When People Power Boils Over
When People Power Boils Over
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

When People Power Boils Over

First Georgia, then Ukraine, now Kyrgyzstan? Like its former Soviet sisters, popular anger at fraudulent elections has provoked mass unrest in this remote Central Asian republic. But the danger is that public outrage may spiral out of control, leading not to a democratic revolution, but to chaos and possibly violent conflict. Rather than "rose" or "orange," this revolution risks being simply bloody.

The unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan follows recent parliamentary elections, full of the usual malpractice that accompanies all polls in the authoritarian states of the region. Some candidates were disqualified on dubious grounds; others suffered from clever trickery with voter lists. And many couldn't compete when government-picked candidates handed out cash bribes to voters. Popular anger at the government has now spilled onto the streets.

At first it was peaceful. A man on horseback rode around the ancient streets of Osh, the largest city in the south of the country, with a picture of President Askar Akayev on his back and the slogan "I'm for Akayev's resignation." But gradually things started slipping out of control. In another southern city, Jalalabad, protesters seized the regional administration building and occupied it for almost two weeks. The police seemed powerless to act. Similar seizures of government buildings in other towns followed, including Osh.

The government responded with an ill-planned police raid. Initially, security forces managed to get the protesters out of government buildings, but in response tens of thousands of protesters stormed the police station in Jalalabad, armed with petrol bombs, and burned it down. Security forces then went into rapid retreat. Protesters in Osh also took back control of government buildings, and they seized the airports in both Osh and Jalalabad.

Government officials and police disappeared. In much of the south of the country, there was effectively no government. Opposition protesters began to elect their own "peoples' councils," and Roza Otunbaeva, an opposition figure who formerly served as the country's ambassador to the United States and Britain, declared, "The people's power has been established." But at times it seemed that little more than a motley collection of protesters was in charge. Some of the younger ones were drunk and increasingly aggressive.

They have only one demand: the immediate resignation of President Akayev.

Mr. Akayev was once lauded by the West as a liberal reformer in an otherwise repressive neighborhood. He was feted by the international community, even as his rule at home became increasingly authoritarian. His main political opponent, Felix Kulov, is still in prison. The deaths of six peaceful demonstrators in police shootings in 2002 marked a further low point and sparked mass protests in the country's more volatile southern regions.

Massive corruption linked to his family became an irritant not just to the opposition, but also to many ordinary businessmen who were finding it harder and harder to break the family's control of the economy. Although the economy had picked up in recent years, for much of the population, particularly in the poorer southern regions, life is a constant struggle for survival. Unemployed young men form the backbone of the protesters.

Mr. Akayev is supposed to leave office this October, according to the constitution. But he seems to be looking for ways to somehow keep the family's grasp on power, both political and economic. The first step was to pack as many friends and relatives as possible into the parliament at elections in February. His son, Aidar, and daughter, Bermet, were both elected to the new body.

This increasing domination of business and politics by one family is a major part of the reason for this outbreak of popular anger. Although the Kyrgyz opposition is claiming some credit for the protests, in some cases the revolt seems to have been largely spontaneous. Although it is clear that the government is not in control in the south, most opposition leaders also seem bemused by this upsurge of revolt and not sure how to react.

The opposition has long been divided and still does not have a clear, unifying leader. Kurmanbek Bakiev, a former premier, has some support, but other regional leaders also have pretensions to the presidency. And regional divides make northerners wary of the ambitions of the south's political elite. In short, any political transition seems likely to be messy.

Without a strong opposition leadership, there is a dangerous possibility that the situation will spiral out of control. There are already concerns that criminal groups are getting involved in the protest movement. Southern Kyrgyzstan is a prime transit route for heroin from Afghanistan, and underground Islamist groups have long been active in the region.

The situation in Osh, where there is a history of interethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, could descend into violence unless quick steps are taken. If the government overreacts by using military force, it risks provoking armed opposition that could develop into serious civil conflict. If the country's leadership refuses to compromise, existing historical and cultural divides between the north and south could become the fault line of an armed conflict.

Other regional powers, particularly neighboring Uzbekistan, will be looking on with concern that popular unrest in Kyrgyzstan might encourage their own oppositions. The region's dictators will be putting pressure on Bishkek to crack down hard on the protests. Such pressure needs to be resisted.

In the past, the international community has been too tolerant of the government's creeping authoritarianism. Indeed, in early March, the Paris Club of international creditor states was happy to write off part of Kyrgyzstan's foreign debt, something immediately seized on by President Akayev as a sign of continued international support.

Now, the international community needs to get involved to ensure that the situation does not descend into chaos. But this needs to be done carefully. Too unilateral a political intervention -- by the U.S., for example -- will merely spark more geopolitical rivalry in the region. Russia has some influence with Mr. Akayev, but Moscow is keen not to see a repeat of its humiliation in Ukraine. So getting Russia on board for any negotiations will be important but extremely difficult given Moscow's sensitivity to any political change in its backyard.

The government in Bishkek needs to be persuaded that any military response will only make the situation worse, and could provoke more violent unrest. Instead, a political process that includes President Akayev's leaving office peacefully needs to be instigated. International organizations such as the OSCE should be involved in negotiating a peaceful political transition, including free and fair presidential elections and the establishment an all-inclusive political process that would ensure political calm in the interim.

Kyrgyzstan may be a remote country of which most in the West know little, but events there could have very dangerous long-term consequences for the whole troubled region. A peaceful transition of leadership would, however, be a first for Central Asia, so a little investment by the international community into mediating Kyrgyzstan's crisis could deliver long-term, precedent-setting benefits.

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.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.