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Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
The Domestic Challenge to Kyrgyzstan’s Milestone Election
A Kyrgyz opposition supporter waves the national flag near the main government building during an anti-government protest in Bishkek on 7 April 2010. AFP/ Vyacheslav Oseledko

Tracing Political Circles in Kyrgyzstan

As Kyrgyzstan prepares to mark the sixth anniversary of a bloody rebellion, there is a growing sense that the overthrow of two presidents has failed to revolutionise politics. Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy, but the system remains remarkably unchanged despite elections and upheaval. Those who can leverage their connections enjoy impunity, while many ordinary people live in poverty and lack access to justice.

The government’s failure to deliver adequate leadership, provide basic services to citizens and enforce the rule of law fuels religious radicalisation, ethnic tensions and lawlessness. The poor and politically disenfranchised are turning elsewhere for support. Underneath the political status quo, there are signs of agitation. Several opposition leaders were arrested in late March for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

The April 2010 revolution was supposed to represent a fresh start for Kyrgyzstan, despite its violent beginnings. A national day of protest called for 7 April exploded into a massive uprising, with some 89 protestors gunned down by security forces in central Bishkek. Opposition forces seized power after a chaotic day. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ultimately fled into exile in Belarus, just five years after Kyrgyzstan’s first President Askar Akayev fled to Moscow in the wake of popular protests.

The new interim government said it would deliver reform, accountability, and an end to the staggering corruption of the Bakiyev era. It said it would dismantle the schemes that concentrated political and economic power in the hands of a clannish few. It did not. Under any circumstances, this would be a massive undertaking, but President Almazbek Atambayev, elected to the post in October 2011, has not overseen a real effort to combat political or economic corruption. The spoils have simply been redistributed.

The parliamentary election in October 2015, though peaceful, was in many ways an auction: it is well reported that securing a place on a party list can cost politicians upwards of $500,000. Confidence in government suffers as a result. Politicians lack the initiative to tackle the difficult questions that still face the country such as the persistent north-south divide, ethnic tensions, a breakdown of social and physical infrastructure, increasing religious radicalisation and a chronic lack of economic opportunities. The parliament is semi-functional at best, and national unity is a brittle façade.

Russian influence is growing as the Kyrgyz government depends on financial handouts from Moscow and rests its national security interests with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Meanwhile, the economic downturn in Russia has resulted in a drop in remittances from migrant workers, leaving households across Kyrgyzstan strapped for cash.

The scars of 2010 have not healed.

Central Asia is a tough neighbourhood. Uncertainty in Afghanistan, increasing authoritarianism in Tajikistan and the possibility of a chaotic political succession in Uzbekistan pose serious threats to Kyrgyzstan’s stability. The state’s foreign policies are at best premised on short- to medium-term objectives and financial needs, not on long-term interests. Its relationship with its nearest neighbour, Uzbekistan, is deeply dysfunctional, with frequent border spats underscoring Kyrgyzstan’s inability to protect its frontiers in the face of the overwhelming might of the Uzbek military.

Bazar in Osh city in June 2011. A year earlier, hundreds of Uzbeks from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, were killed and their houses set on fire. To protect their belongings from destruction, Kyrgyz businesses wrote “Kyrgyz” on their shops in the bazar. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Kyrgyzstan’s domestic trajectory is perhaps the most troubling. While the state becomes increasingly impotent, it has allowed strident Kyrgyz nationalism to define what it means to be Kyrgyzstani. In June 2010, some 400 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, died during inter-ethnic violence in Osh. Those scars have not healed. Today, the Uzbek community has retreated from politics. The government blames ethnic Uzbeks for not doing more to assimilate.

Officials estimate that 70 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic extremists are ethnic Uzbeks, however the underlying ethnic tensions and drivers of religious radicalisation are largely ignored. Families troubled by youth radicalisation are reluctant to seek support for fear they will become targets of police extortion. Senior police officers acknowledge the problem, but say they are unable to prevent this. Public doubts grow when security forces shoot suspected “terrorists” under questionable circumstances, with little verifiable information provided by official statements.

The thinking in Bishkek seems to be that if you ignore a problem it will go away.

Against this backdrop, divergent ideas about national and religious identities are splintering what little agreement there was about the future of the country. Informal systems of justice and governance have supplanted the state. International aid is of limited value given the weaknesses of the structures it is designed to bolster. But the thinking in Bishkek seems to be that if you ignore a problem it will go away; the other tactic is to blame outsiders for the country’s challenges.

Kyrgyzstan remains deceptively calm if viewed from afar, but at the local level, there are familiar signs of discontent. Protests across the country are gathering pace with legitimate concerns over the socio-economic situation and the prospect of increased electricity tariffs. Opposition leaders are using these issues to fan anti-government sentiment.

White House, Bishkek, on 3 April 2016. Changing of the guard. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Kyrgyz politics can deliver sudden and violent change, as shown by the events of March 2005 and April and June 2010. Presidential elections scheduled for 2017 will test the cohesion of the state. Expectations are growing in the south that the next president should be from there.

According to such transactional thinking, power is to be negotiated among regional strongmen, not decided by the democratic will of the people. Even a smooth transition of power is unlikely to ensure reforms. Many members of the political elite survived the convulsions of 2005 and 2010 to emerge with different portfolios and their private businesses intact.

Kyrgyzstan should remain a conflict-prevention priority, as the risks of further upheaval and fresh inter-ethnic clashes have not truly diminished. In a region where most presidents have been enshrined as leaders for life, the Kyrgyz political environment is unique. However, the long-term stability and growth of the country depends on meaningful reconciliation in the south, promotion of a national identity that includes all ethnic minorities inside Kyrgyzstan, and a robust anti-corruption campaign. It will take strong leadership to reform a system of governance that, two upheavals later, remains fundamentally unchanged.

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.