The following piece reflects the opinions of the former Kyrgyz ambassador Zamira Sydykova.
Once again, Kyrgyzstan is experiencing internal political struggles. This last round comes as the interim government that rose to power after the April 7 uprising seeks to use constitutional reform and new parliamentary elections as a means to stay in office.
In the last twenty years of establishing a new, independent Kyrgyz state, politicians have amended the constitution to overcome political and economic crises. Until he was overthrown in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, President Askar Akayev proved especially skillful at exploiting these political tools, allowing him to retain power for a considerably long time, despite strong opposition.
Constitutional amendments approved in every referendum were introduced again and again, either to pacify the opposition by giving them more seats in parliament or to appease parliament as a whole by giving members more power, such as the ability to confirm government officials. These actions seemed to placate everyone for a while. Meanwhile, every new constitution reset the clock on Akayev’s presidential term.
Presently, the interim government could have announced new parliamentary elections as early as April, based on the constitution then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev approved in 2007. They could have easily secured a parliamentary majority and started running the country. But because they would have been accused of trying to grab power, they chose to use “Power to the People” as their battle cry and announced their intention to build a parliamentary republic. Only Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was undiplomatic enough to publicly voice his skepticism about this idea.
But adopting a new constitution can only exacerbate the power crisis in the country. No authority in Kyrgyzstan presently exists. The state survives essentially because of the common people, who continue to work, conduct business, and get their children ready for school. A large number of international organizations provide humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, local politicians prepare for the upcoming parliamentary elections, some believing they will gain power, others waiting to exact revenge in the future.
This disparate group of Kyrgyz politicians lacks political platforms and social bases, and has only limited representation in the country’s regions. They began their election campaigns by accusing each other of being dishonest and the current government of planning to distort the election results. This is the way the Kyrgyz opposition has operated for years, and it has been successful in undermining previous regimes. But the opposition has also failed repeatedly to win a majority because of its fragmentation. That is unlikely to change with this fall’s elections.
A real political elite has never existed in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz people are strongly divided first along tribal lines, then along the north-south line, and now between Akayev and Bakiyev’s camps. That division will keep Kyrgyz politicians from successfully forming a decisive bloc in the parliament or becoming a powerful opposition movement united by a common ideology, political platform, or party discipline.
This fragmentation is evident in the campaign recruitment process. The parties need to recruit candidates who are recognized and respected in the country’s regions to help fulfill an election requirement to win 0.5 percent of regional votes. They also need to attract candidates who can raise money for the campaign. Ideally, a candidate would have both attributes.
But, too often, candidates are able to purchase spots on party lists. With all due respect for Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of the Ata-Meken party, I was offended to learn that Bakirdin Subanbekov was among the first ten candidates on the Ata Meken’s list in the 2007 parliamentary elections. Subanbekov was a former interior minister who many blamed for suppressing political actions, dispersing rallies and demonstrations, and beating and torturing opposition activists. He was rumored to have been included on the list because he made a considerable contribution to the Ata-Meken election campaign, allegedly represented the Kara-Balta1 clan, and was thought to exert influence on criminal kingpins in the Chui region.
The same things are happening now. The Ata-Jurt party, mostly represented by southerners, recently introduced its new members from the North, including a former judge Kuanbek Kirgizbayev. Kirgizbayev sentenced me and a number of other journalists to prison terms in a landmark violation of freedom-of-speech cases.
Some political parties in Kyrgyzstan form on the basis of gender or age. A party of “No-Party Members” participated in the last parliamentary elections. This fall, President Roza Otunbayeva’s brother is planning to run in the elections with the Party of City Residents. This party intends to gain support from those voters eager for fresh political faces.
Unfortunately, if elected, these candidates offer little hope for establishing a parliament that is capable of running the state or forming an effective government. This became particularly obvious after the interim government appointed the so-called technical government staffed by the Akayev-Bakiyev elite. The opposition had declared that it would usher in a new era featuring young, well-educated people with fresh perspectives and clear political goals, but these statements proved to be false. Even young Edil Baisalov, Otumbayeva’s chief of staff, and his uncompromising enthusiasm turned out to be unwelcome.
It is both difficult and easy to forecast which political parties will join the new parliament. Observers already predict that none of the parties will win the majority. That could lead to renewed protests in all regions of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the possibility that new parliamentary elections will need to be called. The other possibility is that the parliament will be seated but will be unable to reach a consensus necessary to nominate a prime minister or form a government. It would be good if the parties could reach agreement now on a coalition government. If the new parliament fails to reach an agreement within the specified period of time, the parliament will be dissolved, and new elections will be announced.
But what kind of government would that be? Would it be staffed by the winning party activists? Reshuffling personnel does not always work, as we saw after the April uprising. As it turned out, neither the hardcore Democrat Topchubek Turgunaliev, nor the Ar-Namys member Bodosh Mamyrova, nor the journalist Ryskeldi Mombekov could handle his interim government position. A government that employs officials on the basis of their qualifications, instead of their political affiliations, would be most efficient. Moreover, political parties would not be embarrassed by their nominees.
Whoever leads Kyrgyzstan will need to develop an economic policy that relies heavily on foreign borrowing for revitalization and reconstruction. Therefore, it would be good if the political parties seek to welcome rather than shun foreign partners. Unfortunately, Kyrgyz politicians are doing much of the latter now by protesting the police mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and criticizing the report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan. The view of many leaders seems to be “give us the money and leave us alone.”
Should the international community leave the Kyrgyz alone, aside from humanitarian assistance? Should they let the Kyrgyz people complete their search for a perfect model of a Kyrgyz state? Kyrgyzstan is too important to be left alone, especially in this crucial time when the Kyrgyz people have the opportunity to learn that they can’t always dwell on their problems. It is time they realized that their destiny is in their own hands.
Some people attempted to look to the past, trying to make legends come to life. On some August 31, Kyrgyzstan’s Independence Day, forty Kyrgyz bogatyrs2 would be coming back from beyond the Altai Mountains, where they had been sent by Otunbayeva to symbolically walk the path of our ancestors.
Maybe then the Kyrgyz will realize that a tribal life, with periodic raids on each other, suits them better. They will install customs points between various regions of the country and collect duty to sustain them.
Sadly, there are already signs of this. Some people in the South already declare that they do not recognize the national government’s authority, and everyone walks around touting his own Kalashnikov weapons. Bishkek has been sealed off, roadblocks have been established along the country’s perimeter, and residents of Issyk-kul are no longer allowed into the capital.
In this scenario, perhaps, a parliamentary republic makes sense. But we would need to accept that it would be a parliament formed by regional elections with parties delegating authority to their representatives. After the party representatives are seated in the new parliament, they would allocate regional resources accordingly, and start trading with each other, and possibly with their neighbors--while Roza Isakovna would, like Kurmandjan Datka,3 become Queen for life.
As the election approaches, the parties must make their positions clear on the most pressing issues facing voters, such as reforming the electoral system. They should also speak up on issues such as administrative-territorial reform, including the right to elect governors and local authorities. The central authorities in Bishkek lost credibility when they failed to remove a nationalist mayor who openly defied the government; this should not happen again.
If the parties make their positions known, then it will become clear who wants to give power to the people of Kyrgyzstan.
1 Kara-Balta is a city in the Chui region of northern Kyrgyzstan, near the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border.
2 The bogatyr (from baghatur, an old Turkic term for a warrior, a military commander, or an epic hero) was a medieval heroic warrior. The 40 bogatyrs symbolize the 40 tribes that, according to the Kyrgyz revered epic Manas, founded the Kyrgyz nation.
3 Kurmanjan Datka (Kyrgyz: Datka Kurmanjan Mamatbai kysy) (1811 – 1907), also known as “The Queen of the South,” reputed to have been a defiant and beautiful woman, took power after the death of her husband, a ruler of the Alai people.
Zamira Sydykova is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Kyrgyz Ambassador to the United States (2005-2010). A journalist by training, she is the founder of Kyrgyzstan’s first independent newspaper Respublica (1992). In 1997 she was tried and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for publishing materials that forced the resignation of vice president and a no-confidence vote on the prime minister. In 2000 she was awarded the Courage in Journalism award by the International Women's Media Foundation for her efforts to promote free media in Kyrgyzstan. Sydykova and the views expressed in this piece are not affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.