Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects
Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 81 / Europe & Central Asia

Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects

Kyrgyzstan’s society has become more mature since independence but its government more authoritarian.

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Executive Summary

Kyrgyzstan's society has become more mature since independence but its government more authoritarian. Parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005 offer the chance of a democratic transfer of power that would be an example for all Central Asia. If President Askar Akaev leaves office and allows candidates to compete fairly, it will be an historic moment for Kyrgyzstan and its less democratic neighbours. If he tries to retain power, directly or indirectly, in fraudulent elections, serious unrest is possible, and 2005 could mark the end of the region's democratic experiment. Prospects are finely balanced, and the international community can help tip the balance.

Kyrgyzstan has had a troubled transition from Soviet rule, although it has retained a relatively liberal political environment, with some independent media and opposition representation in parliament. But previous elections have seen extensive malpractice, and the Akaev family has come to dominate both politics and the economy, making any transition difficult. The constitution does not allow Akaev to run again, and he has said publicly he will not. However, scenarios are under consideration for him to continue to dominate politics and ensure that members of his family and entourage retain economic privileges.

The regime's support is relatively weak. Beyond the family and a few powerful advisers, the loyalty of its power base is wavering. The business elite, which should be a natural ally for Akaev's economic policies, is irritated by the family's forays into business. Officials are increasingly critical of the way the political system works and rising corruption. A younger generation of officials supports the liberal policies Akaev rhetorically advocates but is increasingly dissatisfied with the reality of ineffective governance.

The opposition is divided and in many cases dependent on the regime, its members making implicit deals over parliamentary representation or other advantages. Society has changed significantly since the last elections in 2000 and in many places is highly politicised, but it is still not well-educated in the democratic process and often favours clan leaders over issue-based politicians. Local elections in October 2004, a first guide to the new electorate, could throw up some surprises for the regime.

President Akaev will attempt to ensure that loyal candidates win a majority of seats at parliamentary elections in February 2005. A reliable parliament would give him a base for further moves to assert control over the political process. These elections will be highly contested, with considerable pressure on opposition candidates. There is potential for conflict around controversial races if the government seeks to rig results.

The parliamentary elections will set the stage for a presidential election in October 2005. Their results will determine the balance of political forces and may suggest mechanisms for Akaev to retain or pass on political power. The regime has a number of options to avoid a presidential ballot it would likely lose -- for example, a referendum to prolong the president's term or change the political system to diminish the power of the presidency and promote the parliament as the key institution. But such moves could well provoke an angry reaction, not only from society at large, but also from many influential elite figures.

If presidential elections go ahead, there will be several opposition candidates, the most formidable of whom at present is a former premier, Kurmanbek Bakiev. Akaev may seek to promote his own reliable successor but while several names are mooted, the process would not be simple. Few possess the required combination of loyalty to the present regime and popularity, and there is a real possibility that a weak choice would split the elites.

Kyrgyzstan has a relatively lively civil society, and the participation of NGOs and independent media in the process is important. Although a new electoral code will make traditional mechanisms for fraud more difficult, many possibilities remain, and well-trained election observers are needed. Many officials have little training, particularly in the new electoral rules, and they face constant interference by state officials. Corruption has also heavily tainted past elections.

The international community has a key role to play, but so far its response has been slow and poorly coordinated. A UN election assistance plan has focused on narrow technical assistance to the Central Electoral Commission, but more support is needed for media, civil society and other non-government groups. It is vital to stress the deterioration in relations with governments and international financial institutions that would result if there is not a peaceful, democratic transfer of power. On the other hand, a successful transition should reasonably bring significantly more assistance, especially if a new leadership begins to tackle corruption, economic stagnation and poverty.

Osh/Brussels, 11 August 2004

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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