A Kyrgyz Democratic Revolution?

11.12.2017

The Kyrgyz Republic, a small mountainous country in Central Asia, has been through multiple violent revolutions, in both 2005 and 2010.The post-Soviet nation has just been through another revolution, yet of a completely different kind; on October 15th, the nation held its first truly democratic elections, not just in the country’s history, but in that of the region’s. Central Asian states have been notoriously undemocratic since their independence 25 years ago. Since gaining autonomy from the Soviet Union in 1991 the nations have been ruled by strongmen and dictators; Kazakhstan has been ruled by President Nazarbayev, Tajikistan’s current President, Rahmon, has been in power since 1992, and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have only had two presidents since their original leader passed away. Kyrgyzstan has been an historical outlier amongst these autocracies, having had four acting presidents. Though this election signified the possibility of an unprecedented democratic progress, there is still doubt as to the degree in which this will truly effectuate positive change for the people of the Kyrgyz Republic.

The Kyrgyz election was particularly remarkable in that there was no guarantee as to which of the two major candidates would win: Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the southern candidate from the incumbent’s party went up against the younger northern businessman Omurbek Babanov. Jeenbekov won the election with 54% of the popular vote.  Both the nation and the region have had a history of rigged elections, and the implementation of more technologically advanced ballots (a biometric verification system) was a sign of significant democratic progress. Nevertheless, in spite of this progress, both major candidates were accused of buying votes. Yet, the most important question concerning electoral fraud is the degree to which the current, outgoing, administration influenced and swayed the vote. President Almazbek Atambayev had spent the latter end of his presidency suppressing dissent, while spurring endless support for Jeenbekov, his ally. He shut down a TV station that opposed him, sued popular media outlets for insulting him, and had sentenced political opponents to prison. His most prominent competitor, Omurbek Tekebaev, was sentenced to prison for 8 years on the charges of fraud, a move widely regarded as highly politically motivated. Furthermore, after President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan had met with Babanov in late September, Atambayev heavily criticised the Kazakh government for interfering in Kyrgyz affairs and labelled Babanov a foreign agent.

This raises the question of what would have happened had the election outcome had been different: President Atambayev’s attempts to maintain his, and his party’s, grip on power had been machiavellian, bordering on desperate. The accusations concerning Kazakhstan’s role in the election are a clear indicator of this; meeting with the head of state of the closest ally of the nation you wish to run is only reasonable. Yet, Atambayev’s visit was met with derision and tighter border control between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. One can speculate that had Jeenbekov lost due to a fair election, Atambayev could have attempted to keep his control of Kyrgyzstan through illegal means, whether hosting re-elections or outright prolonging his term in the administration through force. However, the fact that Babanov had conceded and advocated against protest presents a real precedent for the future of Kyrgyzstan and the rest of Central Asia in terms of peaceful transfers of power.

Though the latest Kyrgyz election has been commended for encouraging national and regional democratic progress, there is little else about this transfer of power that is exceptional or worthy of note. The true irony of the Kyrgyz election lies in the fact that the outcome does not have any substantive meaning for the Kyrgyz Republic; neither of the candidates had particularly different policy proposals or ambitions. Political analyst Marat Kazanov claimed, during the election, that “the candidates’ manifestos are weak — they have either been copied from elsewhere, or they don’t have one at all. And nobody reads these things anyway. That’s how we do things.” Indeed, a nation so small runs mostly through connections. Southerners are much more likely to vote for Jeenbekov by virtue of the fact that he’s from the southern capital, Osh. In a country with cultural remains from tribal, nomadic life, one’s familial or even regional relation instantly creates a degree of support.

Additionally, Kyrgyzstan is a country run primarily by its intelligentsia, namely the thousand-some people who went to university in Moscow during the days of the Kyrgyz SSR. A small group that is filled with internal intrigue, resulting in personal relations that heavily influence political decisions. A majority of Kyrgyz private and public institutions are run by these people, resulting in a ripple effect of influence and a system of favor exchanges. Members of the elite class have extensive networks that they manipulate, both socially and monetarily, in order to promote the candidate that has the closest relation them. Corruption like this is not uncommon; in fact, it is expected.

The democratic nature of the latest Kyrgyz election is praiseworthy and revolutionary in of itself; it defied the status quo of violent political turnover and Central Asia’s historical problem with autocratic rule. Yet, this does not mean that Kyrgyzstan’s institutional problems concerning corruption — and the discrepancy between the upper and lower classes in political influence — have come any closer to being solved. The fact that no one expects policy change is a further indicator of how this election failed to truly shake up the political landscape and instigate the Kyrgyz population into greater political awareness and activity. Thus, while this election is a success on some level, it is primarily a superficial one; the degree to which it will really affect change in the Kyrgyz Republic can only be known with time.

Reported by the Brown Political Review (BBC – UK).