Kyrgyzstan was once known for its Tulip Revolution, a name the followed the trend of color-coded revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. The ouster of the corrupt regime of President Askar Akayev in 2005 gave those Kyrgyz aspiring for a better future cause for hope, but expectations were quickly dampened. Akayev’s successor Kurmanbek Bakiyev suffered the same fate, with his removal from office in 2010.
The Kyrgyz Republic subsequently became the first ever parliamentarian state in Central Asia, normally a bastion of post-Soviet dictatorships. In this part of the world, presidents and their loyalists control politics, along with economic and financial assets. For Kyrgyzstan, the hope was that following two failed regimes in a decade, this novel rule by parliament and the peaceful transfer of power would break the ice of autocracy in Central Asia. Certainly the new leader of the republic—first as prime minister and then as fourth president—Almazbek Atambayev has spared no effort to convey his commitment to democracy.
Yet, like his predecessors, Atambayev has sought to extend his political power, strengthening control over lucrative businesses and persecuting his opponents. Overcoming the old authoritarian traditions has proven challenging. Today, factional infighting for power among the provincial clans and political regionalism continue to set the agenda for this small nation.
Mayoral elections in two major cities in Kyrgyzstan on January 15 have intensified the political divisions in the provinces, with evident hostility from the South toward the central authorities in Bishkek. Atambayev’s protégé stood as the only candidate for mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek. Suspect elections in the southern city of Osh, where incumbent Melis Myrzakmatov lost despite being the strong frontrunner, only reignited brewing anger at a president who was widely believed to have been involved in hijacking the popular vote. Myrzakmatov’s supporters took to the streets of the city the same day to condemn the outcome. According to local reports, up to ten thousand people attended a demonstration in Osh on January 15. The ousted mayor called for restraint at the protest, urging his electorate base to prepare to use civil disobedience to protest the government. In a country known for electoral fraud, the elections have kicked off another round of political confrontation between the clans. Kyrgyz political factions often mobilize ordinary citizens to undermine government, in what Scott Radnitz called “weapons of the wealthy.”
Indeed, the North-South political divide has only widened in the years since the overthrow of the Bakiyev regime. The fractured nature of the Kyrgyz political field was one of the subjects of Atambayev’s speech in December 2011, when the Kyrgyz leader pledged to bridge the differences. Yet the dubious outcome of the Osh elections suggested he has made little progress on that front.
Protests in Kyrgyzstan are commonplace, with 782 in 2013 alone, a staggering number for a tiny republic. But the most volatile part of the country remains the South, where large-scale ethnic conflict exploded in the summer of 2010. In contrast to the North, the poverty-stricken provinces of Osh, Jalal-Abad and Batken are highly dependent on the cross-border trade with neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. One of the biggest markets in Central Asia is the Kara-Suu bazaar located near the city of Osh, in the Ferghana Valley. According to an OSCE report from 2011, trade between these southern provinces and neighboring states including China plays a major role in the social and economic development of the volatile Ferghana Valley region. Nonetheless, Kyrgyz Ministry of Labor, Migration and Youth statistics for 2012 show that unemployment in Kyrgyzstan is highest in the South. The central authorities in Bishkek and Atambayev have played little role in the politics or social development of the region, where disregard for central government is widespread.
Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to blame the country’s struggles entirely on old Kyrgyz political traditions. The current political chaos is also an outcome of the Kyrgyz leadership’s policies. Atambayev is the most pro-Kremlin figure among Central Asia’s leaders today. At his personal initiative, Russia has monopolized the Kyrgyz Republic’s energy, defense and transportation industries. The entire national gas supply system (admittedly debt burdened) was sold to Russia’s giant Gazprom for $1 dollar. RusHydro took the lion’s share of the Kyrgyz hydro energy company, and Rosneft is in the process of acquiring more than fifty percent of Manas International Airport, which had been leased by the U.S. and NATO member states after 9/11. Atambayev took a step further when he extended the Russian military airbase presence, hoping to rearm Kyrgyzstan’s military with the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This appeared to be more an act of despair than a carefully defined strategy. Consequently, Kyrgyzstan failed to reform its judiciary system, where anti-corruption campaigns mired in constant controversy add to government dysfunction. The Kyrgyz Republic’s desperate economy has low export capacity, lacks foreign investment and depends on remittances from migrant labor working in Russia. With bleak economic prospects, Atambayev has accelerated Kyrgyzstan’s shift towards Russia to secure his own political future. This has left him walking a fine line between the sovereign interests of Kyrgyzstan and the neo-imperial policy of the Kremlin.
Ultimately, the Kyrgyz Republic’s transformation into a Russian client state and military bulwark is bad news for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Not surprisingly, Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has openly expressed his opposition to Kyrgyzstan’s joining the Customs Union, with its special privileges and concessions. The Uzbek president added that the unequal distribution of the water resources of Central Asia could spark conflict, specifically over Russian joint hydro energy projects planned in upstream states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Naturally, all these external grudges have engendered domestic discontent. What has taken place in the Ukraine may perhaps embolden factions of the Kyrgyz opposition to move against Atambayev and what they see as his excessively pro-Russia policy. However, given Moscow’s extensive historical influence in Kyrgyzstan and the large presence of Kyrgyz laborers in Russia, support for a shift away from Russia does not seem widespread. More likely, the next regime change in Kyrgyzstan will be the result of a factional split and regional divisions.
Baktybek Beshimov is visiting professor at The College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University and visiting scholar at The MIT Center for International Studies. Ryskeldi Satke is a freelance contributor with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Caucasus, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail rsatke at gmail.com.