- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
On April 7, 2010, thousands of people crowded the streets of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s small, mountainous, capital city and presided over the fall of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the leader of the country’s kleptocratic government. Clashes between protesters and security forces left 89 people dead that day, and Bakiyev fled the capital for exile in Belarus. A motley crew of opposition figures formed an interim government that pledged to end the corruption, violence, and despotism that has marked the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Five years later, democratic progress in Kyrgyzstan has been slow. As in the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution in 2005 that saw President Askar Akayev, Bakiyev’s predecessor, removed through popular protests, the new leadership has largely failed to deliver on promises to reduce corruption. The rickety interim government that tried to fill the vacuum after Bakiyev’s ouster passed a new constitution and moved the country to a mixed presidential-parliamentary system — an effort to prevent another leader from amassing too much power.
As the revolution marks its five-year anniversary, Kyrgyzstan’s transition toward a democratic system faces its biggest litmus test yet as the country’s politicians and parties prepare for elections in October amid economic uncertainty and interethnic tensions. “Unlike in the past, the current political system allows for real competition between politicians,” Erica Marat, a Central Asia expert and an assistant professor at the National Defense University, told Foreign Policy.
But Kyrgyzstan’s new constitution was not inspired by democratic idealism. It is deeply rooted in cold pragmatism. “The document was written on the assumption that all politicians are greedy and corrupt and that safeguards are needed to prevent any politician or party from concentrating too much power,” said Marat. “Kyrgyzstan has chosen democracy by default.”
Despite the meager progress of reforms, there is evidence that new safeguards brought in after the 2010 revolution are working. Since taking power in 2011, President Almazbek Atambayev, the first leader to be elected under the new constitution, has led a high-profile anti-corruption campaign. But Kyrgyz media and analysts have accused the president of targeting his opponents as a way to gain influence within parliament.
Still, Kyrgyzstan’s political system has so far avoided slipping back into the soft authoritarianism of the past. “Most of the people in government are not democrats in background or outlook. But Atambayev and his inner circle do not control the economy like previous presidents,” said Marat. “It might not seem like it, but that’s progress.”
After taking power in the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution that overthrew Kyrgyzstan’s previous kleptocratic president, Bakiyev quickly imitated his predecessor, placing his brothers, sons, and other relatives into high profile political and economic posts. Bakiyev’s family effectively ran all facets of the national economy — including the drug trade. Companies allegedly owned by Maxim Bakiyev, the president’s son, benefited from lucrative contracts supplying fuel to the U.S. Manas air base, which served as a hub for American personnel and equipment transiting to Afghanistan. Moreover, Bakiyev and his inner circle were also suspected of having close ties to Kyrgyz organized crime bosses and may even have used those connections to assassinate political rivals.
The cartoonish nepotism and corruption of the past appear to have faded, but Kyrgyzstan’s future remains uncertain. One open wound is the country’s tense ethnic relations between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. In the aftermath of the 2010 revolution, interethnic violence broke out in June between the two communities. The interim government was unable to coordinate a response, and four days of riots left 420 dead and over 80,000 displaced, according the United Nations. A 2010 report from Human Rights Watch documented major abuses by the ethnic Kyrgyz security forces during the violence and its aftermath, including extrajudicial killings, police torture, and the denial of due process.
“Nearly five years on, the abuses carried out in June 2010 have still not been addressed by the authorities,” Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told FP. Discrimination against the Uzbek community is still ongoing, according to activists. On March 27, the offices of Bir Duino, a human rights NGO known for providing legal assistance to ethnic Uzbeks, were raided by the GKNB, the country’s KGB successor.
A likely effort to intimidate ethnic Uzbek activists, the raid also comes at a time when the Kyrgyz parliament is considering a Russian-style “foreign agents” bill that would restrict the activities of civic organizations that accept foreign funding. (Bir Duino has received money from the Soros foundation.) Similarly, parliament is also set to decide on another Russian-inspired bill that would ban so-called “LGBT propaganda.”
“Kyrgyzstan has a strong civil society, but passing these bills would dramatically curtail the space for activism in the country,” said Rittmann.
But the biggest test for Kyrgyzstan’s young government could come later this year when the full effect of Russia’s economic downturn begins to take effect. Approximately 1 million Kyrgyz citizens work as migrant laborers in Russia, and total remittances to Kyrgyzstan equal 32 percent of the domestic economy. The weakened ruble and lower demand for labor in Russia are likely to reduce remittance flows back to Kyrgyzstan.
During the 2009 global financial crisis, remittances to Kyrgyzstan fell by 28 percent, according to World Bank data, and helped fuel popular anger at the Bakiyev regime, helping to spark the protests that sent Kyrgyzstan down the path of revolution five years ago. With similar storm clouds gathering once again, Kyrgyz politics could get ugly.
“Political parties are already targeting returned laborers as voters and want to tap into their anger for support. It could make nationalist and popular messages much more appealing, which would impede the pace of reforms,” Marat said.
As this fall’s elections draw nearer, Kyrgyzstan’s young political system will show whether reforms have taken hold or not. Five years ago, Kyrgyzstan’s leaders chose democracy by default. Time will tell if they do again.