Kyrgyz elections: the birth of democracy?

Recent parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan were declared free and fair, but Russia and its Central Asian neighbours feel threatened by Kyrgyz democracy. Will the country be able to juggle its relations with them and with China and USA? Baktybek Abdrisaev wonders if President Bakiyev’s dark legacy can be overcome.
Baktybek Abdrisaev
12 October 2010

On 7 April 2010 angry crowds stormed Kyrgyzstan’s seat of government, toppling the regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The kleptocratic government fought back, using lethal violence against the protestors. About one hundred people were killed. One of them was my nephew, Rustan. Yesterday his wife gave birth to his first son, Belek. The birth almost coincided with Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections, and it marked the end of another gestation period: the one that followed the revolution. Has a genuine democracy been born in Kyrgyzstan? We won’t know the answer to that question for some time, but how the course of democracy unfolds in Kyrgyzstan will mean a great deal to Belek and his generation.

Kyrgyzstan map

The initial signs are positive. There was no violence, in spite of some boisterous enthusiasm going into the polls. Accusations were raised about vote tampering, but, if anything, this points to the fact that the country now has a substantial number of well- organized, aggressive political parties. The first results already demonstrate a clear break with the past. Up to this point major elections always seemed to end in a ratification of the existing concentration of power in Bishkek, whatever it was. Given the general state of dismay that Kyrgyz have expressed about developments in their country over the past decade, there is every reason to be suspicious of those outcomes. But Sunday’s election produced no clear winners. Five parties have emerged as potential candidates to form a new government: one of them clearly linked to figures from the Bakiyev era, the others representing different flavours of opposition politics.

The Bakiyev era has now passed, but the question is whether its dark legacy can be overcome.  Bakiyev’s march to power began with a raid on the Jalal-Abad branch of the National Bank in the winter of 2005. State funds were taken to fuel Bakiyev’s efforts to co-opt the opposition to Akayev and to smooth his way into the presidency. It could serve as a metaphor for what followed. For five years, Bakiyev did a great deal of damage to Kyrgyzstan by running the country as a personal fiefdom. His cronies controlled the business community and only those loyal to him could hold office. There was a strong sense that the opportunities were there to be exploited for personal gain and for the benefit of the extended family or clan groups. The notion of public trust and service to the country became objects of ridicule.

"I was impressed by the political pluralism, the civic responsibility and the spirit of the people of this country. I have observed many elections in Central Asia over the years but this is the first election where I could not predict the outcome. This election reflected the will of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic," said Morten Høglund, appointed as Special Coordinator to lead the short-term OSCE observer mission and Head of the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

OSCE website

Bakiyev held himself up as a strong central leader—he claimed to have built up the authority and prestige of the presidency. But in fact he did just the opposite. The real measure of the strength of any government is the legitimacy it earns in the eyes of its people. By using his rule as a tool for the enrichment of himself and his small band of adherents, Bakiyev did more than any previous ruler to undermine the legitimacy and power of the Kyrgyz state. The lawlessness and violence that followed in the late spring and reached their apex in the horrendous violence in and around Osh in the first week of June were in a sense the foreseeable outcome of Bakiyev’s trashing of state institutions.

The fall of Bakiyev has also been a period of unprecedented and often worryingly crude nationalistic rhetoric in Kyrgyzstan. In part this is like the xenophobia we see in many countries when the economy falters and unemployment rises; minorities and foreigners make ripe targets. But in the case of Kyrgyzstan it is also because Bakiyev was seen as a president whose corrupt nature was easily exploited by foreign interests. Right or wrong, most Kyrgyz today are convinced that the deal that Bakiyev struck with the Americans for the base at Manas was used for his own enrichment and brought very little benefit to the Kyrgyz government. These suspicions are heightened today by the manic secrecy surrounding the ongoing operations of the American contractor. America’s refusal to transfer that business to the recently resurrected national oil company— though it deals regularly with national oil companies in other host countries—heightens suspicions about American intentions and constitutes an annoying display of no confidence by America in our nascent democracy. 

Now, however, Kyrgyzstan’s faith in democracy will be put to the test. Sceptics standing on the sideline include our neighbours in Central Asia, who clearly feel somewhat threatened by our willingness to embrace democracy. Alarmingly, they include Russia, which has wrongfully taken offence at our move from a Russian-style strong presidential system to something closer to the continental European model. But it’s a fact that, while this system has worked well for Russia, in Kyrgyzstan it’s been a disaster. In the coming weeks, heated campaign rhetoric must be put aside and the pragmatism of practical politics must come to the fore. A stable new government must be created from the competing parties, a government capable of ruling harmoniously with President Roza Otunbayeva, who will continue to control foreign and national security matters.

"The people of Kyrgyzstan have expressed their determination to turn a page in their history and to proceed towards a stable and effective democracy. The international community will take full account of this and expects the political parties to respect the results and form a stable government which can deliver a better future for Kyrgyzstan," said Katarína Neved'alová, Head of the delegation of the European Parliament.

This new government will have three prime tasks: 

  • to restore respect for the rule of law and for the Kyrgyz state, clamping down on the lawlessness and violence which have spread through the country, especially the south, and protecting the fundamental rights of all regardless of their ethnic origins. This means restoring the authority of the government in the nation’s south, which has effectively evolved into an autonomous region where the oppression of minorities is practised as a kind of political sport.
  • to build relations with the international community. Above all this will be juggling relations between the United States, Russia and China, and particularly managing the legitimate security interests of all three in a way that does no harm to Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty and independence. The biggest trick in this regard will be management of the issues surrounding Manas, viewed by many Kyrgyz as a cesspool of corrupt influence, in a way that allows the pursuit of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan without undermining Kyrgyz democracy.  But Kyrgyzstan also must build stable positive relations with its two much larger Central Asian neighbours, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  Both behave now as if democratic elections in Kyrgyzstan threaten them. They have no legitimate grounds for concern. The democracy bacillus, if it really does take hold in Kyrgyzstan, is not likely to spread like some wild contagion.
  •  to restart the nation’s economy by providing a sense of stability, putting an end to government meddling in business, attracting foreign investment to the country, and collecting taxes so that the government can meet its essential expenses.  In the end, the real test for democratic success in Kyrgyzstan is simple: will it provide a way for Belek and his generation to lead peaceful, healthy and prosperous lives?  Democracy will only be a success if it produces stability and an economy that allows smart, industrious citizens to grow wealthy. 

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