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Kyrgyzstan’s Political Crisis: An Exit Strategy

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ICG’s first report on Kyrgyzstan, published in August 2001, highlighted the potential for crisis facing the country. International attention was then rarely focused on Central Asia but since September 2001 the region has suddenly registered on policy-makers’ agendas. Nearly 2,000 U.S. and Coalition troops are now located at Manas Airport near Bishkek, as part of the forces active in Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan is playing a key strategic role in the region. Stability in this country is now of fundamental concern to the international community but, since early 2002, it has declined sharply.

The leadership has taken an increasingly authoritarian line towards the opposition, perhaps believing that the U.S. presence gave it more leeway. A popular deputy, Azimbek Beknazarov, was arrested in January 2002, and several opposition newspapers were closed. His arrest provoked protests in the south of the country, particularly in his home territory of Aksy district, in Jalal-Abad province. In confrontations with protestors in March, police shot dead five demonstrators, the first time political protests had turned violent in Kyrgyzstan.

After the shootings, thousands of supporters of Beknazarov protested in the South, demanding the dismissal of charges against him and the punishment of those responsible for the killings. President Askar Akaev dismissed the prime minister and interior minister in late May 2002, leading to the resignation of the whole government. But the protests continued, with demonstrators staging mass marches between southern cities. Tensions mounted as their demands became more radical, including a call for Akaev’s resignation, and they threatened to march on Bishkek. It was only when the appeal courts lifted the charges against Beknazarov that the protestors were finally persuaded to go home.

This move calmed the situation temporarily, but the anger of the protestors has hardly abated. And it has not solved the underlying political and economic problems in Kyrgyzstan that have given rise to widespread discontent. Long-term stability remains under threat unless a more comprehensive review of policy is undertaken and serious measures introduced to calm the situation. Many protestors have been emboldened by their apparent success, and it is likely that demonstrations will be renewed. Even if these grind to a halt, Kyrgyzstan is entering a period of uncertainty, as it approaches the end of Akaev’s term in office in 2005. As the struggle for power gathers pace during this transition period, there is considerable potential for further conflict.

The way the crisis develops depends on a number of factors, each of which can contribute to escalation or de-escalation.

First, the political system and the struggle for power. The increasing concentration of power around Akaev, his family and his close colleagues has led to discontent among rival elites, who seek more participation in both the political sphere and business. The usurpation of power in all branches of government by the ruling elite has led to a crisis of legitimacy – in the leadership, in the courts and in the political system itself. As the leadership has gained more power, it has become more authoritarian in an attempt to defend itself from rising criticism. This move towards authoritarianism has effectively provoked the current crisis. Whether the forthcoming struggle for power will remain peaceful depends on whether the authorities accept the need for fundamental changes to the political system and the electoral process.

Secondly, the opposition. Increasingly radicalised, it has little faith in the present political system and now seeks the resignation of Akaev through popular pressure. The president is unlikely to resign voluntarily, and the result of such a strategy is likely to be more confrontation. Only a genuine compromise by the authorities, involving efforts to deal with the roots of the crisis in the political system and to take measures to guarantee free elections in 2005 will dampen some of the radicalism of the opposition.

Thirdly, the security forces can either play a neutral role in preserving order or become a political force in their own right. Recent strikes by the police in the South and rising dissatisfaction among the security forces represent a potential threat to peace. Reform of security structures is badly needed.

Fourthly, popular protest, provoked by the increasing authoritarianism of the government, but with its roots in a deep socio-economic crisis and a lack of political representation, will continue regardless of agreements made by elites, unless real attention is focused on the problems of the mass of the population. This must cover political issues – winning back people’s faith in the constitutional process – economic issues – raising real living standards – and social issues.

Fifthly, the growing geopolitical competition in Central Asia may also have a destabilising impact. The U.S. military presence, attempts by Russia to reassert its influence, and the fears of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China that any unrest could destabilise the region, will all affect the internal situation in Kyrgyzstan. States with interests there can either use the political situation to try and improve their own positions at the expense of others, or can cooperate with the aim of promoting stability in the country.

These five factors will decide whether Kyrgyzstan’s political crisis is resolved through constitutional means, or develops into a wider crisis, possibly degenerating into conflict. Since the implications of a conflict in Kyrgyzstan are significant for the region as a whole, the interests of the international community are in attempting to prevent any escalation of the crisis.

The main effort in resolving the crisis must be made by Kyrgyzstan’s political forces. A genuine effort on the part of the elite to reach a ‘new deal’ of power-sharing, in politics and in business, would limit the potential for further unrest and ensure that future political struggles remain within the constitutional framework. But the international community can play a significant role in promoting and supporting such a deal, and making clear to the leadership that future political, economic and strategic relationships depend on real measures being taken.

The international community should become actively engaged in pushing political reform. Without it, economic assistance will at best be wasted, and at worst contribute to the increasing divide between the rulers and the ruled. A common platform among Western states and international organisations should push for real implementation of policies that are currently just government rhetoric. Continued inaction on the part of the leadership poses a serious threat to stability in the country and to the region as a whole.


To the leadership of Kyrgyzstan

1. Re-establish faith in the electoral process by:

(a) reforming laws on political parties and on elections, ensuring that technical issues, such as registration and internal party issues, or financial declarations, cannot be used to disqualify opposition candidates;

(b) reforming the Central Electoral Commission to include all political forces, by removing the right of the president to appoint members, increasing representation of opposition groups, and reducing the power of the chairman;

(c) providing a proper legal basis for NGOs willing to monitor elections and welcoming international monitor missions;

(d) seeking, on the basis of such changes, a public commitment by all political forces to contest for power only through the electoral process; and

(e) restricting presidential powers to use referenda, which in the past have been abused to extend Akaev’s term of office.

2. Institute constitutional reforms to reduce the strength of the presidency so that power is shared more equally also with the government and parliament, ensuring that:

(a) the president can serve as a neutral arbiter of political disputes;

(b) the parliament has the power to approve all government and presidential decrees; and

(c) the number of presidential appointments is cut back sharply, with parliament and a professionally competent judicial council approving all appointments of judges.

(d) when and where possible, power is decentralised to elected local officials in a graduated process, the pace of which should depend upon the training and development of better qualified and competent individuals and a system to hold them accountable.

3. Implement reforms of law enforcement agencies designed to regain popular trust in the police, while making it a priority that they are adequately funded and trained.

4. Abandon attempts to pass a law on political extremism and to create superfluous bodies such as a Council for Democratic Security;

5. Adopt a package of laws to ease the transition of power, including:

(a) an amnesty on financial crimes associated with privatisation, corruption and illegal business practices, that would lead to the release of Feliks Kulov and provide a measure of protection for the presidential family; and

(b) a law providing the first president of Kyrgyzstan legal immunity and guarantees of security when he leaves office.

To the Opposition

6. Develop real strategies of political and economic development of the country over the long term, rather than concentrating on short-term political gains.

7. Unite around a public commitment to ensuring free and fair elections as the only route to a peaceful transfer of power and cooperate with the government and parliament to develop laws that will allow this to happen.

8. Develop political parties as engines of change rather than the present concentration on individuals, human rights organisations, and committees.

9. Support new laws to enable a peaceful transfer of power, including an amnesty on financial crimes associated with privatisation and guarantees of security for the president and his family;

To the International Community

10. Develop a common platform among the U.S., the EU and the OSCE to push for political reform, based on:

(a) a commitment by all political forces to free elections;

(b) a reform of law enforcement agencies;

(c) a process of constitutional reform that shifts power from the presidency equally to other institutions; and

(d) a reform of the judiciary aimed at increasing its independence.

11. Provide financial and technical assistance to underpin these reforms, if it is clear that there is real political will behind them.

12. Provide assistance to widen the scope and ownership of the media and to reform the state media so that it offers broader, independent news coverage, and train journalists in both the independent and state sectors.

13. Link further financial assistance, including assistance from international financial institutions (IFIs), to effective implementation of changes in the political system, without which economic development is unlikely;

To the OSCE

14. Offer a substantial increase in resources, including personnel, to assist in a wider program of political and economic reform.

Osh/Brussels, 20 August 2002


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