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With Long Political Winter Ahead, Kyrgyz Parliamentarism Waits To Take Root

  • Daisy Sindelar

A woman sells dried curds at the central market in Bishkek, back to normal after April's violence.

A woman sells dried curds at the central market in Bishkek, back to normal after April's violence.

BISHKEK -- At the bustling central market in the Kyrgyz capital, vendors measure out scoopfuls of roasted almonds, dried apricots, and the tough but addictive sour curds known as "kurut."

It's business as usual -- a far cry from the days of early April, when the Bishkek market became a gathering point for crowds as clashes between police and opposition forces overtook the city, leading to dozens of deaths and the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Weeks later ethnic riots in June in the country's south had left an estimated 400 people dead and cast a seemingly permanent shadow over Kyrgyzstan's democratic future.

But now, Kyrgyzstan has done a political 180, abandoning presidential rule and its vulnerability to nepotism and clan loyalties, and taking its first tentative steps as the first Central Asian country where the parliament, not the president, holds most of the decision-making power.

Speaking just days before the first session of the newly elected and empowered Zhogurku Kenesh, market vendor Rakhat said she was hopeful the new parliament can put an end to a long season of uncertainty and harsh regional divisions.

"People just want to live happily. We don't want to worry about our safety," Rakhat said. "I participated in the elections, and I voted for Ata-Jurt. They say that they're all Bakiev's people, but they're not, they're just our people. People shouldn't be divided into different groups. They're going to work well, I'm sure of it."

Many Hurdles Ahead

An ethnic Uzbek man inspects the ruins of his house, destroyed during the clashes in June, in the city of Osh.
But not everyone is so sure. This moment marks yet another chance for a stable, democratic Kyrgyzstan to rise from the ashes of its third political overhaul in just over five years. But there are numerous factors working against it, including unavoidable pressure from Russia, and Western partners whose enthusiasm for the Kyrgyz experiment has waned since the 2005 Tulip Revolution, when Kyrgyzstan joined Georgia and Ukraine as a much-ballyhooed triumvirate of post-Soviet democracy.

The internal hurdles may be even steeper. As the year's violence demonstrates, Kyrgyzstan remains a country of deep ethnic, regional, and tribal divisions. If this latest political machination fails, some fear Kyrgyzstan could backpedal from a progressive ideal to a short-lived experiment done in by clan warfare and political rivalries.

To be sure, parliamentarism has gotten off to a slow start. It's taken a long month of squabbling to get from the hotly contested elections to the first session of the new parliament, and even now it's not certain when the actual wheels of governance will grind into motion, or if they will succeed once they do.

Many in parliament -- including Rakhat's party of choice, Ata-Jurt (Fatherland), which was the first-place finisher with 28 of 120 seats -- are firmly opposed to the parliamentary system, ushered in by constitutional referendum in July.

This acrimony matters less if the two main pro-parliamentary parties -- the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken (Fatherland) -- can reach consensus and form a ruling coalition with the amenable Respublika, putting Ata-Jurt and Ar-Namys (Dignity), a second party favoring a return to strong presidential rule, into the opposition.

Betting On Stability

Such a troika was widely anticipated in the days following the October 10 election. Since then, however, negotiations have bogged down under the weight of power-sharing equations and the very real antipathy that an interested and powerful neighbor, Russia, feels toward Ata-Meken -- whose leader, Omurbek Tekebaev, was the driving force behind Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary makeover.

One day after the parliament's November 10 opening session, a frustrated interim President Roza Otunbaeva tasked the Social Democrats with forming a coalition. If, after 15 days, no deal is made, the baton passes to Ata-Meken, and from there to the general parliament. If no coalition is hatched within 45 days, parliament will be dissolved in favor of fresh elections -- an outcome that Otunbaeva and other reformists are desperate to avoid.

Omurbek Tekebaev believes a parliamentary coalition will outlast previous regimes.
Several days before the first parliamentary session on November 10, Tekebaev -- the man seen by many as at the center of the drama -- brushed off questions about coalition talks, saying with a tired laugh, "by the 44th day, I think all our politicians will be ready to forget about all their principles and all their hostilities."

Tekebaev, a seasoned lawmaker who is considered a highly adroit political insider, preferred to focus not on his own professional prospects, which may be dim in the short term, but the prognosis for parliamentarism. Drinking coffee in his office at Ata-Meken headquarters, with party officials buzzing anxiously outside, he said Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary democracy was here to stay -- at least for a while.

"A lot of people say that parliamentarism will fall apart, and that the government will turn over frequently. I want to say this: under our previous, presidential regimes, the average lifespan of any given government never lasted longer than a year or a year and a half," he said. "I'm certain that a coalition government will break all those records and last longer."

Moscow's Man In Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan has long been held up as a great democratic hope in a highly illiberal neighborhood. Even before the 2005 Tulip Revolution that ousted him, then-President Askar Akaev was seen as the least offensive of the Central Asian autocrats, allowing multiparty elections and a functioning, albeit highly managed, civil society. Bakiev, his replacement, rose to power on the wings of U.S. democracy-building efforts before succumbing to the corruption and favoritism that proved his downfall.

Two dramatically overthrown presidents later, Kyrgyzstan's pro-democratic forces would appear to be losing their early momentum -- with Russia, the paternal onlooker, steadily regaining strength. But Orozbek Moldaliev, a Bishkek-based political analyst, says that this time, Kyrgyzstan has gotten the formula right.

If a single head of state failed to protect the country from Russian pressure, the new parliamentary overhaul -- and Bishkek's ambition to set a progressive example for its post-Soviet neighbors -- sends Moscow a new message.

Moldaliev says that "for Russia it's better to have a single, obedient president. He doesn't even have to be that obedient. That's OK. It's always possible to find a tool -- a carrot and stick -- for dealing with a president, as opposed to 120 deputies. One-hundred and twenty is impossible to manage."

Analyst Orozbek Moldaliev says a strong president can be manipulated by the country's neighbors.
To be certain, Russia has invested considerable energy in ensuring its presence is felt in the new parliamentary arena. All but one of the parliamentary party heads has spent time in Moscow since the elections -- Tekebaev being the exception. And any party seen as enjoying smooth ties with Moscow, left out of Kyrgyzstan's last revolution, has gained political currency as a group that can deliver stability at home.

With this in mind, pragmatists have suggested that Respublika (whose leader, Omurbek Babanov, has strong business ties with Russia) and the Social Democrats (whose head, Almazbek Atambaev, secured $50 million in Russian loans following the April revolution) may ultimately find a partnership with Ata-Jurt and Ar-Namys (both openly pro-Russian) a more suitable political strategy.

Fears Of Gridlock

But while such a move might appear politically astute in terms of getting the green light from Moscow, it would deal a serious blow to Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary experiment and, in all likelihood, make the practice of day-to-day governance unworkable.

Kuban Abdymen, the editor of the "Z-Press" news website and a member of the Zamandash political party, which failed to pass the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, says five "entirely antagonistic" parties are now facing off in parliament.

With hopes fading fast for a pro-parliamentary coalition deal, Abdymen says he's fearful the legislature will grind to a halt at a time when immediate action is required to address Kyrgyzstan's $2.5 billion foreign debt and the wintertime uptick in energy expenditures.

"Another coalition will collapse by the New Year, and drag the Kyrgyz economy down with it," Abdymen says. "So even now you can say that the situation in parliament, even after work has begun on forming a coalition, will be headed toward a dead end from the very start. I'm afraid that by next spring, the parliament may be paralyzed."

Few expect a fresh outbreak of street protests in the winter months ahead, although a failure to strike any coalition deal within the 45-day limit would force new elections and raise the potential for unrest. Even if a coalition is forged, there are worries that this brief window of opportunity -- a wait-and-see moment for Kyrgyz parliamentarism -- could prove for naught if lawmakers bog down in infighting and stalemate.

If pro-parliament forces fail to make good on their political experiment by spring, observers say, public patience -- already thin -- will break down. This in turn could hand opponents of the parliamentary system a useful advantage as the country approaches presidential elections in October 2011.

Otunbaeva has willingly accepted a weaker mandate in deference to the parliamentary system she supports. A candidate backed by Ar-Namys or Ata-Jurt, however, would more than likely seek to reverse this year's constitutional amendments and put an end, at least temporarily, to Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary democracy.

Such an outcome would be a crushing defeat to those, like Abdymen, who see parliamentarism as the best panacea for the character-driven politics that have dominated Kyrgyz government and made it vulnerable to pressure from its autocratic neighbors.

"There's democracy, but no parliamentarism. That's a dilemma that needs to be resolved," Abdymen says. "But we're not in the proper state to resolve it ourselves, because our economy is very weak. And if it's weak, we're more dependent on countries that are close to us and that have a greater influence on us than other countries -- like Russia, like Kazakhstan, and especially like Uzbekistan."

Serving The People

The fate of Kyrgyz parliamentarism may be a dry talking point for all but the most devoted political animals. But it is inextricably linked to an intensely emotional one: the deepening divide between the country's north and south.

The vicious violence between native ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that briefly gripped the southern regions of Osh and Jalalabad in June was seen in part as a response to the ouster of Bakiev, a native southerner, by political elitists in the country's north who backed the parliamentary reforms.

Marat Imankulov: "Smart people learn from others' mistakes; an idiot learns from his own."
Even now, the interim government's response to recovery efforts in the south has been seen as sluggish, and may explain the strong southern turnout for nationalist, pro-Russia, and pro-presidentialist parties Ata-Jurt and Ar-Namys. There are fears that any chess games in parliament could lead to fresh outbreaks of violence in the south.

There are concerns that other ills will resurface as well. Even as corruption trials of Bakiev and his relatives proceed in Bishkek, Otunbaeva and her supporters have cried foul over the recent decision by the Pentagon to extend a controversial multimillion-dollar deal with a little-known firm, Mina Corporation, to supply fuel to the U.S. transit center at Bishkek's Manas Airport, a key transport hub for the military campaign in Afghanistan.

Government prosecutors believe Mina was tied to numerous corruption schemes that fed millions in profit to the families of both Bakiev and Akaev. The renewed defense contract will only fuel concerns that payment channels may now be rerouted to other political figures, and that the cycle of Kyrgyz corruption will prove unbreakable. The Pentagon decision to override Bishkek's calls to delay the deal may also serve as a depressing suggestion, for some, that Kyrgyz democracy-building is no longer a policy priority in Washington.

Corruption is just one of the myriad challenges facing Kyrgyzstan in the coming months. Marat Imankulov, who has served as head of the country's Security Council since August, says he believes the public "has had enough" of demonstrations and political violence.

But that still leaves a lot on his to-do list. Imankulov, who headed the national-security services in southern Osh and Jalalabad regions before heading up the CIS's counterterrorism center in Moscow, cites drug smuggling, organized crime, and religious extremism as mounting concerns, particularly in hot-button cities like Osh, where many say the summer violence was as much about mafia turf wars as it was about ethnic rivalries.

It's time, Imankulov says, to change the situation in the country, "starting at the roots" with economic and security issues. If there's one lesson he says Kyrgyz officials should have learned from this tumultuous year, it's that public welfare cannot be ignored.

"We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the previous regime. You know the Russian saying? 'Smart people learn from others' mistakes; an idiot learns from his own,'" Imankulov says.

"The state is there to provide for the security of its people, to let them live well. The previous regime was operating with the mind-set that they represented Kyrgyzstan, and that the people should work for them. That was their biggest mistake."

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