Jon Mahoney writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Many readers of Informed Comment will be interested in the outcome of the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan held on October 30th. With 99% of votes counted, AP and other news sources are reporting that Alzambek Atambaev received 63% of of the votes, well above the 50% required to forestall a run-off. This result is quite surprising to most. Though Atambaev was the clear front runner, in the run up to Sunday’s election it was widely assumed that no candidate would receive more than 50% of the votes. Two of Atambaev’s most serious challengers, Kamchibek Tashiev and Adakhan Madumarov each received less than 15%; both candidates are currently challenging the results. In an effort to highlight some things to look out for in the near future, this post provides some (by no means complete) background to the current political situation in Kyrgyzstan.
With a population of 5.5 million (approximately 65% Kyrgyz, 14% Uzbek and a number of other ethnic groups including Russians and Uyghurs) Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions since Russian independence in 1991; the first in 2005 and the second in 2010. This political instability is in stark contrast to neighboring Uzbekistan (ruled by a world class thug, Islam Karimov) and Kazakhstan (ruled by an autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev). Kyrgyzstan also experienced significant ethnic conflict in June of 2010, several months after the 2010 revolution. According to a 2011 report by the Kyrgyzstan Independent Commission (KIC) approximately 470 people were killed during several days of violence in southern Kyrgyzstan (Osh and Jalal Abad in particular); most victims were Uzbeks. Many suspected of involvement in these events have been subject to harassment and torture. In Osh, many businesses and homes owned by Uzbeks are still in ruins and to this day there is a large group of displaced Uzkek citizens (some in Uzbekistan, some in Kyrgyzstan).
Roza Otunbayeva, (a former philosophy professor and longtime political actor) was appointed interim president after the 2010 revolution; she was not a candidate for the presidential election. Many observers characterize Otunbaeva as a well-intentioned yet mostly powerless political force. This past spring Otunbaeva was given the “Women of Courage” award by the U.S. Department of State; steely eyed readers will rightly wonder if the U.S. Transit Center at Manas near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, has something to do with this.
In addition to ongoing and unresolved tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens, economic factors are also relevant to understanding instability in Kyrgyzstan. Fuel supplies to the Americans at Manas have in the past been major source of personal prosperity for past Kyrgyz presidents (e.g. Akaev who ruled from 1991-2005 and Bakiev who ruled from 2005-2010). Moreover, the gold mining industry (here Kumtor stands above all other mining corporations, providing between 7-20% of the Kyrgyz GDP–the numbers depend on who does the reporting, and no doubt, accounting) will likely be a central factor in political developments for the foreseeable future. Personal income for most Kyrgyz citizens is very sparse. For instance, primary school teachers often earn less than 50$ a month and for many Kyrgyz citizens the most promising career path is that of a seasonal worker in Russia.
Up to this point, religion has not been a major factor in Kyrgyz politics. Though approximately 75-80% of Kyrgyz citizens self-identify as Muslims, few are devout and public life in Kyrgyzstan can hardly be characterized as having serious religious elements. Some in the Kyrgyz government will claim that there is a rising threat of political Islam yet this should probably be construed as a canard by those who want to ignore real problems (e.g. ethnic tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens) and to flatter the Western powers who are more likely to both offer foreign aid and overlook political repression when exercised in the name of combatting radical Muslims. Political discourse is often littered with dangerous yet junk phrases such as “foreign elements.” For example, when I spoke with Kyrgyz academics who also work for the Kyrgyz government at a conference this past summer I was told that among the “external factors” that pose a threat to political stability are Baptists who seek converts and militant Islamists with guns stoking the flames of ethnic conflict. These kinds of claims would be on the laughable end of the spectrum were they not so widespread.
Kyrgyzstan matters to the United States. Manas airbase is a major transit center for the war in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan is also the only country that “has the pleasure” of hosting both Russian and American military bases (Russia has facilities both in Kant, about 25 kilometers east of Bishkek, as well as in Osh, Kyrygzstan’s second largest city, located in the south). Atambaev has been courted by the Putin government and stated earlier this summer that were he elected he would not renew the lease for the American transit center at Manas; he repeated these claims about Manas in the past few days.
Worries by the American government about the future of Manas is likely one of the factors (this is overlooked by mainstream media sources due to all the focus on the soured relations between the U.S. and Pakistan) that explains Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Uzbekistan. Tthe U.S. had had a military presence in Uzbekistan in the early stages of the Afghan war yet this ended when Karimov expelled the Americans after the U.S. criticized his regime for a violent crackdown on student protesters in 2005–the “Andijan Massacre”. There is also pressure on Kyrgyzstan to join the Customs Union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Were this to happen, Western powers, mainly the United States, would likely apply counter pressure, either with threats of financial sanctions under the guise of violating WTO agreements or with a treat in the form of increased foreign aid, in exchange for not joining the Union.
In the immediate aftermath of the elections, some factors that may have a significant effect on political events include: a more pronounced division between those who identify themselves as “northern” and “southern”; rising Kyrgyz ethnic nationalism; efforts at foreign investment by companies with interests in mining and hydroelectric power; and efforts by the United States, Russia and to a lesser extend China to increase their influence in Kyrgyzstan and in Central Asia. The “north-south” division may well be a more prominent factor in the short term. Both Tashiev and Mudumarov are widely perceived to be “southern” politicians and each is capable of mobilizing supporters for street protests, should they choose to do so. As of this morning Radio Free/Radio Liberty is reporting that 1,000 Tashiev were blocking the Bishkek-Osh highway near the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal Abad. Regardless of how conflicts over the election are resolved, it is reasonable to predict that from a longer term perspective ethnic nationalism and conflicts over how to promote economic development will remain key sources of conflict.
The final report on the June 2010 violence by the Kyrgyzstan Independent Commission can be found here.
Readers can also check out the following English language news sources:
Eurasianet (a Soros site devoted to news on Central Asia).
Two recent books with insightful analysis include:
Dilip Hiro, Inside Central Asia (London, Overlook Duckworth, 2009)
Eric McGlinchey, Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia (Pittsburg, Pittsburg University Press, 2011).
Jon Mahoney, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Kansas State University. From January-July, 2011 Jon was a Fulbright scholar at the American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.