Can Kyrgyzstan Become a Democracy in Russia’s Backyard?
While no one was looking, this Central Asian country just adopted the most liberal constitution in the region. Will Moscow let it live?
In recent weeks, Kyrgyzstan has offered little in the way of good news. Once regarded as the best hope for democracy in Central Asia, the country’s government was thrown out in a coup last April. Just months later, the southern part of the country descended into communal warfare, sending tens of thousands fleeing, many across the border into Uzbekistan. Seventy-five thousand people are still displaced. Amid the violence, Kyrgyzstan’s hopes for democracy seemed like a distant fantasy.
And then something unexpected happened: The interim government followed through on its promise to hold a referendum on a new, more democratic constitution. And when voters approved the document at the end of June, Kyrgyzstan became the strongest parliamentary system in Central Asia, at least on paper. Not only that, but in limiting the power of its future head of state, the country achieved something unheard of in its authoritarian region. The turmoil of recent months has produced a new glimmer of hope for a democratic Kyrgyzstan.
The new Kyrgyz power-sharing constitution is, of course, an experiment — but it’s crafted in a cunning way that gives it a shot at survival. Instead of adopting an existing Western constitution and slapping Kyrgyz names on it, the framers tried to tailor Western examples to fit their own political realities — beginning with the need to create more than one powerful national leader. In the next government, there will be two top posts: a president and prime minister. Just how the two divide their powers will need to be worked out in practice. But the chairman of the constitutional council, Omurbek Tekebaev, notes that an initial framework is in place. "The president can veto, or refuse to sign any laws, except for laws related to budget and fiscal policy," Tekebaev told me. It’s a measure meant to prevent any future leader from ruling by decree, as powerful men do everywhere else in Central Asia. If the parliament controls the purse strings, the logic goes, the president will have to be more restrained.
Just as it constrains the executive, the new constitution also tries to put a ceiling on how powerful any one party in parliament can become. Individual parties are limited to a maximum of 65 seats in the 120-seat chamber. That is more than enough for a simple majority, but it also means a party would likely have to form a coalition to rule effectively. Thomas Markert, secretary for the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which advised Bishkek on constitutional issues, thinks the plan may work, given Kyrgyzstan’s frustration with authoritarian rulers. (Since the country declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, it has had two autocratic presidents and two street revolutions to depose them.) "I would not have advised [them] to do it, but I can understand why it is being done," Markert said in an interview.
Of course, the true test for Kyrgyzstan’s new constitution is not how it is written but how it is applied. And a stark warning about what can go wrong is provided by Ukraine, another post-Soviet state where popular protest — the vaunted "Orange Revolution" — ushered in reformist leaders who proceeded to fight over their newfound power. Some blame Ukraine’s troubles on a provision similarly to that trumpeted in the Kyrgyz document, creating, in a sense, two people with authority over the executive branch. If Kyrgyzstan wants to avoid the same, it might consider a more explicit division of tasks, as Western states with both president and prime minister have done.
There are, of course, those who write off the power of documents all together, lamenting a deeper, harder-to-fix problem: a post-Soviet culture of political expediency that still has deep roots across Central Asia. This mentality, left deeply ingrained by a communist system that offered no financial rewards to those who played fair, has empowered authoritarians for the last two decades. Those men have in turn bent the laws and circumvented (or at least influenced) the courts, reducing any constitution or bill of rights to an abstraction.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, upon reviewing the new Kyrgyz constitution, seemed to think it was doomed to failure in such a climate: "Will this not lead to a chain of eternal problems — to reshuffles in parliament, to the rise to power of this or that political group, to authority being passed constantly from one hand to another, and, finally will this not help those with extremist views to power?" Medvedev’s prediction of failure is no simple outside observation; Moscow still seeks to influence its former Soviet sphere and there are fears in the Kremlin that a new, democratic Kyrgyzstan could undermine the old order with which Russia is acquainted.
And yes, maybe things will go badly. Or maybe Kyrgyzstan will prove Medvedev wrong, showing that democracy can indeed flourish in the unlikeliest of places.