The Oil and the Glory

In Kyrgyzstan, a vote against strongman politics

In Kyrgyzstan, a vote against strongman politics

Add another country to the short list of former Soviet nations holding free and fair elections. Yesterday, Kyrgyzstan held a parliamentary election, and by all accounts there was little if any rigging from the top. (The neighbors in the same club are Georgia and Ukraine, in addition to the Baltics. Russia held a local election yesterday, too, with the traditional results: The pro-Putin bloc won.)

But it’s also a perhaps more important first for the former Soviet space: Kyrgyzstan jettisoned the strong president model, and shifted to a parliamentary system. The United States may lose its military base, but, if successful, Kyrgyzstan will demonstrate that autocracy isn’t the only workable ruling model in the region.

Russia and Kyrgyzstan’s other neighbors hate what Kyrgyzstan is doing. Last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called it a “catastrophe both for Russia and Kyrgyzstan.”

Much gloom preceded the election, including forecasts of coming violence once the winners get seated. One certainty is a bit of chaos. Five parties crossed the voting threshold and will have seats; no one is anywhere near a majority. In a statement, President Barack Obama noted the June bloodshed in southern Kyrgyzstan, in which Kyrgyz mobs massacred Uzbeks, and said, “Given recent tragic events in Kyrgyzstan, there are serious challenges ahead.”

I exchanged emails with Alexander Cooley, a Central Asia specialist who teaches at Barnard College. He is worried about the composition of the coming ruling coalition. Pro-government parties loyal to President Roza Otunbayeva cleared the threshold, but not with any particular distinction, while Ata-Zhurt, a virulently Kyrgyz nationalist party won the greatest single bloc of seats, 9 percent of the vote. Two pro-Moscow parties — Ar-Namys and Respublika — are also in the winners’ circle; both of them oppose Manas, the local U.S. air base that serves troops in Afghanistan. Pro-western Ata-Meken received the least number of votes among the winners.

Erica Marat, a Kyrgyzstan expert at Johns Hopkins University, provided me with this early summing up of the results:

Worst-case scenario: Back to a presidential system with a strong (corrupt) leader. Best-case scenario: Balanced parliament, but that lacks unity.