Kyrgyzstan is a vexing case from the vantage point of US observers of the Central Asian region. It has made the most progress toward building an open society of any state in the region. But after a promising start, the progress of the early years has slowed to a virtual halt, and there have been many reverses in almost every aspect of political life. Elections have become less free and less fair, the press is under substantial official pressure, the parliament has had its functions dramatically reduced, the leaders of Kyrgyzstan’s human rights groups have been hounded and Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent opposition figure is in jail.
Kyrgyzstan is really coming to a turning point. Any further deterioration in its political conditions will justifiably earn it the label of an authoritarian state. Many already consider it to be one, although most would grant that it is the softest of the region’s authoritarian regimes.
The US should find new ways to engage with the Kyrgyz government, in order to get them to once again take seriously their domestic political obligations as members of the OSCE. This will not be very easy to do, given that the overwhelming preoccupation of Kyrgyzstan’s leaders, like those of most other states in the region, has been with trying to control external challenges to domestic security. These security concerns have been used to explain away failings of democratic political institution-building. Athough in fairness some of these security concerns are real and addressing them has eaten up an enormous amount of official attention.
Kyrgyz officials maintain that democracy is a luxury that their small and largely impoverished state can no longer afford, and we must all work to convince them that quite the reverse is true. In fact, the Kyrgyz cannot afford to not be democratic.
The End of the Honeymoon
It is the failures of state-building that are creating the security risks that are emanating from the Central Asian region. Ironically, unlike a decade ago, when Russia still set much of the economic and political agenda for these states as well as dominating their security relations, the current crisis in political institution-building is very much a product of decisions made in the national capitals themselves. It is also oftentimes in disregard of advice received from western governments, with western financial institutions, and international organizations like the OSCE
But the honeymoon period associated with independence is coming to an end, and comparatively speaking it has been a honeymoon period here. Notwithstanding the Civil War in Tajikistan, the situation in Central Asia has been far more peaceful over the past decade than many observers initially anticipated.
However, the region faces major security risks that are fueled in part by the instability in neighboring Afghanistan, from the Islamic terrorist networks that originally took refuge there, and by the drug trade that is likely to be further stimulated by the return to power of elements of the Northern Alliance.
But the real danger that these states face comes from within. Advocates of democracy building may be frustrated by some of the changes occurring in Russian, but the situation there is quite positive in comparison to that found in Central Asia. Governments in states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which had initially given at least limited endorsement to the ideals of democratic reform are now sharply restricting the freedom of action of their citizens and are eliminating any meaningful role for political opposition groups to play. As a result many are growing more frustrated by the increasing social and economic inequalities that now characterize their societies and by the diminishing opportunities to express their dissatisfaction by legal channels in the existing political system.
Political institution-building is faltering. and the pace of economic reform has slowed as well. Much of the blame for this needs to be placed squarely on the region’s leaders, and the assumptions that they are making about what is the nature of the challenges that they face and how best to face them. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan are no exception to this pattern.
This testimony focuses on six of these assumptions, and shows how they are each increasing the risks of instability in the region.
Independence in and of itself is a political solution.
In reality independence is simply a change in juridical status, albeit a critical one to be sure, especially for the ruling elite. One of the causes of the current crisis in Kyrgyzstan is that the elite view themselves as newly empowered, which has stimulated corruption in and around the ruling family. At the same time the masses see independence as something of a trick.
For them, in the absence of institutional development, the only real difference in their lives is a change in psychological status, and the ephemeral benefits that it provides. Ethnic Kyrgyz may have initially believed that they have gained status from independence, by simply having their ethnic community join the list of sovereign states. But this perception of psychological empowerment is diminishing with time. Those who live in a country should feel some sort of stake in its future, or failing that, feel some hope for their own future or that of their children.
But the rulers and the ruled seem to tell time in different ways. Most people need the hope that things will improve either in their lifetime or that of their children. Those born in the Soviet Union were raised on a diet of “deferred gratification,” and all independence seems to have brought is a new version of the old dietary staple.
The leaders of Kyrgyzstan inherited pressing economic and social problems with independence, some breathing room to try and solve them, and a host of new symbolic weapons to use in their efforts to appease the population. Central to this was the myth that independence in and of itself would be a source of a better life for the citizens of Kyrgyzstan. However, after ten years of independence, the poor are growing poorer and recovery seems beyond their reach.
Kyrgyzstan would not be the first to experience state-collapse as a stage in the state-building process. There have been many failed states, particularly in Africa, states which preserve their de jure independence but are lawless or chaotic societies in which anarchy or civil unrest prevails.
Decolonization in Central Asia is becoming increasingly more reminiscent of what occurred in parts of sub-saharan Africa, where a number of states have spent the past forty years stepping backwards from the levels of development that characterized their country and its population at the time of independence or in the first decade after independence was achieved.
Assumption Two: Regional organizations can help solve common problems.
Weak states make weak partners, and organizations composed almost entirely of weak states are doomed to be ineffective. However, it is the very weakness of these states that has both been pushing them both to establish regional organizations to manage common threats and problems as well as hindering these organizations once they are established.
Kyrgyzstan has fallen particular victim to the failure of the Central Asian states to develop a new regional identity, a regional market or an effective regional security system.
All five Central Asian states share a common water system and long shared a common energy grid and highway system; and all of these are coming unraveled at considerable cost to all involved. Weaker states are still able to threaten the stability of their somewhat stronger neighbors. We saw this quite clearly in the late 1990s when armed Uzbek groups took refuge in Tajikistan (in particular fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who are allied with Juman Namangani) and then sneaked into the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan to get a better vantage point for forays into Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley.
The events of September 11 have helped spur the Central Asian states towards a more effective regional approach to try and solve the previously unhampered movement of international terrorist groups across the new national boundaries. It has yet to yield effective new initiatives for other regional security problems, such as narcotrafficking.
In the long-run, though, water management is likely to prove to be the region’s most deadly potential security problem, worse even then the consequences of the capture of the economy by narcobusiness or the impact that the increasingly more popular Islamic groups are likely to have on these societies. Kyrgyzstan is now moving toward charging for the water supplied to downstream users, both in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In Soviet times, and for the first decade of independence, this water was provided for free, while the upkeep of reservoirs are paid for by the country in which they are found. Kyrgyzstan’s new plan to charge for water remains highly contentious, but efforts to create a new regional water-management system have floundered, despite offers by both the United Kingdom and the United States to sponsor a regional dialogue.
The Central Asian states have turned to a number of regional configurations to try and solve their problems. Initially the region’s leaders hoped that their membership in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) would provide an effective forum. One of the major problems that everyone hoped that the CIS would deal with was the question of delineation of national borders, which was frozen by common consent of the CIS members. However, in 1999, after the incompetence of this organization became wholly apparent to all concerned, Uzbekistan began to unilaterally delineate its own borders, citing the security threat from the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent. Uzbekistan’s unilateral behavior has caused real hardships in many Kyrgyz villages in the southern part of the country, which have seen communities split of from basic services and farmers denied access to fields or traditional sources of water.
Uzbekistan is also the major source of gas for Kyrgyzstan. Like the Russians, the Uzbeks are quick to turn off the spigot when debts mount, and like the Russians they are not above using these energy supplies to extract other kinds of concessions. For example, at the height of the heating season in winter 2001, the Uzbeks managed to get the Kyrgyz to agree in principle to a territorial exchange, where the Kyrgyz got some marginal pastureland and the Uzbeks a direct highway link to the previously isolated Uzbek enclave contained within Kyrgyzstan.
This kind of behavior dealt a serious blow to the Central Asian Economic Community., which was established in 1994, and now consists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. With the exception of WTO member Kyrgyzstan, none of these states is willing to surrender sovereignty to a multilateral organization.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of trade and finance. Whereas Central Asia could have formed an attractive market of more than fifty-million people, each of the countries has adopted some form of economic protectionism, except for Kyrgyzstan. In some places, like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, these barriers support a weak and indefensible currency, while for the Kazakhs they have been largely retaliatory.
The net effect of all of these barriers is to introduce hardships on those millions of Central Asians whose livelihoods were somehow dependent upon cross-border trade, and to further dampen the prospects for foreign investment in light industry throughout the region. This has been especially crippling in Kyrgyzstan, which was dependent upon the creation of a regional market in order to spark foreign direct investment, and which had hoped to emerge as a regional banking center. Instead, there is no regional market and Kyrgyzstan’s banks remain weak.
Assumption Four: Political succession can be successfully stage-managed.
Over the past several years the region’s leaders have begun to age, and in some cases become even noticeably physical frailer, but the pace of institutional development has slowed even further.
Five years ago there was still faint hope that two of the region’s most popular leaders, Presidents Akayev and Nazarbayev, might consent to participate in free and fair presidential elections, and that after their second term of office they would accept existing constitutional limitations and step down from office, setting the precedent of a peaceful transfer of power that is founded on political institutions.
These hopes were short-lived. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan changed their constitutions in the mid-1990s, and then in the late 1990s once again held presidential elections that fell far short of international norms, and now each of region’s leaders has seemingly set himself up as president for life, with little formal planning for what comes afterwards.
Some of the constitutions provide for a formal succession process, but invariably the designated successor’s post is filled by a political lightweight whose ambitions pose no threats to the country’s incumbent strong-man.
The one exception to this pattern could be Kyrgyzstan, as President Askar Akayev has been signaling that he doesn’t plan to press for further constitutional modifications to enable him to continue to run for reelection. However, his critics claim that this is a ruse, designed to appease a western audience. The only way that Akayev can convince them of his sincerity is to make determined steps to free up the political process and create new institutions for elite recruitment.
At the same time, all in the region are watching with interest efforts by Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliev to have his son, Ilham, designated as his heir. Many in Kyrgyzstan believe that President Akayev will also try to arrange a transfer of power to one of their children, especially if distant relative Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan successfully pursues such a strategy. Akayev is rumored to be grooming his young son Aidan, who was educated in the United States.
Efforts to reinstate some sort of modern-day princely system become very dangerous. Over the past five years, Central Asia’s leaders have been honing their “winner-take-all” philosophy. But the societies that they rule are complex, and filled with populations that are reluctant to accept a loss of the benefits that they are used to enjoying, and replete with former political and economic stakeholders who are used to being accommodated.
In Kyrgyzstan, as elsewhere, members of the elite from disfavored clans and families have been sitting by, waiting for the opportunity to grasp more economic and political power. As institutions to ensure a peaceful transfer of power do not exist, there is no foundation for them to rest their hopes on.
In Kyrgyzstan, though, the competition between ethnic and social groups is not as keen as in some of the other countries in the region. Kyrgyzstan’s President Akayev could give hope to the elite in all of the region, if he sets an example of a voluntary resignation of power.
However, developments in recent years in Kyrgyzstan have not been encouraging. Citing the difficulties of the transition process the rulers of the region have become increasingly more interested in insulating themselves from the ruled, than dealing with their grievances, which has the further advantage of allowing those in power to accumulate a disproportionate amount of assets in their own hand.
Even if the rumors that circulate about the Akayev family wealth prove to be exaggerated, the arrests of opposition leader Topchubek Turgunaliyev, from the “Erkindik” opposition party, and former Vice-President Feliks Kulov served as a warning to any who might try and rock the boat of state in any way. Turgunaliyev, who was released in 2001, a rather ineffectual former academic, was initially sentenced to 16 years in jail, while Kulov was given seven years of hard time, with the prospect of more to come. The dampening of opposition has certainly worked to the benefit of the ruling Kyrgyz family, as now President Akayev’s close and distant relatives are likely to have fewer road-blocks placed in their way as seek to consolidate their economic holdings.
With every passing year the number of “winners” in Kyrgyzstan seems to grow smaller, and it is becoming more difficult for those outside of the ruling circles to share in the economic and political spoils, and the criteria for inclusion in the inner circles is growing ever more restrictive.
Assumption Five: There is no popular support for democratic development.
Even in Kyrgyzstan, where the leadership used to pride itself on the country’s traditional nomadic form of democracy, the current regime is quick to defend the political choices that it is making as natural, and in keeping with the culture and history of the population that they are ruling. The same Kyrgyz population is now said to lack the experience and the cultural underpinnings necessary to support a democratic polity. It is easy to find non-democratic or authoritarian episodes in the history of any people, and of course the histories those living in Central Asia are no exception. But it is a racist argument to claim that one people is more or less fit for democracy than another.
Throughout Central Asia a committed minority remains in place, eager to see democratic development move forward. Nowhere is this more true than in Kyrgyzstan, where the informal political organization movement is much more firmly entrenched and widely dispersed than anywhere else in the region.
President Akayev’s most prominent critic, former Vice President Feliks Kulov, who is serving a seven year term in a maximum security prison on charges that he was initially acquitted of, had ample opportunity to flee the country between the two arrests, but chose to stay and become a political symbol instead, and his fate continues to provoke small but regular public protests and demonstrations.
Assumption six: Ethno-nationalism can be the building block of patriotism
While the Kyrgyz government seems to feel competent to deal with the threats from the new democratic groups, but they continue to be concerned about competing ideologies based in regional, subethnic, or supra-ethnic ties. To counter these they are trying to use Soviet-style social engineering techniques, to create new political loyalites that use the Soviet-era ethnic divisions as the building blocks of a new national consensus. In the case of the Kyrgyz, though, these efforts are more focused on tolerance for ethnic minorities, while others, such as the Uzbeks, are trying to recast ethno-nationalism as civic patriotism.
Most Central Asians’ understanding of nationality and ethnic identity is still shaped by the Stalin-era divisions of society that divided the Soviet population into well over a hundred ethnic communities, which each enjoyed varying legal statuses based on size, history, economic capacity and location. In all of Central Asia independence has led to a growing sense of ethnic empowerment by the titular nationality, but this is not generally translating itself into political loyalty, in part because the state is doing such a poor job of meeting popular expectations in the social sphere.
Inter-ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan are not as politicized as in many other parts of the region. The Kyrgyz government has tried to accommodate the local Russian population, going so far as sponsoring legislation that would give the Russian language the same legal status as the Kyrgyz language. But over the past dozen years much of the able-bodied Russian population has moved out, although some have returned, and most cite economic reasons rather than political as the cause for their departure.
The decision to leave the region is really quite a rational one. Ethnic Russians have realized their future opportunities are limited. This is true even in Kyrgyzstan, where the fate of the Russian language is distinct from that of the Russian nationality, a situation analogous to what happened in post-colonial India and Pakistan, where English remained the leading language long after the departure of the English themselves.
In the early years of independence some of Kyrgyzsstan’s local Russian population held out hope that Russia would strongly champion the cause of their “stranded compatriots.” But even in places where the situation of such people was acute, unlike that in Kyrgyzstan, the Russian government declined to play such a role
But the problem of “abandonned” conationals is still very much in evidence in Kyrgyzstan, where the Uzbeks have the largest irredentist population of all, and this is a population that is neither quiescent nor seriously agitated. Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbeks do appear to feel like second-class citizens, but also seem very cognizant of how much more economic and political opportunity that they enjoy than their relatives in Uzbekistan.
At the same time, the process of post-colonial societal redefinition has already begun, although as in Soviet times, nationality continues to be recorded on passports and most other official documents. Assimilation is already taking place among those who are deemed “marginal” to the titular nationality, people who came from ethnically mixed families and or were members of subethnic groups that are represented in two different national communities, such as the Kipchak, a tribal group found among Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
While on the one hand the dominant nationalities in each country are consolidating, they are also breaking down. Both patterns are often observed in the same country, where in some areas new groups are coming to identify with the dominant nationality, while in other regions there is an increase in subethnic identity, be it clan, zhuz, or a local territorially based identity. It is still unclear in many cases what will be the dominant political influence, centripetal or centrifugal forces. Subethnic identities are strong enough to successfully undermine either state, if the right preconditions were in place.
Assumption seven: Islam is fundamentally dangerous and must be contained.
In the absence of a civil society, there are few secular political institutions around which opposition can coalesce. Islam, especially the mosque and the medresseh, is increasingly becoming a more attractive organizational center for ethnic Kyrgyz as well as ethnic Uzbeks, and it is very difficult to restrict popular access to it. As a result, the advocacy of Islamic goals can be useful for both the regime’s supporters as well as for its detractors. Everything depends on the rules of the game, and these are still in flux.
The challenge posed by Islam remains particularly acute in Uzbekistan. Islam is particularly deeply rooted in many parts of the country, and the precedent of competition between Islamic fundamentalists, modernists, and Islamic conservatives is a well-established one. All three traditions withstood the vicissitudes of Soviet rule. Some of today’s radical groups even have their roots in an anti-Russian uprising that occurred in the Ferghana Valley in 1898, and a few of the leaders even studied with a “holy-man” who witnessed the revolt as a young child, and who much to Soviet displeasure survived to a very old age. This revival easily reaches into Kyrgyzstan, through the Ferghana Valley.
Although by no means as vigorous an opponent of extreme Islamic groups as the Uzbek government is, Kyrgyz authorities strongly that religion can be managed by the state, as can the development of Islam, and that governments are competent enough to influence the social evolution of society.
The Central Asian elite, of course, is not formally against Islam, but is very wary of revivalist or fundamentalist Islam, of people who are eager to live by “the exact teachings of the book.” What they want is to keep these republics as secular states, and to prevent devout Muslims from forcing all of their co-religionists into the public observance of the faith. Even in Kyrgyzstan pressure on secular elements to conform to religious precepts is strong.
The relationship of religion to mass belief is much more complex and interactive than the region’s leaders credit it with being. Though the governments of Central Asia are in no position to regulate the religious beliefs of the masses, they may exert their influence on social processes. But in trying to do so, these governments could inadvertently trigger social explosions.
It is for this reason that it is imperative that Kyrgyzstan’s government once again broaden the political sphere available to most ordinary citizens, to include a host of secular alternative. For without this the country has no real safety valve to use to release social pressure.
But political liberalization alone is not the answer. Kyrgyzstan’s social pressure cooker must be dealt with more directly as well, through programs that will effectively help alleviate the country’s poverty. This in turn means continued attention to see through the country’s program of macroeconomic reform and vigilant efforts to improve transparency and address corruption.
The failure of Central Asia to develop a regional market will continue to be very costly for Kyrgyzstan. This means that the government of Kyrgyzstan has to pay particular attention to trying to “get it right” economically. Instead, the tendency in recent years has been to use concentrated political power to hide the country’s economic wrongs. This may silence criticism but it doesn’t get at its roots.