_ Grigory Lukyanov, Deputy Head of Department of World and Russian History, Higher School of Economics. Moscow, 12 September 2017.
“Democracy Island” is a phrase that has taken deep root in the vocabulary of post-Soviet politicians, political experts, and analysts when attempting to describe the development of Kyrgyzstan in its totality since it gained independence in 1991 . At the same time, the meaning of the expression has changed and been re-evaluated repeatedly over the last 25 years. Even in this current decade, the process of shaping Kyrgyz statehood and the Kyrgyz nation as a whole is far from complete. As these processes continue, they come up against a large number of endogenous and exogenous obstacles, which are accompanied by multiple conflicts and splits with far-reaching consequences that directly affect all spheres of public relations and the country’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The events of 2005 and 2010, which have gone down in the modern political history of Central Asia and the post-Soviet space as the March (or Tulip) and April revolutions respectively, were just the tip of the iceberg and they signified the peak of the crisis in Kyrgyz democracy. More precisely, they signified the crisis of a political regime that was described as democratic. It was the crisis of a political system based on elections in a complex and fragmented (or at the very least, poly-ethnic and multidenominational) society born out of an artificial design process that took place as part of the Soviet policy of national demarcation in Central Asia in the 1920s.
Institutional Foundations of a Democratic Political Regime and the Key Trends in Political Development
It should not come as a surprise that Kyrgyzstan is considered to have come closer than any other country in post-Soviet Central Asia to the ideal of western democracy. This conclusion is primarily the result of reasoning based on a contraposition, that is, on contrasting Kyrgyzstan with the other states in the region. In this respect, Kyrgyzstan remains an example of the weakness of authoritarian power (both in its personal and institutional aspects). The country still possesses a relatively high level of political self-organization of the population and development of civil society institutions. Given the turbulent regional development, socioeconomic and political stability have become the principal values for the political regimes of Kazakhstan , Tajikistan, Turkmenistan , and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan lacks such stability. However, even though it remains an important component of the population’s social expectations and needs, this lack of stability ultimately did not prompt Kyrgyzstan to install a strong authoritarian power and establish a comprehensive state.
By the early 2010s, one of Kyrgyzstan’s principal developmental achievements was the development of an institutionalized and pluralized political space outside of state control. This phenomenon included a) developing the necessary legal framework that would set down the legal foundations for the establishment and the efficient functioning of public organizations, and b) the establishment of legitimate and viable institutions of representation. At that time, no other country in the region had created more favourable conditions for the functioning of political parties and their participation in the political process. In 2010–2016, the triumph of party representation in Kyrgyzstan peaked when the simplified procedure allowed the Ministry of Justice to register over 200 parties, the majority of which remain viable and play an active role in Kyrgyzstan’s political life to this day. Furthermore, they are active at district and municipal level, the regional level, and even at the national level. Establishing ethnic and denomination-based parties was prohibited under the state’s legislation, which led to a certain normalization of inter-communal relations and the emergence of new institutional opportunities for political dialogue. Nevertheless, the abundance and variety of political unions in and of itself oversaturated the political space and proved excessive, ultimately becoming a major hurdle for building an effective system of governance.
Despite the lack of socio-political and economic stability, Kyrgyzstan society does not promote the restoration of an authoritarian regime. Moreover, after the collapse of the USSR, the country saw the establishment of a great number of political parties, and the processes of power institutionalization were also successful.
After Kyrgyzstan’s second President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in 2010, more large-scale constitutional reforms were implemented in the country. They were not the first and would also not be last in the history of the Kyrgyz constitutional. At the time, these reforms were supported by the country’s principal political powers. The main result of the reforms was the adoption of a new constitution, which initiated the transition of the government from a presidential to a parliamentary republic. The reforms introduced under the leadership of the interim President Roza Otunbayeva (2010–2011), were initially supported by her elected successor Almazbek Atambayev 2011–2017). Their aim was to increase the social responsibility of state institutions, primarily of the executive branch, and to create a true system of checks and balances in order to prevent the concentration and misuse of power for personal gain by a single person. In this regard, the unprecedented “criminalization” of the government sector of the economy that took place during Bakiyev’s “inter-revolution” presidency and his family’s rule served both as a potent “vaccination” against any authoritarian leanings in the society, as well as an impetus for radically changing the form of governance and the foundations of the political system. Parliament was supposed to, and in essence did, become a new centre of political decision-making with the opportunity to balance the disproportionately empowered office of the president. Parliament also became a full-fledged representational platform open to all political forces.
Institutional Crisis and Authoritarianism as the Price of Effective Governance
Nevertheless, as we have already mentioned, the excessive number of political parties (the main participants in the competitive race for parliamentary seats in the 2010 and 2015 elections) led to the political space being consistently stripped of ideology. Ideology has entirely ceased to be the defining feature of any party. It is no longer the principal tool for mobilizing voters nor is it a way to generate a given party’s real politics. This is particularly noticeable if you compare the situation with the logic of the political process in previous years, especially during Askar Akayev’s presidency (in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s) . The triumph of populism and the homogenization of ideological diversity had only served to solidify the parochial, clan-like nature of the existing political parties built primarily on informal ties and with the sole purpose of protecting narrow vested interests to the detriment of the “common cause.” This led to objective difficulties in ensuring that the political process, with seemingly ideal (from the point of view of design and structure) formally democratic political institutions, had any real participants. In 2010, MPs were elected to the Supreme Council of the fifth convocation by party lists; five parties made it into parliament: the idealistic democratic Ata-Zhurt party (28 seats); the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (26); Ar-Namys (25); Respublika Party of Kyrgyzstan (23); and Ata-Meken Socialist Party (18). The subsequent reality of Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary life showed that these political parties were unable to overcome their internal discord. All attempts to construct inter-party coalitions were proved unproductive and their results turned out to be short-lived.
Despite active political modernization, the economy has not developed in the same way. Consequently, certain political successes have not had a significantly impact on the life of the Kyrgyzstan’s people.
Under the new constitution, the effectiveness of the political system was directly dependent on the president’s capability to establish working relations with parliament or, more precisely, with the coalition of parties in parliament that had the number of votes required to adopt legitimate decisions. The difficulties and conflicts arising from this situation led to changes in the electoral legislation that had been introduced by the time the 2015 parliamentary elections came around. In that election, it was the independent candidates who contested for nearly half of the all the parliamentary seats, and the influence of political parties in parliament had visibly decreased due to their unsuccessful attempts to cooperate in the previous convocation.
The adoption (in 2010) and implementation (in 2010–2016) of fundamental changes allowed Kyrgyzstan’s experience of political modernization to be considered a breakthrough. But this view did not last long. The most suitable model for making comparisons is that of Kazakhstan . The reason being that, of all of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours, Kazakhstan has progressed the farthest along the route of modernizing its political institutions. However, before transforming the country’s political foundations, politicians in Kazakhstan were sure to create certain socioeconomic conditions and the requisite economic grounds for such transformations to take place. Kazakhstan introduced pluralization and diversification to its institutions of power– not quite as quickly as Kyrgyzstan, but no less consistently. The country also had at their disposal tested mechanisms for resolving the problems with the state’s economic sustainability and for fulfilling the state’s social obligations to the people. This was of particular relevance given the global and regional financial crisis caused by falling global energy prices and the direct negative impact that it had on the region’s leading countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Kyrgyzstan did things differently. Their large-scale and fundamental political modernization in 2010–2016 was not accompanied with an equally swift and radical transformation of the economy and the institutions and mechanisms of economic management, nor by positive changes in the quality of life for the people of Kyrgyzstan. We believe that the lack of a direct and proportionate correlation between the development of political transformations and changes in the quality of life significantly weakened the general population’s support for the continued policy of democratizing the political system as set out in 2010. Even though certain successes in terms of modernizing the political system have been made, many observers still believe that Kyrgyzstan could become a failed state.
At the same time, we should note that the reverse trend can be observed. This can be seen primarily through the restoration of the rights and powers of the executive branch, particularly those of the President and the Prime Minister, to the detriment of the legislative and judicial branches. These changes were enshrined in the amendments to the Constitution adopted in summer 2016. In the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections, the possibility of re-electing Almazbek Atambayev (which is not permitted under current legislation) has been hotly debated on several occasions both in parliament and by society. To some extent, this question can be interpreted in two ways: 1) as a way to stabilize the unbalanced system; and 2) as a rollback to authoritarianism. This is why the President’s executive office and the Social Democratic Party that he leads are cultivating the image of the President as an experienced and effective manager working under difficult conditions, with imperfect institutions and constant conflicts between the country’s principal political forces.
The Need for Effective Governance in the Face of the Current Challenges Facing Kyrgyzstan and the Unresolved Contradictions
Despite Kyrgyzstan’s apparent progress in constructing relevant democratic institutions in 2010–2016, looking back, one cannot but notice that this progress failed to become a cure-all against all the problems and challenges the country faced during its history as a sovereign state. This applies primarily to those problems and challenges that put a question mark over Kyrgyzstan’s very statehood and cleared the way for it to transform into a failed state .
Nature has historically divided Kyrgyzstan into the plains in the South and the mountains in the North. The country is still fragmented regionally and territorially, and this fragmentation preserves the conflicts and internal discord within Kyrgyz society. In addition to the overall polarization of the population along the North–South lines, the rich traditional culture of the villages and the clan-like political culture produced therein nourish the territorial demarcation of the regions populated primarily by the Kyrgyz people. This tradition still dominates both the socio-political sphere and the system of informal norms and rules of public behaviour at the state level. And this tradition in and of itself presents an insurmountable obstacle for the further integration of ethnic minorities into the political system. A special place among these minorities is held by the Uzbek community , which numbers over 800,000 people, or about 14 per cent of the population . At the same time, due to geographical, environmental and economic difficulties, Kyrgyzstan still faces a split along the “urban–village” lines. This split is reflected in different electoral preferences and behavioural models evidenced during revolutionary crises.
Unresolved economic and social problems create favourable conditions for the spread of radicalism. The current instability and transient nature of the Kyrgyz economy help define the major role that “black market” elements and the shadow economy play therein. Such activities include illegal domestic and cross-border trade and smuggling. The high organizational costs (including corruption-related payments within the regulated economy) essentially force the population to turn to “shadow” money as a way to service their basic needs and ensure survival. The vicious circle of crises in Kyrgyzstan’s economy, many of which cannot be resolved without the active and responsible participation of the state, makes it hard to normalize economic relations. Without such normalization it is impossible to ensure the country’s full-fledged integration into the single economic space of the Eurasian Economic Union .
Consequently, the current public, political and economic situations in Kyrgyzstan remain conducive to the spread of radicalism and the activities of organized Islamist movements among the Muslim youth. The events and processes taking place in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as the “ISIS factor,” could have an effect. The existence of objective conditions and internal foundations for the genesis of an organized and growing Islamist movement in Kyrgyzstan should be noted . At the same time, regarding Kyrgyzstan, we cannot limit the discussion of the problem of religious fundamentalism to the Muslim community alone. Even though Muslims are the religious majority in Kyrgyzstan, the Muslim community does not dominate this relatively strongly secularized society.
The long-term statehood of Kyrgyzstan is directly threatened by the aforementioned unresolved problems. This makes the situation in the country far from stable and it also spotlights the problems of effective democratic governance within Kyrgyzstan. What stood out about the situation between 2010 and 2016 was the fact that a new stage in the formation of political institutions was being shaped under the conditions of real competition between branches of power and among a broad range of political parties and unions in the political arena. At the time, this political process was mostly focused on establishing the institutional foundation for bringing the country out of its state of political uncertainty and instability generated by its lack of experience in transferring presidential powers democratically and not by way of revolutionary actions. At the same time, the 2017 presidential campaign became the key test for transforming the system. On the eve of the campaign, the country once again faced a choice of opposing elements: democracy versus authoritarianism, parliamentary republicanism versus presidential republicanism, and the interchangeability of power versus effective governance.
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