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Eurasian pie

Published : Dec 02, 2011 00:00 IST



Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of building a Western-type democracy in an undemocratic regional environment.

in Moscow

KYRGYZSTAN's crucial presidential election, held on October 30, is likely to put to the test the country's fragile democracy and fuel big-power rivalries in former Soviet Central Asia. It brought victory to Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, 55, who won 63 per cent of the votes, well above the 50 per cent minimum needed to dispense with a run-off. It was a more than convincing victory in a race contested by 16 candidates but marred by many malpractices. Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticised faulty voter lists, multiple voting and ballot stuffing but certified the election as free and peaceful overall.

Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of a daring experiment in building a Western-type democracy in an entirely undemocratic regional environment. All other ex-Soviet states in Central Asia Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have authoritarian or downright dictatorial regimes. The only other country in the region that has seen a change in top leadership since the break-up of the Soviet Union two decades ago is Turkmenistan, where the dictator Saparmurad Niyazov died five years ago.

The Kyrgyz say it is the nomadic tradition that has made them a freedom-loving nation. Until now their democratic instincts were displayed in the toppling of two Presidents Askar Akayev in 2005 and Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010. Both were overthrown in chaotic riots against the rapacious ruling cliques in the poorest state in the former Soviet Union.

However, parliamentary elections held in October 2010 were internationally recognised as free and fair. In December, when Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, appointed to the post after the ouster of Bakiyev, will step down and make room for Atambaev, Kyrgyzstan, for the first time, will see power change hands through the democratic electoral process rather than through turmoil and violence.

Some experts, however, think that Kyrgyzstan has chosen the wrong path to democracy. Opposition leaders, catapulted to power after last year's coup, rewrote the Constitution to prevent new excesses of sweeping presidential powers. The new Constitution, adopted in a national referendum in June 2010, transformed Kyrgyzstan from a presidential republic to a parliamentary one, with the main powers shifted from a nationally elected President to a Prime Minister chosen by Parliament.

Dr Murat Ukushov, a respected Kyrgyz authority on constitutional law, says it was a mistake to transplant the advanced European model of democracy into Kyrgyzstan. Western-type democracy will not work in a country that lacks an economic and social basis for democracy, he says.

The introduction of the parliamentary form of government in a vastly unprepared, politically and economically unstable society that is torn by tribal, clan and regional divisions is fraught with a power vacuum, anarchy and ochlocracy [mob rule], and may lead to the loss of statehood, he wrote in a recent article.

Ukushov, who helped write the first Constitution of independent Kyrgyzstan in the early 1990s, argues that Kyrgyzstan should adopt the Asian model of transition to democracy through authoritarianism and institutionalisation of authoritarian forms of democracy, which has worked well in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan.

He is convinced that Kyrgyzstan needs a strong-hand regime to cope with its problems, such as soaring crime, massive drug trafficking, rampant corruption, extreme ethnic enmities that take violent forms, authorities that practise double standards, and lack of public trust in the government. The paramount task facing Kyrgyzstan today is to enforce law and order, both in the government and in the country, using, if necessary, harsh methods, Ukushov said.

A strong government is one thing that Kyrgyzstan lacks today. The constitutional reform has devolved powers from the President to Parliament and the Prime Minister. The President, limited to a single six-year term, has lost the authority to appoint a Prime Minister or influence the budget process. The Parliament elected last year under the new Constitution is split between five regional and clan-based parties that have formed fragile coalitions.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said he had warned the Kyrgyz leadership of the risks of adopting a parliamentary form of government, but his advice was not heeded.

Most candidates in the presidential election vowed to rewrite the Constitution back to the presidential form of government, but President-elect Atambaev said he would not touch the basic law. I'm a team player, he said. I don't want to strengthen the authority of the President.

North-South divide

Meanwhile, the challenges facing Kyrgyzstan's new leadership are overwhelming. One of the most pressing problems is healing the rift between the country's north and south, which are separated by the high Tian Shan mountain ridges. Traditional rivalries between the better-off Europeanised and Russified north and the poor agricultural south have intensified since independence. Southern clans gained the upper hand when northerner Akayev was ousted by southerner Bakiyev in 2005. However, the north has now regained its dominance following the impressive victory of its main candidate, Atambaev, over his two main rivals from the south, former Parliament Speaker Adakhan Madumarov and former Emergency Services Minister Kamchibek Tashiyev, who came second and third respectively with 14 per cent of the votes each. Unless the losers are offered some compensation for their defeat, they may easily foment trouble in the explosive south.

Last year Kyrgyzstan saw the worst ever ethnic violence in the region, provoked by supporters of the ousted President, Bakiyev. Hundreds died in the riots that targeted ethnic Uzbeks, and tens of thousands fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Tensions are still running high as thousands of Uzbeks remain displaced. They complain of continued harassment and discrimination, with courts convicting only ethnic Uzbeks for crimes relating to last year's clashes.

Glaring poverty is aggravating ethnic and regional problems. The country's per capita Gross National Product is less than $700, the official minimal wages are $2.42 a month and an estimated million working-age Kyrgyz earn a living as seasonal workers in Russia and Kazakhstan. The money they send home about $2 billion is comparable to Kyrgyzstan's budget and provides livelihood to every second family in a country of 5.5 million people.

Whether the new Kyrgyz leaders will be successful in tackling the country's problems depends on how they walk the tightrope of relations with the two main outside players Russia and the United States, both of which have military bases in Kyrgyzstan. At his first press conference after winning presidency, Atambaev promised to shut down the U.S. airbase at Kyrgyzstan's main airport Manas when its lease expired in 2014 and replace it with a civilian transport hub operated jointly with Russia.

We know that the United States is often engaged in conflict. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, and now relations are tense with Iran. I would not want for one of these countries to launch a retaliatory strike on the military base, the President-elect told journalists.

In 2009, Bakiyev also promised to close the U.S. base but changed his mind after Washington agreed to triple the rent payments for the base and launched a reset in its relations with Moscow. Russia itself has since opened land and air transit routes to run supplies for the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) forces in Afghanistan but has made it clear that it expects the U.S. to close its base in Kyrgyzstan after the end of the military operations in Afghanistan. Washington, however, is in no hurry to leave the region.

U.S. Military presence

Russian analysts believe that the U.S. will seek new bases in Central Asia as it pulls out of Afghanistan. This was the main goal of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she visited Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in October.

The U.S. wants to secure a long-term military presence in Central Asia and relocate its forces from Afghanistan to the north, to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, said Alexander Knyazev of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies.

In the coming years, Kyrgyzstan may find itself in the crossfire of conflicting interests of Russia and the U.S. as the two former Cold War rivals are turning their attention again on Central Asia. Moscow and Washington recently unveiled rival plans to promote regional integration under their leadership. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin set forth a grand vision of reuniting former Soviet-bloc nations in a Eurasian Union. Hillary Clinton used her tour of the region to promote a no less grand plan of uniting Central Asia in a New Silk Road project.

Under Putin's plan, the Eurasian Union will be built on the base of the existing Customs Union, a Russia-led trade group that also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. According to Putin, who is set to reclaim Russian presidency next year, the Eurasian Union may take shape as early as 2015 and could eventually become one of the poles of the modern world, serving as an efficient link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.

Curiously, the U.S.' New Silk Road plan has exactly the same goal turn Central Asia into a trade hub between Europe and Asia, but under Washington's leadership. At the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan, the U.S. also pushed forward a proposal to create a regional security framework modelled on the OSCE. Both projects are an evolution of Washington's earlier plan to form a Greater Central Asia and are aimed at building alternative energy export routes to the pipelines leading to Russia and China and weakening their position in Central Asia.

Moscow and Beijing have responded with plans to expand and strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which today also includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. At bilateral Foreign Ministry consultations in Moscow in October, Russia and China agreed to accelerate the process of enlargement of the SCO by granting full membership to India and Pakistan. This may happen as early as at the group's next summit in China in 2012.

Atambaev has declared his intention to ally Kyrgyzstan closer to Russia, the main source of credits, cheap energy and technological assistance to Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan joined a Russia-led free trade pact, signed by seven ex-Soviet states, in October and reaffirmed its bid to join the Customs Union. Its application was approved at the group's meeting in St. Petersburg in the same month. Kyrgyzstan's membership in the Customs Union will open the way into the group for Tajikistan, which currently has no borders with any member-states.

Analysts, however, do not expect any immediate Russian-American confrontation over Kyrgyzstan. Moscow and Washington may well agree to tactical cooperation as long as there is a common threat of extremism from Afghanistan.

In times of drought in the jungle, animals proclaim truce at the drinking places, said Ivan Safranchuk, an expert on Central Asia.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 02, 2011.)



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