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Kyrgyzstan’s referendum brings a flicker of hope

The new constitution which the Kyrgyz people voted in on 27 June 2010 seeks to break the presidential pattern of government. But the recent violent upheaval has left the government weak. America and Russia both need Kyrgyzstan to thrive as a country ruled neither by despotism nor fundamentalism. They will have to collaborate closely to bring this about
Scott Horton Alexey Semyonov Baktybek Abdrisaev
14 July 2010

On June 27, 2010 voters in Kyrgyzstan turned out in strong numbers to say “yes” to a new constitution.  Kyrgyz voters rejected the authoritarian “presidential” system of government that is dominant throughout the post-Soviet space—and which in most nations appears to entrench a system of dynastic succession – and adopted a new constitution. Power was shifted dramatically to the parliament—a prime minister and his government to be picked by a party or coalition that dominate parliament, as in Britain or Germany. The new constitution also encompasses a strong system of protections for the rights of political minorities.  

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   Kyrgyzstan's June referendum legitimized Roza Otunbayeva's position as president. From Ferghana.ru

At the same time, Kyrgyz voters legitimized the interim government headed by Roza Otunbayeva, a former diplomat, by approving her position as president—and providing that her term will end with the close of 2011.  This vote gave expression to a strongly felt dissatisfaction with the “presidential” system that had in the minds of most Kyrgyz meant sweeping abuse of power, the conversion of the civil service into a personal patronage system and corruption on a vast scale. Under the new constitution’s careful system of checks and balances, no head of state will serve more than a single term, and the parliamentary opposition is guaranteed critical positions within parliament’s oversight bodies as a key means of checking corruption.

The Central Elections Commission put the turnout for the referendum at about 70% nationwide, but only 55.7% in the populous province of Osh in the nation’s south that has been rocked by violence over the last two weeks. Perhaps 2,000 people perished and roughly 400,000 were displaced, many of them losing their homes and businesses.

In light of these traumatic events, the turnout numbers from Osh were solid and reflected faith and confidence in the future.  Although the violent events in Osh await a thorough investigation, the interim government has argued that the deposed dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was behind the efforts to ignite inter-ethnic violence in and around Osh, and they have released tapes of figures close to Bakiyev that appear to support their contentions. In any event, the evidence suggests very strongly that the pogroms in Osh were instigated by persons who wanted to derail the referendum, destabilize the interim government and provide a bloody case in favour of strongman rule in a nation which remains the region’s sole holdout for democracy. The vote reflects an especially strong rebuke to these dark forces.

But the position of the interim government remains weak and its control over the situation in the south shaky.  It has for this reason reached out to the international community for support and help. Now, as the stage is set for parliamentary elections that will usher in a new day for Kyrgyzstan, that assistance is badly needed, particularly from the United States and Russia, the two nations Kyrgyzstan has identified as security allies. It has given military bases to both of them.

Kyrgyzstan presents a unique opportunity to Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev. They have been working earnestly to “restart” U.S.-Russian relations. They have unwound tensions on a number of points, but Kyrgyzstan presents an opportunity for joint action. American and Russian interests in Kyrgyzstan overlap considerably. It is in the interests of both nations to have a stable, friendly nation that supports them in the battle with Islamic fundamentalism.  Both nations want to see a predominantly Muslim state that embraces principles of secular government and religious and political freedom for its peoples.

Kyrgyzstan is poised to demonstrate to the Central Asian peoples that a third way exists: not the corrupt, authoritarian model of their immediate post-Soviet neighbours, and not the brutal theocratic model of the Taliban and their wannabe imitators like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It aims to become a modern democracy, which empowers the people to change the government as they see fit, and which offers economic, political and religious freedom.  In this regard, the United States stands as a beacon for the Kyrgyz people—but Russia’s own blend of economic and political freedoms also presents an encouraging and more easily reached middle ground between the despotic Central Asian dictatorships that surround them and the ideal of liberty achieved in the west.

The Obama Administration has already increased assistance to Kyrgyzstan from $800,000 to $35 million, which includes support for the rough road Kyrgyzstan must yet travel to restore democracy. This is a good start, but American support must go beyond money.  America needs to challenge the Kyrgyz to fulfil the principles they have set down in their constitution—to be sure that the upcoming parliamentary elections are fully open, fair and free and that they lead to a genuine democratic renewal for the country. America also needs to lead by example in providing full transparency surrounding its shady dealings at the airbase at Manas.

America and Russia need to safeguard the rights and positions of the minorities too—Russians in the north, Uzbeks in the south.  The latter, in particular,  stand in grave risk of disenfranchisement due to the horrible violence that struck in and around Osh.  They need to appreciate that Kyrgyzstan is their country and know that their voice is vital to it.  Above all, America and Russia need to keep a watchful eye over the situation in Kyrgyzstan’s south and be prepared to move international organizations like OSCE or the United Nations to intervention if this is necessary to avert more bloodshed.  America, Russia and Kyrgyzstan have strong mutual interests that overshadow their much emphasised differences. By clearing the pathway to real democracy in Kyrgyzstan, they will be acting on those interests.


Baktybek Abdrisaev is distinguished visiting professor of history and political science at Utah Valley University, and served as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States and Canada from 1997 to 2005.

Scott Horton is an attorney and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and is a founding trustee of the American University in Central Asia.

Alexey Semyonov is Vice President of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation. 

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