After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Western policy makers viewed Kyrgyzstan as an island of pluralism in a sea of autocracy. Partly for that reason, the West has also developed closer strategic ties with Kyrgyzstan than with its neighbors. The Manas Air Base is a major transport hub supporting the war in Afghanistan, and on the tarmac there visitors can observe U.S. C-17 military aircraft parked alongside Russian Antonov-124s.
Yet successive Kyrgyz leaders have descended further into authoritarianism, only to be unseated in successive revolutions in 2005 and in April this year. This feeds a sense that the country is growing less stable despite its early promise.
The great danger is that the political instability that has unseated authoritarian leaders could take on a life of its own if a functioning democratic government doesn't take shape quickly. Recent events have given a foretaste of what that instability could look like. In June, a vicious round of ethnic violence erupted in the southern part of the country that disproportionately impacted ethnic Uzbeks who have lived in or around the cities of Osh and Jalalabad since before Soviet rule. The official death toll is 430, but interim President Roza Otunbayeva has lent credence to separate estimates that fatalities could be in the thousands.
That rock threatens to set off damaging ripples if something isn't done soon. Already ethnic Kyrgyz nationalists are playing up the idea that both Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were equal victims of the rioting; in reality, the Uzbek minority bore the brunt of it. To say the Uzbeks suffered more is increasingly considered anti-Kyrgyz through much of the country. To date, only Uzbeks have been tried for participating in the rioting, while ethnic Kyrgyz perpetrators go free. If a pluralistic democracy doesn't take shape to offer Uzbeks and other minorities a political forum for demanding justice, new cycles of nationalism and violence could take shape.
The government that emerges from Sunday's elections also must move swiftly to tackle economic problems. In a country where per capita GDP is about $1,000, rampant corruption has seeded deep resentment and real questions about the capacity of the current crop of politicians to govern effectively.
To date, the provisional government has demonstrated no success in controlling drug barons in the south, with whom its predecessors got along by cutting live-and-let-live deals. Meanwhile, today's youth receive a lower quality education than their parents, see few prospects for jobs beyond becoming migrant laborers in Russia, and increasingly appear to be a lost generation prone, if not to violence such as June's, then to criminality or Islamic fundamentalism, which are growing forces in the febrile south. "If we don't like this new government," a focus group participant told our moderator recently, "we'll just have another revolution."
To have any hope of tackling these problems, political parties participating in the election must show remarkable restraint and statesmanship after the voting. Above all, they must avoid either a protracted divvying of the spoils or a preoccupation with crying foul and settling old scores. President Otubayeva has shown herself to be a thoughtful, if sometimes powerless, leader. She has wisely established a security pact that would cancel the elections in the event of violence. Since that would effectively put to waste the millions of dollars that some 29 parties have already invested in their respective bids for seats in parliament, it offers a powerful incentive to participate in good faith.
Currently, a pro-reform party that took the lead in drafting the new constitution this past spring competes against the Social Democrats; nationalist parties that are waging a slick campaign but are widely seen as comprising cronies of the former regime; and several overtly pro-Russian parties calling for "an iron rule of law." One potential flashpoint would come if the nationalist parties popular in the south don't make it over the national threshold to secure seats in parliament. "If administrative resources are used against us [to keep us out of parliament], we will definitely go to the streets," Yursulan Toychubekov of Ata Jurt, one of the leading nationalist parties, told us.
All parties need to focus less on zero-sum games and more on offering practical solutions for the problems voters care most about: corruption, jobs, security and a fair justice system. Kyrgyzstan's people have shown they're tired of authoritarian rule by casting off authoritarians. Now a new crop of politicians need to show they're able to practice what for this country is a new kind of politics. They now have a chance to challenge the assumption that their country is destined—by location and historical circumstance—to tyranny.