All Eyes on Kyrgyzstan to See If Democracy Improves or Implodes

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As voters in Kyrgyzstan go to the polls in parliamentary elections Oct. 10, many will be watching intently for a sign of where this unstable yet strategic Central Asian nation is headed.

Kyrgyzstan
CREDIT: UN PHOTO / EPA
Uzbek women refugees struggle to cope after violent clashes between the Uzbek minority and Kyrgyz majority erupted in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, this past summer. Tensions remain high in the ethnically mixed south ahead of a nationwide parliamentary election scheduled for Oct. 10. 

Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases and is a key link in energy trade and narco-trafficking routes. The country is also perpetually hobbled by ethnic strife, endemic corruption and streaks of authoritarianism. This past year alone, Kyrgyzstan has experienced bouts of upheaval that have all but wiped away hopeful memories of the so-called "Tulip Revolution" five years ago.

In April, a violent uprising toppled the autocratic regime of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, although his presence lingers in the bitterly divided nation. That bitterness came to a boil this summer when inter-communal violence erupted in Kyrgyzstan's ethnically mixed south between minority Uzbeks and the majority Kyrgyz, killing at least 400 people — and possibly many more — while displacing tens of thousands.

When the ethnic fighting broke out in July, Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president, publicly requested that Russia send a peacekeeping force to help quell the violence. Interestingly though, despite Moscow's penchant for inserting itself into the affairs of its former Soviet-bloc neighbors (most notably Georgia), Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declined, saying his country would not become involved in "an internal conflict."

Analysts say Russia sensed it might get entangled in prolonged ethnic bloodshed, and it probably wanted to assuage the nervousness of neighboring Uzbekistan, which has long expressed wariness over a permanent Russian military presence on its borders. It was also feared that Uzbekistan, which has a tense relationship with Kyrgyzstan, might intervene itself on behalf of its ethnic brethren who inhabit the south, although that never came to pass.

Interestingly, despite Kyrgyzstan's strategic importance, neither Russia nor the United States have directly intervened in the recent turbulence, keeping a close eye to protect their respective interests in the country but for the most part letting Kyrgyzstan's drama unfold on its own.

It's yet another sign of just how complex the interplay is in the Caucasus, where national, regional and international dynamics are never clear-cut (also see "Democratic Luster Fades From 'Color Revolutions'" in the May 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat). So despite the fact that Moscow and Washington continually vie for influence in critical Central Asian states, both powers have shown little appetite to get sucked into messy political battles.

In fact, Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing recently in Foreign Policy, largely dismisses the widespread notion that the region is a "great chessboard" where big powers jockey for control of strategic states. "In actual fact, however the geopolitical weather changes, the locals always manage to manipulate the outside powers at least as much as the other way round," de Waal pointed out, arguing that although poor, the people of the Caucasus "are strong enough to withstand fading into their bigger neighbors."

Moreover, the biggest neighbor, Russia, is not always able or even inclined to exert its influence. "Today the Caucasus is a neighborhood where Russia is one of several international players and where economic, not military, tools are the ones that matter," de Waal wrote, noting that "Moscow remains a prickly and unpredictable beast certainly, but not an omnipotent one."

Meanwhile, he argues that the United States and Western powers would better serve the region by increasing trade and investment, rather than obsessing over its potential as a new energy corridor for the West to blunt Russian influence.

"In the 21st century the Caucasus is still the Caucasus, in all its complexity and variety — not an assimilated province of Russia, Turkey, or Iran," he concludes.

And perhaps there is no better example of that complexity and variety than Kyrgyzstan — plagued by longstanding ethnic hostilities, rampant organized crime and drug trafficking, and a lingering post-Soviet culture of corruption and nepotism. At the same time, however, the country has made significant political progress since the July rioting — notably the passage of a constitutional referendum that will set up a strong parliamentary democracy while limiting the power of future presidents.

The constitution could be a game-changer in the region, although it could just as easily be another failed attempt at democracy. "Of course, the true test for Kyrgyzstan's new constitution is not how it is written but how it is applied," Charles Recknagel of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty wrote in Foreign Policy. "And a stark warning about what can go wrong is provided by Ukraine, another post-Soviet state where popular protest — the vaunted 'Orange Revolution' — ushered in reformist leaders who proceeded to fight over their newfound power."

To that end, Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador in Washington, has struggled to exert her authority as interim president over the country's deeply divided south, where nationalist sentiment remains high among supporters of the deposed president, Bakiyev. In August, for instance, the mayor of Osh defied an order from the central government in Bishkek to give up his post. Instead, protesters beat up the government minister sent in to calm the crowd.

Otunbayeva has warned that if ethnic tensions flare again she would cancel the upcoming election. Saying she was "concerned about the intentions and behavior of individual parties," Otunbayeva told a political forum in Bishkek that "if it is a question of the integrity and unity of the country, we will introduce a state of emergency and the elections can be stopped."

Yet even if the vote goes ahead, it will be a confusing political picture: Some 30 parties are officially registered to participate, although that number still only represents a fifth of Kyrgyzstan's registered political parties. There are myriad new rules to qualify as well, further complicating the picture. For example, no single party can win more than 65 seats, which means that the winners will have to form some sort of coalition to govern. The parliament will also then have to select a prime minister to run the country — a first — relegating the presidency to a largely ceremonial post.

On the bright side, despite the challenges ahead, many observers say there's a good chance the election will be free, fair and competitive — a rarity in the post-Soviet sphere — although which parties will emerge victorious is anyone's guess.

"Because these elections are different from previous elections and they take place in an environment of uncertainty, these political parties will really have to compete among themselves," Erica Marat, a Central Asia expert, recently told Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. "They really have to come up with a convincing political message, a convincing economic program, and this is something most political parties in Kyrgyzstan are not used to doing."

All of that means that Moscow — even though it declined to involve itself militarily in Kyrgyzstan — will be keeping close tabs on what this impoverished country of 5.3 million does. Indeed, as much as Russia doesn't want to become mired in the country's problems, it's rarely far from the backdrop of major developments in Kyrgyzstan.

Already, dozens of Kyrgyz politicians have shuttled between Moscow and Bishkek over the summer, and it appears Russia is hedging its bets among the various political factions.

Shortly after Bakiyev was ousted in April, Russia was the first country to recognize the new government. Just one year earlier though, the Bakiyev regime had been considered a loyal ally to Moscow, receiving $2.15 billion in aid from Russia in 2009 after announcing that it would close the U.S.-operated Manas air base — a vital transit center for American military operations in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan2
CREDIT: UN PHOTO / AFP
An Uzbek man despairs at the sight of his home, demolished in the wake of inter communal violence widely blamed on rogue elements within the Kyrgyz armed forces, although many Kyrgyz see the West as unduly sympathetic to the Uzbek minority, which makes up about 15 percent of the country.

But when Bakiyev signed a much more profitable extension of the base's lease with the United States a few months later, Russia began to pressure Kyrgyzstan economically. Investigative reports on Russian television began to surface accusing Bakiyev and his family of corruption. Then on April 1, Russia imposed a 100 percent export duty on all oil products to Kyrgyzstan. Five days later, the opposition held protests throughout the country decrying government corruption and rising living costs. Within two weeks, armed crowds supporting the opposition had taken over the capital and Bakiyev promptly resigned and fled.

It's no secret that Moscow has been working to strengthen the Collective Security Treaty Organization alliance in an attempt to monopolize Central Asia's security and stake a claim on the region's vast untapped energy reserves. Moscow hopes that it can fashion the seven-member alliance (comprised of itself, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan) into a regional security bloc able to compete with what it sees as NATO's creeping influence in its backyard.

According to the global intelligence company Stratfor, Russia already plans to upgrade radar facilities in Kyrgyzstan's neighbor, Tajikistan, while pushing to redeploy the Russian Border Guard Service there. In addition, it recently secured a long-term deal with Armenia that allows a Russian military base to operate in the country until 2044. Likewise, Moscow has established a military presence in the Georgian breakaway territory of Abkhazia.

The race to gain a foothold in the region isn't limited to Russia, however. The United States is planning to build a military training center in Tajikistan to train that country's armed forces. And last year, both the United States and Russia signed preliminary agreements to build additional military facilities in the south of Kyrgyzstan, although both those agreements collapsed with the demise of Bakiyev's regime (Kyrgyzstan may now in fact drastically raise the amount of rent Russia pays to use crucial military facilities there.)

A diplomat with the European Union monitoring the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Russia's continuing priority in Kyrgyzstan is to dislodge or minimize the American military presence there, and it has been lobbying the interim government hard on that front. But the diplomat cautioned that beyond the political ramifications of the upcoming vote, the greatest uncertainty for both Washington and Moscow lies in whether Kyrgyzstan will come out of the election more or less stable.

An ethnic tinderbox, Kyrgyzstan has had serious outbreaks of violence before, notably in the southern city of Osh in 1990, when hundreds were killed. This time around, it was widely reported that rogue elements within the Kyrgyz armed forces took part in this summer's mostly one-sided violence against the Uzbeks (who make up about 15 percent of the country's population, while the Kyrgyz account for nearly 70 percent), with speculation that the clashes had been in part sparked by Bakiyev's brother.

Since then, local politicians have further fanned the flames of ethnic hatred — namely Melisbek Myrzakmatov, the strongman mayor of Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, who's taken de facto control over the entire south and openly defied Bishkek. Myrzakmatov also opposes any Western interference, including the deployment of a police training force from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to help stabilize the south. As a result, Otunbayeva has already been forced to delay the OSCE deployment.

Indeed, with the government's inability to curb July's violence and Myrzakmatov's fiery nationalist rhetoric, hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks have fled the country, many to neighboring Uzbekistan, fearing the central government lacks the ability or will to protect them.

The International Crisis Group recently warned that the weakening of Kyrgyzstan's government could ignite further unrest while bolstering organized crime and drug trafficking. And although an international donors conference pledged $1.1 billion in reconstruction aid for the beleaguered government, Louise Arbour, head of the International Crisis Group, warns that the international community may be abandoning Kyrgyzstan.

"There is a hole in the map of Central Asia where Kyrgyzstan used to be. A country once considered an outpost of relative tolerance and democracy in a region of dysfunctional authoritarian regimes is today a deeply divided, practically failed, state," Arbour recently wrote in the Guardian. "Now caught between a humiliated provisional government on one hand and the renegade mayor on the other, southern Kyrgyzstan is a serious security risk in the region and beyond. As long as the south remains outside central control, the narcotics trade — already an important factor — could extend its power still further," she warned.

"Southern Kyrgyzstan could also become a home to Islamist guerrilla groups," she added, explaining that "another outburst is inevitable if the slide towards extreme nationalism continues. Next time, the victimized party could look to Islamist radicals for help."

The government's failure to regain control of the region has also made Otunbayeva appear weaker domestically and abroad — something that concerns both Russia and the United States.

As Andrew Higgins pointed out in the Washington Post, "Just a month after agreeing to extend for a year a $60 million lease on a U.S. air base here, Kyrgyzstan's generally pro-Western but increasingly impotent president, Roza Otunbayeva, has retreated from U.S.-backed security programs that Washington hoped would help fortify a fragile Kyrgyz government. These include a counterterrorism and anti-narcotics training center and an international police mission," he wrote in an Aug. 31 article. "The government's paralysis, most notable in its inability to control truculent Kyrgyz nationalists in the south of this former Soviet republic, does not pose any immediate physical threat to the U.S. air base, which is about 20 miles from the capital, Bishkek, in the north. But it does raise the prospect of prolonged and possibly bloody clashes ahead and strengthens forces inimical to Washington's interests in the region."

On that note, the United States and Russia are not the only superpowers with a vested interest in Kyrgyzstan. Over the last decade, China — which borders Kyrgyzstan to the south — has played an increasing economic role in Central Asia. According to the French Institute of International Relations, trade between Kyrgyzstan and China tripled from $602 million to $1.64 billion between 2004 and 2006. The report also found that in 2006, Chinese exports made up 94 percent of cross-border commerce.

However, despite a growing number of Chinese immigrants into Kyrgyzstan, Beijing has shown little overt desire to involve itself in the country's political turmoil — mirroring American and Russian caution.

Still, all three will be closely watching to see if the country devolves into chaos or defies the skeptics and ushers in a durable Central Asian democracy. But Arbour of the International Crisis Group hopes outside players do more than just wait and see what happens this month.

"The U.N. Security Council — in particular the U.S. and Russia — needs to undertake some active contingency planning so the international community will be in a position to respond in a timely and effective manner to any future violence and consequent refugee crises," she wrote. "It may seem over-optimistic to expect the international community to take such steps after its manifest lack of interest in becoming involved in Kyrgyzstan," she admitted. "The alternative, however, is to sit back and watch the continuing implosion of an entire country."

About the Author

Nicholas Clayton is a freelance writer in Tbilisi, Georgia. Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 25, 2014