Western analysts are primed to see the negative in Central Asia, perhaps especially so in Kyrgyzstan, whose decision to break ranks with its neighbors and walk a seemingly more liberal path in 1991 raised expectations. Its dramatic political upheavals in 2005 and 2010 – the stuff of great storytelling for journalists and historians – only served to keep expectations high, if also somewhat complicating them. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that as the country approaches its 25th anniversary of independence, anxiety looms in everyone’s minds about the country’s future: will infrastructurally, institutionally and socioeconomically weak Kyrgyzstan survive as a functioning state, much less a democratic one?
Forecasting is a profoundly difficult art, all the more so if one gives undue analytical weight to idealism. A realpolitik approach for Central Asia would counter this by asking a dangerous but potentially illuminating question: what if Kyrgyzstan’s present vices are actually future virtues?
Reasons to Fear
“Treading water” is how the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently described the country, while this past April, the International Crisis Group was succinctly harsher, describing the post-revolutionary period as “tracing political circles.”
Kyrgyzstan is indeed struggling, especially where political corruption is concerned. In its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International persistently slams it as one of the world’s most corrupt countries – in 2015, Kyrgyzstan ranked 123rd out of 168 countries. In the International Republican Institute (IRI)’s most recent public opinion poll, published on May 9, 49 percent of respondents said that job creation and unemployment are the most important issues facing the country. There is a strong sense that corruption lies at the heart of these issues, as 94 percent of respondents identified it as either a “big” or “very big” issue.
This is to say nothing of Kyrgyzstan’s neighborhood. Central Asia is currently undergoing a recession the likes of which the region has not seen since the 1998 Rublezone crisis. Triple economic crises in China, Kazakhstan, and Russia – not to mention the ongoing Eurozone crisis, a key market for Central Asian resource exports – have, in the description of the International Monetary Fund, “battered” regional GDPs.
As though this were not enough, the Jamestown Foundation anticipates that water shortages are likely to reduce Central Asian GDPs by an additional 11 percent. Add to this looming leadership succession crises in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as a teetering regime in Tajikistan and growing violence in Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan seems like a bastion of stability.
As it turns out, there are many reasons to argue that Kyrgyzstan may prove to be the most stable state in the region at least for the medium-term, i.e., approximately the next 15 years – “stable” understood in the strictest sense of a lack of serious political upheaval. These reasons include the very two things that trouble Western analysts the most: the country’s two revolutions and a generation’s worth of corruption.
Kyrgyzstan’s history of political tumult is currently operating as a kind of psychological deterrent both for the grassroots and elite.
As is well-known, Kyrgyzstan is beset by patronage networks that mix regional, familial, business, and ideological interests with institutional, socioeconomic, and cultural power. Traditionally, analysts tend to divide these networks into two broad confederation-style structures that are primarily ethnically Kyrgyz in their makeup and are said to be more or less centered in the Chuy and Osh oblasts.
Whether this depiction is accurate is debatable. Kyrgyzstan’s elites are constantly forging and breaking alliances that transcend birthplace, blood, and belief, while rural migration from southern regions into Bishkek is rapidly altering perceptions and connections inside offices and on the streets.
Beyond debate is that the networks’ machinations have been crucial to Kyrgyzstan’s recent history. In 2005 and 2010, two large-scale alliances of elites tried to usurp power by mobilizing their populations in mass uprisings. Crucially, each time the elites failed, at great cost to their people and sometimes to themselves. All this fruitless violence seems to have produced several results.
Importantly, the revolutions dramatically resolved the leadership succession question for Kyrgyzstan. For context, the succession question currently haunts Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and one day it will come to Russia. It was solved in Turkmenistan in 2007 through cloak and dagger means; China has its own distinctive process; and Afghanistan is trying to push forward with a democratic system. However, in Kyrgyzstan it is now felt that there will probably never be a strong and centralizing single leader. The way forward must be through consensus politics.
Another important result is that there now exists a kind of “revolution fatigue” throughout Kyrgyzstani society. This fatigue not only entails a pessimism with respect to the utility of violence to effect systemic change, but also a fear that it could even provoke genuine state failure. These sentiments compel elites to sit down with each other at the negotiating table, as well as to rein in the grassroots. It also compels the grassroots to work with elites, whether they like them or not, trust them or not. For all involved, the alternative is just too frightening.
Meanwhile, over the last six years, the new mixed presidential-parliamentary system – designed by the elites and instituted by popular referendum in June 2010 – has transformed the pre-revolutionary system of informal and invisible patronage by channeling it into formal and visible structures, most notably political parties. Arguably, this reinforces decentralization, ensures that everyone “gets a piece of the pie,” and potentially links together the fates of elites and grassroots through the ballot box.
Finally, parliamentarism may also eventually have a salutary effect upon the quality of political discourse in Kyrgyzstan. Although the Jogorku Kengesh is notorious for theatrics, in time it could become the crucible in which a moderate ideological mainstream, akin to what exists in other mature democracies, is formed.
“A Controlled Burn”
It is natural to hope for greater democratization because of sincere commitment rather than because of fear and self-interest. However, such a hope may be unrealistic and arguably very mistaken with respect to how democracy historically took root in other societies.
That being said, corruption as a method of democratic development may seem more palatable when compared to what appears to be Bishkek’s other crucial strategic choice: ethnic discrimination.
According to anonymous sources in the executive branch of the Kyrgyzstani government, the current presidential administration of Almazbek Atambayev has responded to the June 2010 inter-ethnic clashes and the especially dangerous mixture of racism, organized crime, and patronage that it represents by seeking to manipulate Kyrgyz ethno-nationalism as a method to legitimize the post-revolutionary government. As one source put it, “Bishkek is trying to have a controlled burn in Osh.”
Unfortunately, the marginalization of minorities and democratization are not intrinsically antithetical, especially if one defines “rule of the people” primarily in majoritarian terms.
An historical comparison to the United States may be illuminating. As Edmund S. Morgan demonstrated in his landmark analysis of the origins of the American institution of slavery, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), in a perverse way marginalizing a minority-group can be good for stability – not forever, but for a while. That is because discrimination possesses the unfortunate power to consolidate a majority group by fostering a sense of superiority and satisfaction that the state is representing at least their cultural interests, if nothing else.
This does not mean that systemic discrimination is right or wise. Inevitably, any system built upon ostracization must either be reformed or endanger its continued existence, as the United States was compelled to learn during the 19th and 20th centuries. Kyrgyzstan is just not yet at that point. Following the June 2010 violence in Osh, much anecdotal evidence suggests that Uzbeks are for the moment more concerned with adapting to the terrible new reality than trying to ameliorate it.
Looking ahead, if Kyrgyzstan’s post-revolutionary political system consolidates, it is conceivable that Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities may eventually begin organizing for their rights. That would be because the existence of a strong parliament may build the kind of mature political and discursive landscape that has proven optimal for minority rights campaigns in other societies.
Will Kyrgyzstan Sit out the Great Game?
No nation is an island unto itself, not even Central Asia’s proverbial “island of democracy.” Geopolitical and security unpredictability abounds around Kyrgyzstan. If a storm truly is looming on the horizon, how can Bishkek possibly weather it?
Again, of all the Central Asian states, it turns out that Kyrgyzstan might be stronger than it seems.
For one, never underestimate the ancient human instinct to defend the homeland against outsiders, especially perceived “ancient enemies” like Uzbekistan. For another, Kyrgyzstan’s people have twice demonstrated a willingness to take matters into their own hands so long as leadership exists to mobilize them. Hence, if a serious regional conflict does erupt, ethnic Kyrgyz are likely to rally around their government and defend the country at great cost to themselves.
There is an old Kyrgyz proverb that says, “Tulgan jerdin topu-ragy altyn” — “The sand of one’s birthplace is worth gold.” The rallying cry of territorial nationalism could prove crucial for Kyrgyzstan’s survival, if not its territorial integrity (as neighboring Tashkent’s superior airpower and infantry bodes ill for Bishkek’s section of the Ferghana Valley), then at least its governmental continuity.
In the meantime, the Kyrgyzstani government is doing what it can to manage the many regional crises barrelling toward it – and clearly, what it can do is nearly nothing. These are things totally beyond its control. The most Bishkek can do is to try to maintain decent relations with major international and intergovernmental organizations, and when and if the time comes, try to convince them to come its aid.
Arguably, the post-revolutionary government is learning how to appeal to, appease and agree with the international community on a number of issues. An example of this could very well be the Kyrgyzstani Supreme Court’s recent decision to permit Uzbek human rights activist Azimjan Askarov to appeal his prison sentence.
In off-the-record conversations, many United States-based analysts lament that Kyrgyzstan has seemingly failed to pursue a multi-vector strategy with respect to the proverbial Great Game. They interpret recent moves to limit American influence, such as the closure of the Manas Air Transit Center, canceling the 1993 cooperation treaty, and joining the Eurasian Economic Union, as decisions that have thrown the country’s lot in entirely with Russia.
Of course, this viewpoint is understandable, but these analysts fail to see that Kyrgyzstan has been more or less recalibrating its relationships with all of the Great Game’s players, including Turkey and China, not just the United States and Russia.
At the same time that Kyrgyzstan has been limiting American influence, it has been seeking increased investment from the European Union and China. Bishkek recently defended its educational interests against Ankara when the latter demanded the closure of the Sebat schools, which are connected to the Islamic religious movement founded by Fethullah Gülen. There are also signs that Bishkek has been chastened by Moscow’s failures to fulfill many of the promises it made during the lead-up to Kyrgyzstan’s ascension to the Eurasian Economic Union.
All in all, the post-revolutionary government may be resolving upon a strategy not to play one large power against another. If this proves to be true, analysts should be honest with themselves: such a decision might very well prove to be far less dangerous for stability than playing the Great Game.
Potential Potholes in the Road Ahead
Nonetheless, it is true that Moscow is preeminent in the geopolitical landscape as seen from Bishkek. At least one reason for this being so is the continuing, if simmering threat of further inter-ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions. For a while now, there have been rumors of negotiations with Russia concerning the establishment of a new military base in Osh. Some say that these are not just rumors and point to an interesting December 2015 Pravda article as a sign.
As intriguing as a military base scenario may be, the real key factor in Bishkek’s relationship with Moscow is Kyrgyzstan’s labor migrants working in Russia. Simply put, there are many young men in Russia, where they are working hard, and not in Kyrgyzstan, where they would not be working and thus probably be becoming quite angry.
If the day ever comes when these young men calculate that it is better to stay home, Bishkek will be faced with a stark choice: either Kyrgyzstan’s economy must become large enough to accommodate them and lucrative enough to satisfy them – and it must do this rapidly – or the country could undergo a third revolution – and a revolution potentially beyond the control of the elites.
Indeed, the wisdom and foresight of Kyrgyzstan’s present leadership is highly dubious. Both Atambayev and members of parliament have proposed amending the constitution yet again, even though a moratorium agreed upon in 2010 stipulates that no changes can be made before 2020.
For Erica Marat, who in 2012 was probably the first analyst to propose that Kyrgyzstan’s post-revolutionary “inter-elite consensus”-based political system was actually a major step forward, the proposed amendments are nothing less than an attempt by Atambayev to roll back progress.
“The current constitution was designed with the conscious understanding that all political leaders in Kyrgyzstan are greedy and corrupt and therefore no one political actor can be entrusted with more power,” says Marat.
“Unfortunately, by seeking constitutional changes, Atambayev is demonstrating that he is indeed a greedy and corrupt politician who mistakenly thinks that he is somehow a better leader than his predecessors. He risks repeating mistakes made by both Akayev and Bakiyev when they sought to expand their influence by manipulating the constitution.”
Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty‘s long-time correspondent for Central Asia, is even concerned that the proposed amendments could foster chaos: “Although there are different opinions about the benefits and detriments to the proposed amendments to the constitution, their timing seems likely to provide a basis for future political infighting and possible wider social unrest.”
Pannier adds, “Some feel that President Atambayev wants to ensure his party [the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan] remains in power, if for no other reason than to guarantee Atambayev can go into retirement without worrying about any investigations or legal proceedings. That is not to say Atambayev is necessarily guilty of any illegal activities, but Kyrgyzstan’s history is full of examples of political figures who have been tried, and often enough convicted, on charges that dated back many years.”
If true, making changes to the constitution approximately one year before the presidential election may actually backfire, as in Pannier’s view, “it opens the door to later accusations of rigging or favoritism from government opponents.”
Kyrgyzstan 15 Years From Now
There is one more thing to consider in this realpolitik-inspired approach to Kyrgyzstan’s future prospects, and perhaps ironically, it is none other than idealism – not of Western analysts, but of Kyrgyzstan’s own citizens.
Even if it is true that Kyrgyzstan’s revolutions were engineered by the country’s elites, if the grassroots had been apathetic they would have been impossible to mobilize. Whatever the reasons – cultural, historical, systemic – Kyrgyzstan’s citizens, both the majority ethnic Kyrgyz and the many ethnic minorities, do appear unusually determined to be masters of their country’s destiny.
Interestingly, and probably importantly, 65 percent of the IRI poll’s respondents believe Kyrgyzstan is headed in the “right direction” despite its manifest political ills. As much as the country has lost its taste for revolution, it appears to have also lost its taste for authoritarianism.
“There has already been a strong resistance to the proposed changes,” observes Marat. “Atambayev and his loyalists are therefore doing their best to market their ideas. But they might not succeed.”
If democratic stability is ultimately, if counter-intuitively, understood as unpredictability – such as not being able to predict the outcome of elections, or the inability of any one special interest or ethnic group to utterly dominate a political system – then it is this “might not” that is the brightest sign for Kyrgyzstan’s future.
Christopher Schwartz is a journalist based in Kyrgyzstan. He also teaches journalism at the American University of Central Asia. Alisher Khamidov is a Bishkek-based analytical consultant for the World Bank. The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone.