Kyrgyz Republic politics: Between anarchy and democracy

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The political situation in the Kyrgyz Republic has to a large extent stabilised since the overthrow of the president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, on April 7th. Sporadic outbreaks of violence are still occurring, but these appear to be localised and the threat of a civil war between the new authorities and supporters of the old has for now abated. A new constitution is being drafted that will turn the country into a parliamentary republic, and elections are scheduled for October. However, a rise in lawlessness could threaten the elections and frustrate stability. This is a concern for the US and Russia, which both have military bases in the country.

The self-declared interim Kyrgyz government that took office after violent protests in Bishkek on April 7th is now appearing more secure than it did in its first few days. The prospect of civil war–which seemed a possibility in the days following the violence–has receded. Mr Bakiyev has failed to drum up sufficient support for his cause. He is now in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, as a guest of the Belarusian president, Alyaksandar Lukashenka. Mr Bakiyev has rescinded his resignation, which he says was done under duress, but has no plans to return to the country. The interim government removed Mr Bakiyev by decree on April 26th and stripped him of immunity, then followed this by charging him in absentia for the death of at least 80 people on April 7th.

There has been further violence in Bishkek in the past weeks, and further deaths. However, this violence is not the mass political protest that degenerated into armed battles, rioting and looting on April 7th. Instead, it is the repeat of a phenomenon seen in the chaotic aftermath of the Tulip Revolution of 2005, when parts of the population carried out forcible “land-grabs” of public land they claimed to have been promised for residential building. In 2005, this phenomenon was largely tolerated by the police. This time, however, there are reports that land-grabs have been attempted on private property and that some have involved violence against ethnic Russians and Meskhetian Turks. The interim government is therefore trying to take a tougher line. So far the security services appear to have succeeded in quelling the violence.

In power

The interim government, led by former diplomat Roza Otunbayeva, has secured recognition from Russia, the US and some European governments. Russian support in particular is of great help to Ms Otunbayeva in consolidating her authority. For Russia, the swift recognition extended to the new authorities is a break with established practice:Moscow has tended to favour the status quo in Central Asia and to support incumbent leaders; uprisings that threatened CIS governments prior to this year, including the so-called colour revolutions, were regarded by Russia’s authorities as Western-backed plots.

Russia’s willingness to help expedite Mr Bakiyev’s departure from power is widely attributed to anger in Moscow at the Kyrgyz president’s behaviour. In February 2009 he received a US$2.3bn package of Russian financial support–in aid and cheap loans–on the clear (although unspoken) understanding that he would close the Manas base to the US. He announced this soon after but as the closure deadline approached he backtracked, having bargained with the US for a tripling of the rental payments for the use of Manas. The Russians were further irked when Mr Bakiyev’s son, Maksim, was reported to be inviting China to participate in investment projects that were still under negotiation with Russian companies. Russia also alleged that its financing support had been channelled into businesses with links to the Bakiyev family.

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The US finds itself in a difficult situation: Mr Bakiyev is the elected president of theKyrgyz Republic, but he was a corrupt and unpopular leader who now has blood on his hands; the new authorities, by contrast, came to power via a street protest rather than a proper election. By recognising the interim government, the US has recognised the facts on the ground and has maximised its chances of retaining the Manas airbase, which is important to support US and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Russian political and financial support, plus diplomatic recognition from Western states, put the interim government into a fairly strong position. However it is notable that few of the Kyrgyz Republic’s other near neighbours are rushing to recognise the Otunbayeva team. All have maintained a studied silence thus far, while Mr Lukashenka insists that Mr Bakiyev is still the country’s president. The lack of unanimous recognition in the region and across the CIS is a complicating factor. For instance, it will be difficult to give a CIS imprimatur to financial aid, stabilisation measures or observation of the referendum set for June and the elections earmarked for October. Action via the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) seems impossible, as does the admission of the Kyrgyz Republic to the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union.

Sharing power

The interim authorities released a first draft of the proposed new constitution on April 26th. It strips nearly all legislative and executive powers from the presidency and gives them to the cabinet and parliament. The head of state will still represent the country abroad and sign international treaties, albeit in coordination with the government, and (s)he will be commander in chief of the armed forces (albeit with fewer sole powers of appointment). In the event that parliament is deadlocked, the president will have the right to dissolve the chamber and to set the date for pre-term elections.

Under the revised constitution, which is to be voted on in a referendum on June 27th, parliament will be the new locus of power. It is proposed that no party will have more than 50 of the 90 parliamentary seats under the new rules, no matter how many votes they receive. According to Ms Otunbayeva, the idea is to ensure that the opposition will have a worthy place in parliament, with representation on committees and a voice in decisions. If her vision is realised, it will make the Kyrgyz Republic the most pluralistic country in Central Asia. It might also be a recipe for political paralysis, unless the parties can find a way to work together over the long term.

Six-month wait

The tentative plan is to hold fresh elections on October 10th. In the interim the government will strive to maintain order in the country. There is little threat of a civil war, but lawlessness is a problem and the fact that police chiefs refused to accept Ms Otunbayeva’s choice for interior minister, Bolot Sherniyazov, does not augur well for governance. A six-month waiting period is necessary to redraft the constitution and to prepare for elections, but it has created a political vacuum that has potentially negative implications for order.

The US and Russia in particular will watch developments with a keen eye. The US has secured a promise that Manas will remain open at least until the current lease expires in June. After that it will probably be forced to renegotiate the lease with a new administration following the elections planned for October. The US has also promised to re-examine fuel-purchase contracts for the Manas base that the interim government has said were designed to benefit firms linked with the Bakiyev family.

Russia has good reason to fear instability in the Kyrgyz Republic, because if the country veers towards failure then Russian troops will probably have to be inserted to restore order. Moscow has a military base in the country as a holdover from the Soviet Union, and had investigated with Mr Bakiyev the possibility of opening another. Although Russiawas irked by Mr Bakiyev’s failure to close Manas, it is unlikely to insist to Ms Otunbayeva or the country’s next prime minister that the Americans are shown the door. It is not inRussia’s interest to see the US fail in Afghanistan. That would leave no buffer betweenRussia’s “backyard” and insurgent activity–and Russia will be hardly likely to commit any troops of its own to Afghanistan, following its experience there in the 1980s. However,Russia is eager to ensure that the US does not establish a permanent presence in Central Asia. Thus it would probably be willing to tolerate a continued US presence at Manas for perhaps another three years or so, until the US has completed its planned “orderly” withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan notwithstanding, both the US and Russia have further vested interests in seeing stability return to the Kyrgyz Republic. Grinding poverty, corrupt governments and political repression have already led to a rise in militant Islam in the region. If the Kyrgyz government fails to assert control over the whole of the country, this would only afford Islamist militants greater opportunity to expand their operations. The imperative that this must not happen is one thing on which the US and Russian governments can happily agree. So although they will both try to extract guarantees in return for any support they might offer the new Kyrgyz administration, they will be keen to see order restored. If only for this reason, the Kyrgyz Republic’s interim government can probably count on their support.

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