For many years Kyrgyzstan was the darling of the international community, a purported island of democracy in the rising tide of post-Soviet autocracies. The back-to-back overthrows of Kyrgyzstan’s presidents in 2005 and 2010 have given the lie to that status. Some regard the coups as true revolutions expressing the will of the people and putting the country on the right, albeit difficult, path. Others regard them as the blows of a sledgehammer, beating at the country’s institutions and leaving Kyrgyzstan on the precipice of state failure.
Post-Soviet Central Asia has been the subject of intense research in the past 20 years. Yet, in the light of recent history, important questions remain unanswered. Most immediately, why are coups becoming the default channels, structurally and culturally, for regime change in Kyrgyzstan?
Despite a democratic constitution including detailed guidelines for peaceful transitions of power, to date, Kyrgyzstan’s only true means of regime change has been the coup. That is because, first, leaders and ruling clans have been bent upon establishing a lifelong presidency or dynastic rule. In pursuit of these aims, they helped to corrupt and criminalize society, thereby weakening legal institutions. Second, civil society is weak. Even the opposition parties have failed to promote democracy and unite people to demand democratic rule of law. Finally, clans and regional groups have become strong special interests acting both within and around the legal political system and pushing the country to violent regime change. Allow me to illustrate how these key factors played out during the administrations of presidents Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev.
One thing I understand from my 15 years of experience in politics is that presidents, speakers of parliament, and other top leaders in a country should follow certain rules if they want to stay in power and go peacefully. The first rule is to forget lifelong rule and dynasties and limit the family’s access to power. Both Kyrgyz presidents made a fatal error when they decided to set up their own dynasties. The second rule is to stay away from corruption. Corrupt presidents corner themselves into aggression toward their political opponents, because there is really no other way for them to stave off claims of their corruption. Aggression triggers resistance, which in turn spurs even greater aggression on the leader’s part, leading to vicious circles apt to spin out of control, as happened in 2005 and again in 2010.
Akaev’s presidency was marked throughout by a conflict between two trends in his policy: tolerance of pluralism and authoritarianism. Bakiev viewed his predecessor’s liberal predilections as a weakness and took the course of consolidating his own personal power. With assistance from Moscow, he adopted Vladimir Putin’s strategy of “sovereign democracy.” To this end, he subjugated all other branches of power to the presidency, removing even the weakest remaining checks and balances, and became increasingly hostile toward democracy and human rights. When he announced that he would protect his power by violence if necessary, he rang the death knell for peaceful and legitimate regime change.
In the face of such despotism, however, organized peaceful resistance a la Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movement or the Chilean plebiscite in 1988 was a possibility, both theoretically and practically. There were several attempts to organize peaceful protest movements, referendums, even peaceful paralysis of state institutions to force the president to resign or start reforms. The mass demonstrations of 2006, 2007, and 2009 ended with the adoption of a new constitution and the dismissal of a few odious members of government. But success was fleeting.
Unfortunately, much of the opposition shared the presidents’ views of democracy, human rights, and corruption. Not surprisingly, the part of the Kyrgyz opposition that came to power on the wave of revolution in 2005 helped Bakiev to establish an authoritarian regime.
Outside observers of Kyrgyzstan tend to view the country’s politics through the prism of political parties and civil society organizations. These were born mainly during the Soviet perestroika period and survive to this day. On the ground, however, Kyrgyzstan’s political engine is powered by ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic minority clans, regional groups, and criminal elements. Political activity in many cases is little more than window dressing. For instance, more than a fifth of candidates put forward by political parties in this weekend’s elections to parliament are close relatives of influential politicians. Clans and regional groups in Kyrgyzstan base their resistance to overarching authority on a tradition of intolerance, rooted in history and culture, to monopolies of political and economic power. Even in the USSR clans thrived and pursued power within the communist political system. In order to survive, Kyrgyz leaders need to work cleverly with and balance among clans and regional groups. But this is very hard to do – it requires superb flexibility and personal strength.
Akaev deftly manipulated, and often bought off, southern clans to help him to stay in power for 15 years. But, in playing with southern clans, he failed to stop the criminalization of the south and the emergence of dangerous new clans and regional groups. Bakiev temporarily subjugated the powerful southern clans and succeeded in buying off the northern ones. But his policy of placing family members in high-ranking positions precipitated the open attack of non-loyal independent clans and regional groups, which culminated in the most recent coup. Both presidents, particularly in the lead-up to their sudden falls, refused to share any power with groups not absolutely loyal to them, leaving no choice for such groups but to seek overthrow.
Two examples serve to illustrate the workings of clan politics. In the autumn of 2004, several members of the Kyrgyz parliament visited my ambassadorial office in New Delhi. All were from the south. They told me about a secret congress in Osh, an assembly of southern clans called to select a potential presidential candidate. Four months later all of them played a decisive role in defeating Akaev’s regime. The dismantling of the president’s power started in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad and culminated in the capital. In April 2010, the rule of the second authoritarian president, Bakiev, crumbled first of all in the northern Talas province, setting off a chain of events culminating in his final overthrow on the streets of Bishkek. After the falsified presidential elections in July 2009, a secret meeting took place among some northern clans and their allies from the south. They recognized that a coup was the only way to change the regime.
In a referendum in June, Kyrgyz voters backed a new constitution that moves away from the idea of monopoly of power. Coalition and consensus will be the bywords of the new parliament elected this weekend. Now a new crop of politicians needs to show they're able to practice what for this country is a new kind of politics, and pave a road to peaceful change of power, through fair elections. They have a chance to challenge the assumption that their country is destined – by location and historical circumstance – to tyranny and violence.
Transitions Online (TOL) is a media development organization and online journal covering news and events in the 29 post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe, Central Europe, South Eastern Europe, Russia, the Baltics, the Caucasus, Central Asia.http://relaunch.tol.org/client/article/21856-kyrgyz-democracys-narrowing-window-of-opportunity.html?print