The recent unrest in the Middle East and the Arab world has obviously meant the issue of transitioning from an authoritarian regime to democracy isat the forefront of many people’s minds. How is all this being seen in Kyrgyzstan?
In Kyrgyzstan, the attitude towards what happened in Tunisia and Egypt is something like ‘been there, done that.’ A lot of Kyrgyzstanis who see what’s going on in the Middle East today feel that their country has already experienced violent regime change and popular unrest under an authoritarian regime. Also, a lot of Kyrgyzstanis understand that toppling a corrupt regime is actually one of the easier parts of a revolution—what comes after is much more difficult.
There have been two violent regime changes in recent Kyrgyz history: one in 2005 and one in 2010. The one in 2005 didn’t turn out as many hoped: Kyrgyzstan didn’t become a democratic state, and instead actually became a very authoritarian state. This led to further regime change in 2010.
Today, a lot Kyrgyzstanis are very sceptical about what will happen in the near future because they already know how politicians who come to power on the basis of pledges to fight corruption and build democracy can actually become authoritarian themselves.
Kyrgyzstan captured global media attention last year after protests resulted in the toppling ofPresident Kurmanbek Bakiyev. What’s been going on since then?
Kyrgyzstan has seen some really dramatic changes in the past year. Last April, an authoritarian and corrupt regime was ousted following mass demonstrations. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has adopted a new Constitution, has changed the political system from a presidential one to a parliamentary one, and has also conducted free and fair parliamentary elections—for the first time in Central Asia’s history, parliamentary elections actually reflected the people’s will.
However, Kyrgyzstan also saw some very ugly ethnic violence in 2010, when the Kyrgyz majority attacked the Uzbek minority in the south. The process of reconciliation has been difficult and very slow. We still don’t have an official indication of how the conflict began, how it proceeded, and who should be held accountable. Nevertheless, the parliamentary government now has much greater power compared with a year ago, and has been learning to function in this new environment, coming up with coalitions and working in a more transparent system.
So the past year has been very difficult for Kyrgyzstan. But this year is going to be particularly important, because presidential elections will be held. This means that depending on who runs for president, we’ll either see continuity of political reform and the strengthening of the parliament, or we’ll see the opposite, with the president trying to claw back power.
You mentioned the ethnic tension last year that erupted into violence. Has the new governmentdone anything to try to resolve those tensions?
The new government proved to be extremely inefficient in predicting and preventing violence. Of course, government officials didn’t admit responsibility—they argued that they had to act under extreme conditions, and that the violence was caused by the previous regime’s supporters to undermine the new regime. So we don’t really see much effort on the part of the government now to try to reconcile the ethnic majority and minority groups in Kyrgyzstan. In fact, we don’t even see the president or parliament or government officials openly speaking about the importance of inter-ethnic peace. This means that, unfortunately, there just doesn’t seem to be any comprehensive reconciliation policy being adopted by the government.
Looking at the wider region, are there any signs of potential unrest along the lines of what we’ve been seeing in the Middle East?
I think Central Asian leaders are looking at what’s going on in the Middle East and are very concerned. There’s speculation that Kazakhstan’s president decided to organise presidential elections, as opposed to just conducting a referendum, after watching the situation in the Middle East and deciding it was best to allow the people to let off some steam.
There’s also speculation that the kind of unrest we’ve seen recently could happen in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, where there are similar factors at work—about 50 percent of the population there is under 30, while the current leaders have been in power for two decades. However, I think it’s a little too early to make too many comparisons. What happens in Central Asia will anyway be different from what we’re seeing in the Middle East right now—it will be more locally driven, but might not happen soon.
How is China’s ‘go-out’ policy of foreign investment, coupled with the development of its Western provinces, likely to affect Kyrgyzstan’s economy?
China is playing an extensive economic role in Kyrgyzstan and in the rest of Central Asia right now. China’s influence in the region has really quadrupled in the past decade. No one expected that China would play such a significant role in the region, and I think development will, at this point, be more driven by state collaboration—president-to-president and between top officials for example—in an effort to come up with major infrastructure projects that China can finance. And I expect Central Asia will also see more and more Chinese workers coming to work here.
Kyrgyzstan is in the unique position of playing host to both US and Russian air bases. But is the Kyrgyzstan parliament’s recent decision to name a mountain after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a sign of a swing towards closer ties with Russia?
I don’t think that a gesture of thankfulness to Putin for supporting Kyrgyzstan with financial aid signifies a real swing in relations towards Russia. Current politicians do, of course, perceive Russia to be one of the major strategic partners for Kyrgyzstan. However, it seems like both the parliament and the government also have a more balanced approach with other international powers—including the United States and China—because they realise that Kyrgyzstan will only be able to function if all the major donors and partners support it with financial and humanitarian aid.
The US base in Kyrgyzstan, to be frank, is also a very important source of finance. With a lot of the country’s corruption eliminated, it will now hopefully provide a very important portion of Kyrgyzstan’s state budget. Russia has always been there: it’s Kyrgyzstan’s largest and most important neighbour, and between about 600,000 and 1 million Kyrgyzstanis work in Russia as legal migrants sending remittances back home. So I think that the current leadership will try to lead a very balanced foreign policy that will include all important international actors.
Is Kyrgyzstan’s large Uyghur minority, estimated to be up to 250,000, a political concern for China,given Xinjiang Province’s long history of unrest and growing nationalism among ethnic Uyghurs?
The previous regime’s arrangement was that they would restrain the Uyghur minority from mobilising politically and speaking out against the Chinese government. This was part of an informal pact with the Chinese government so that in both China and Kyrgyzstan the Uyghur minority would be kept under control. Whether it will be the case in the future, well I think that’s highly likely. However, there are various ethnic sentiments floating around, mostly claiming that the ethnic majority—the Kyrgyz—should enjoy a special privileged status.
Erica Marat is a Central Asia analyst and an adjunct professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. This interview was conducted by Tom Pember-Finn.