Visions and demons in Kyrgyzstan
When President Obama met with his Kyrgyz counterpart at the White House recently, talks were about something far greater than the upcoming elections. While Kyrgyzstan embarks on a radical democratic path that could change the face of Central Asian politics, personal demons may still push it toward failure, ultimately strengthening authoritarian rule in the region.
Sunday may prove to be a new day for democratic movements in Central Asia, as Kyrgyzstan holds its first parliamentary election under a new Constitution, drastically different from the vertical one-man rule firmly established in all of its neighboring states. Kyrgyzstan will be the first country to introduce parliamentarianism in the region, and is also the first former Soviet republic outside of the Baltics to have elected a woman as head of state. In many ways, this remote republic is an unlikely stage for such progressive change.
Certainly, corruption is still rampant and many important positions have simply rotated discreetly in the time after the April revolution. Party lists for the October elections hold many familiar faces, and not all of them represent the cream of Kyrgyz society. Still, Kyrgyzstan is something quite unusual in Central Asia today.
Barely six months after 90 people lost their lives during the April storming of the Presidential Palace, Kyrgyzstan is seeking to redefine its political self. While broken glass was still being swept off the streets in Bishkek, new ambitions were presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in May. A referendum on a new Constitution which dramatically limits presidential powers was held in June. A wide range of new parties was quickly established. Even the satirical news column Beshbarmakia, a sort of Kyrgyz version of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, returned after inexplicably disappearing as ousted President Bakiev’s regime grew increasingly sensitive to criticism.
However, while these changes were taking place in the capital, Southern Kyrgyzstan exploded in one the worst human crises the region has seen in decades. Now closer to the edge than ever before, unpleasant sides of Kyrgyz society have emerged from the shadows. Kyrgyzstan today represents a great contradiction: the desire to become a forward-looking, modern democracy, and the danger of becoming a “failed state” on the road to something much darker.
When the Norwegian Helsinki Committee arrived in Osh in June as one of the first human rights organizations, the need for an international presence was obvious. There was no communication between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the latter a large minority in the country. Burnt-down houses, even entire neighborhoods; racist graffiti, dead, injured – this was but the obvious. Our discomfort grew as the city gradually returned to normalcy on the surface, while curfew and nightfall brought operations reminiscent of the North Caucasus. Each day brought new evidence of searches for “weapons and leaders” targeting Uzbek neighborhoods. We hardly had time to note the names of those injured or robbed in one place before the phone rang from somewhere else. I will never forget the screams of a woman in the village of Nariman when she saw the body of her husband, who had been beaten to death by masked men that morning.
Theories as to who provoked the violence are numerous – the truth may be a tragic mixture of them all. Yet, political winds alone do not burn down houses or murder innocent neighbors. When the smoke had settled over Osh in mid-June, there were many who gradually awoke as from a horrible dream, looked around and shuddered at what they had done.
Together with a colleague from the Russian organization Memorial, I had the opportunity to present our findings during an almost two hour long meeting with President Roza Otunbaeva in late June. We noted positively her willingness to act on specific recommendations. She later approved a plan from the OSCE to send an international police force to help stabilize the situation. That would prove to be a highly unpopular decision.
In the past, Western investment has gone to more “stable” countries, where business is not reduced to rubble by revolutions every five years. This also means that the Kyrgyz feel a certain disregard as to what the world’s opinion of them might be. This is positive in some regards, but dangerous in the context of violent nationalism.
Many Kyrgyz today feel that international media are blaming them alone after the June violence; Uzbeks are presented as victims. The prospect of an international police force is seen as an offence to their self-esteem, whereas criminal elements do not want foreign eyes watching. The movement to deny access to the OSCE is led by the Mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, who openly challenges the current government’s legitimacy. It is highly uncertain whether the unarmed OSCE forces will ever reach Osh. Four months have passed, and those who keep the outside world from digging for answers are on the winning side. Uzbeks are leaving the region by the thousands. They have given up waiting.
The role Kyrgyzstan plays in Central Asia is worth considering for those not familiar with the region. Many point to the country as a threat to regional stability – but just as important is the fact that leaders in neighboring countries see Kyrgyzstan as a kind of haven for troublesome liberals. Turkmen youth who have passed the difficult entry tests to join the American University in Bishkek have often been prohibited from leaving Turkmenistan by their own authorities. Kazakhstan, the most economically successful country in the region, uses Kyrgyzstan as a scarecrow against democratic movements at home. Russia states openly that it is opposes parliamentarian democracy.
The significance of this election cannot be exaggerated. If Kyrgyzstan should finally succeed in its democratic project, it could gradually change the dynamics of other former Soviet republics. However, should Kyrgyzstan fail and sink further into a bog of nationalism and violence, authoritarian leaders will have a poster child to warn against the introduction of Western-style democracy.
The question remains whether the Kyrgyz vision will go down as an example to be followed, or as an experiment to be feared.
Ivar Dale, Baltimore, MD. Advisor, Norwegian Helsinki Committee