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12 September 2011, Gateway House

Kyrgyzstan: The road to stability

Kyrgyzstan has remained politically unstable for the past few decades and many of its leaders have been ousted, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev being the most recent. What makes Kyrgyzstan this unusual place, with an ability to chase out its leaders when so many others in the world cannot succeed in doing so?

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On 7 April 2010, people’s power was on display in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, when former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev gave in to people’s wishes and resigned from office. Exasperated by continuing economic hardship and rampant corruption that also involved the President’s family, the Kyrgyz people reached the limit of their endurance in February 2011 when the government announced another hike in house tariff. Since then there have been protests, forcing the President to bow out. The first President of independent Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev, faced a similar fate and had to bow out in 2005, subsequently fleeing the country.

What makes Kyrgyzstan this unusual place, with an ability to chase out its leaders when so many others in the world cannot succeed in doing so? Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as the “island of Democracy” in Central Asia. The Kyrgyz outlook has been shaped to a large degree by an ingrained sense of equality.  The Kyrgyz flag depicts a rising sun with forty rays against a red background; it symbolizes the forty nomadic tribes that formed the Kyrgyz nation on the basis of equality. That nomadic psyche, of freedom and equality, has shaped the Kyrgyz outlook. It has also impacted politics. Consequently, there is neither a strong elite nor a strong single political party that can exercise a powerful influence over the Presidency.

It would be incorrect to say that there is no ‘core’ to Kyrgyzstan. Nation-building in Kyrgyzstan is slow, but is inching forward, despite the violent clashes of June 2010. In trying to assess the Kyrgyz system the following has to be kept in mind: First, Kyrgyzstan was never in its history exposed to Western liberal influence. It engaged with Russia during the Tsarist and Soviet period. Second, in the Central Asian social system of clans, regional groups have always played a decisive role; in the case of Kyrgyzstan it is the region that is strong, not the clan. Third, democracy in Kyrgyzstan was imposed from above, by the order of the government. It is not an evolutionary process, as in Western liberal societies. Therefore in Central Asia, including in Kyrgyzstan, socio-political and economic processes are different. They have to keep in mind local traditions and value systems, which means they are still struggling to find ways to build a nation-state. Lastly, Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states are still societies in transition which have yet to complete their transformation process to a liberal polity and market-oriented economy. Nation-building is part of the process under way.

In my view, any step, however small it may be, is to be positively evaluated. The elections may be flawed but the very fact that the election process has been initiated and that it is taking place under the new Constitution has to be commended. In this context the Indian experience in managing its vast diversity and electoral process are aspects from which Kyrgyzstan is trying to benefit.

The current President, Rosa Otunbaeva, became the President of the interim Government that succeeded Bakyiev. Otunbaeva is the first woman President, not only in Kyrgyzstan, but in all of Central Asia. But the political turmoil did not subside with Otunbaeva’s assuming leadership. Kyrgyzstan is a hotbed of ethnic conflict, the result of an unkind geography. Nestling among the mighty Tien Shen Mountains, the mountain ranges cut through the centre of the country creating two distinct regions; the northern and southern.

The ethnic divide and other differences between the two accentuate the schism. The northern part is dominated by Kyrgyzstan, while the southern part has Uzbeks; the perspectives of the two groups differ vastly. The Kyrgyz were primarily nomadic people, while the Uzbeks were settled. This difference is reflected in social attitudes; the Uzbeks are orthodox where as the Kyrgyz are not, though both the ethnic groups are Sunni Muslims. The Uzbeks are good traders – their habitats lie along the Silk Route and also form part of the fertile Fergana Valley where they are engaged in agricultural pursuits like cotton and fruit-growing. Consequently, business in the south is controlled by them.  To an extent their prosperity invited the ire of the Kyrgyz.

In June 2010, the country plunged into its worst ethnic clashes. Hundreds of innocent were killed and even more injured. Ousted President Bakyiev and his supporters in the south put up a stiff resistance that included violence against the northerners. Soon the North-South divide spilled over and became an ethnic one.  The Uzbeks, one of the ethnic groups, bore the brunt of this turmoil. Several hundred fled the country.

As though the violent clashes were not enough, there was considerable   dissonance in the cabinet of President Rosa Otunbaeva. This affected the effective functioning of the government for a quick handling the engulfing crisis. In the midst of this uncertainty the country voted for a Parliamentary form of   government, changing the entire system. Perhaps they felt that such a form would be more transparent and open.

In October, Kyrgyzstan will hold another Presidential election, but under the new constitutional order. There are an astonishing eighty candidates in the fray. Two issues are likely to be hotly debated: first, the plight of migrant workers in Kazakhstan and Russia; second, whether Kyrgyzstan should join the Customs Union formed by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Otunbaeva’s popularity is high due to her clean image. She has been able to keep the country united. Apprehensions about the possible break up of the country were being speculated, but Otunbaeva proved wrong. However, a clean image is not sufficient to run a stable government. The basic question for Kyrgyzstan is: can the new President provide stability and economic well being? In order to ensure stability at the political level, matching economic measures are necessary. The Kyrgyz economy is dependent on strategic reserves of gold, and the contracts for mining this vital asset are with Israel and China. It also earns revenue by way of rent from the U. S. for using the Manas air base for operations in Afghanistan. The Chinese have built road as well as rail connections that travel westward, from which Kyrgyzstan derives transit revenues. The country’s abundant hydel power potential needs to be harnessed; this requires investment. The ageing Russian-era agricultural machinery must be replaced with modern and innovative technology to increase productivity. Here, India can contribute in the development of small and medium industries and agriculture. India enjoys immense goodwill in all the five Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan. The switch to the Parliamentary form of government in Kyrgyzstan brings India and Kyrgyzstan closer together.  Perhaps the conclusion of the Presidential elections will see  political stability and a greater attention to the economy.

Nirmala Joshi is a former professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

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