally mandated term. Kyrgyzstan has come far in the seven years since the tumultuous events of 2010, when President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in Bishkek and ethnic violence engulfed the southern city of Osh, killing over 400 people, mostly Uzbeks.

The presidential race is tight and unpredictable. Sooronbai Jeenbekov, from the southern province of Jalalabad and representing the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) party, faces Omurbek Babanov, a wealthy independent candidate from the northern province of Talas, still closely aligned with the party he formed in 2010, Respublika. But whoever wins the ballot will face renewed north-south regional tensions as well as rivalries within Osh, where the memory of violence is still fresh and small arms abound.

Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

The central government in Bishkek has long struggled to exert its authority over Osh, a city of 276,000 people situated over the mountains in the Ferghana Valley and lying along a route used by traffickers of Afghan opium. More than 43 per cent of the local population are ethnic Uzbeks. In a speech in the city on 28 September, Babanov inadvertently showed how high tensions are. After urging Uzbeks to protect their rights, he swiftly was denounced by leading government figures for inciting ethnic hatred and supporting Uzbek separatism. Osh appears calm, but complaints of local government corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness suggest root causes of the 2010 bloodshed remain unaddressed.

Once controlled by the now-exiled former Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, a virulent Kyrgyz nationalist allied with former President Bakiyev, Osh has been transformed from the fiefdom of one powerful man into the playground of a handful. Today’s power brokers in the city, all ethnic Kyrgyz, owe little to Bishkek. After the new Kyrgyz government sacked Myrzakmatov in 2013, elections to replace him narrowly were won by Osh’s current mayor, Aitmamat Kadyrbayev. Since then, Bishkek has missed opportunities to rebuild its influence in the city or forge better relationships with the local government.

Kadyrbayev himself was accused of participating in confrontations against the central government that preceded the ethnic clashes in Osh. He was convicted for his alleged role in seizing the Osh regional administration building in 2010, but the judgment was overturned two years later and he was acquitted. Kadyrbayev maintained that the charges were politically motivated. He is now loosely aligned with two other powerful southern actors: Rayimbek Matrayimov, the country’s deputy customs chief, widely regarded as one of the richest people in Kyrgyzstan; and Suyun Omurzakov, the former head of the Osh city and regional police forces, who is now deputy minister of the interior. Although both men now hold national positions, they still exert significant influence in the city.

Reports in the polarised Kyrgyz-language press tend to portray Omurzakov as either a champion of law and order, or associate him with allegations that Osh authorities have allowed a local sports club to train thuggish youth, serving as another tool for power brokers. The club’s manager, Omurzakov’s brother Uluk, denies the accusations made against the club and its members.

Mayor Kadyrbayev meanwhile, has aroused irritation in Osh with high-handed behaviour reminiscent of his predecessor, Myrzakmatov. Notwithstanding Myrzakmatov’s own abuses, under his rule the Osh city administration was a unified force that was relatively accessible to residents and responded to their requests in a reasonably timely manner. This is no longer the case. Broadly speaking, the new Osh elite appears less interested in providing services and garnering popular support than in squeezing the city for its material enrichment.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky.

Any attempt by the victor in the 15 October election to reassert central power over Osh will be risky, as the city's local power brokers could react by mobilising their respective constituencies, banking on popular dissatisfaction that could spill over into violent confrontation. Outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev was a relatively skillful manager of the competing interests of regional strongmen, even if he did not seek to rebuild Bishkek’s authority in Osh. Should Jeenbekov, believed to be hostile to Matrayimov and Kadyrbayev, be elected president, he could seek to remove these power brokers and replace them with his own southern allies. Babanov, lacking roots in the region, might attempt the same. A struggle over control of elite networks in a city still full of arms and latent ethnic tensions could spell disaster.

Yet doing nothing about growing tensions in Osh is not a good option either. However difficult the task, the next president will need to promote genuine reconciliation between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in the south. Rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law should top his agenda. Foreign donors, including Russia and China, should engage the Kyrgyz government on these issues even as they recognise that things will be slow to change and difficult to discuss.