This article originally appeared in the Central Eurasia Standard on June 24, 2013.
In March of 2011, democracy was progressing in Kyrgyzstan. Less than a year before, a bloody revolution and ethnic violence threatened the small state with civil war. Instead, a female head of state stepped down to allow an elected leader to take her place as President. It was seen internationally as a watershed moment in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia as a whole. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva detailed her country’s democratic chops in an editorial about the Arab Spring having its roots in the 2010 Kyrgyz revolution:
In Kyrgyzstan, we brought together all political parties and a wide array of civil society leaders to draft the new constitution. After several weeks of frequent televised debates and a thorough search for a national compromise, the Constitutional Council agreed to transform our country from a strong presidential system into a parliamentary republic. Within three months of the fall of the Bakiyev regime, the new constitution was put to a national referendum.
To really understand how shocking this was, compare this parliamentary republic in one of the poorest countries in the region to other governments in Central Asia: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all run by autocrats who barely hide their negligence and disregard for the people they serve. Torture, religious oppression and the lack of a free press is the rule. Turkmenistan is second only to North Korea in isolation from the outside world. Kyrgyzstan was the exception to this relentless rule, and in October 2011 the entire world watched as elections were held and a peaceful transition of power took place in Kyrgyzstan, just 18 months after violence threatened to start a civil war. Democracy, Western-style democracy, appeared to be taking root.
Fast forward to just over two years later, on May 2nd, 2013 when RFE/RL reported that an analyst for a large think-tank, known for being critical of Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy was denied entry back into Kyrgyzstan. It was the latest in a series of incidents where analysts, including foreign analysts, journalists and NGO workers felt threatened or harassed by the government. These accusations echo those leveled at former President Bakiyev prior to the 2010 revolution. The leader of one parliamentary faction in the Kyrgyz government stated that since 2010 there is still “an element of anarchy, some uncontrollability. Hence, distrust of people appears…The main thing is to win the trust of the people. But they [the authorities] have little success in it.”
So what is happening in Kyrgyzstan? Sadly – what’s happening is Kyrgyz democracy. A noxious cycle of corruption and revolution is confirming instability as the status quo. In 2005, the ‘Tulip Revolution’ ousted a corrupt leader and put a new champion into place – who turned out to be more of the same. The allegations, like the allegations leveled against his predecessor, accused then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of awarding key positions to his family members and increasing oppression of the press. Journalists faced harassment and death threats while critical newspapers were forced to shut down. Current President Almazbek Atambayev now faces the same accusations from his critics.
Kyrgyzstan’s democracy is characterized by three principal ailments: a culture of corruption perpetrated by each successive Kyrgyz President; a culture of revolution; and a lack of political continuity. Without continuity, the Kyrgyz people do not see long-term initiatives come to fruition and no trust can be fostered between the people and government. Since the election of a new administration in October 2011 (the third administration in three years) numerous international groups have accused the Kyrgyz government of torture, continued corruption and repression of civil society groups.
Like much of Central Asia, societal and political institutions are eroded by the narcotics trade. Kyrgyzstan is a transit route for opiates from Afghanistan, and while the government does work to combat the narcotics trade, a steady stream of government officials stand accused of or arrested for involvement in drug-related corruption. In 2010, the Drug Control Agency was disbanded by then-President Bakiyev, reducing transparency in a bid by the President to gain more control and influence in the drug trade. The President’s brother was accused of controlling the flow of most of the drugs through southern Kyrgyzstan at the time. In some parts of Kyrgyzstan, the government itself operates the drug trade or willfully turns a blind eye to it, preventing effective governance for and by the people. This feeds into the broader cycle of short-term governments with no ability to enact long-term positive political change.
Corruption goes hand in hand with the cycle and culture of revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Major issues within the country turn people to cries for revolution as a first resort, instead of the last option. For example, while Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary democracy is exemplary in the region, the rising tide of nationalism poses a serious threat to Kyrgyzstan’s unity and undermines a unified state, fueling conflict internally. Nationalism was blamed for deadly riots in 2010, and there are regular calls for coup d’état by nationalist groups if their demands are not met. While these demands are not considered a major threat right now, they indicate that revolution is always an option for political change in Kyrgyzstan, and a common tactic to get attention. How can Kyrgyzstan stabilize when revolution has been the guarantor of political change over the past ten years? Dialogue between the street and the elite, recent history suggests, does not pack a substantial punch in Kyrgyzstan. Revolution, and the threat of revolution, has taken the place of dialogue in Kyrgyz democracy.
Despite all of this, Kyrgyzstan is seen as the best hope, and perhaps the only hope in Central Asia, for democracy and its attendant values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. Its democracy is faltering at best. A recent article by Joshua Kucera in the Wilson Quarterly makes the case that post-Soviet countries see democracy as a source of instability, and populations have little incentive to buy into this political system, preferring a strong leader to democratic ideals. The larger concern for the democracy-promoting West (in contrast with the preference for strong leaders in the former Soviet Union) is that Kyrgyzstan moves closer towards Ukraine on the democratic spectrum, a country with a shallow veneer of democracy where graft is rampant and political opposition is often a representation of competing business interests.
The regional rejection of democracy weakens the influence of Western countries in Central Asia, as their political values (a stated source of moral authority) are brushed aside and autocratic strength is rewarded with influence. The US is already played off Russia and China by Central Asian countries, as these smaller states attempt to leverage their strategic value to win favors from the geopolitical giants. The promise of democracy and freedom, the ‘beacon’ of Western ideals in the former Soviet Union from three years ago stands in stark contrast with a country who harasses analysts from internationally known think tanks and blocks regional news networks for over a year.
Corruption and revolution preclude any political continuity. After three different governments in the last three years, the population has not yet seen any government capable of translating democratic principles into lasting action. The current government has held power for less than two years. The two previous presidents’ tenures were accompanied by slides towards corruption and authoritarian practice. Recent events, demonstrating the current administration’s growing intolerance for dissent, may be harbingers that little has actually changed since the 2005 revolution. International humanitarian groups, most recently Reporters Without Borders, point out the contradictions of these actions with Kyrgyzstan’s democratic goals.
Kyrgyzstan’s democracy is characterized by instability, and two revolutions in ten years may have undermined Kyrgyz democracy by contributing to a constant state of instability. The social contract between leadership and population cannot grow organically when the authorities are perceived as corrupt, kick-starting the cycle of revolution over again. This is of course, not to say that corrupt leaders should have been left in power. Kyrgyzstan is still the best hope for democracy in the region. The civil society and foreign aid presence is widely touted as robust, and the people have shown that they will push back against autocracy. However, if the reports of human rights violations and corruption continue, Kyrgyzstan will slide further from the democratic ideals they want so badly to claim.
Ingrid Pederson co-founded Central Eurasia Standard in June 2012 to bring news and analysis of Central Asia and the Caucasus to foreign policy watchers trying to learn more about the region. She has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Nottingham, where she focused on conflict related to energy security.