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Will Central Asia's Autocrats Follow Kyrgyz Example?

  • Daisy Sindelar

Kyrgyzstan's President-elect Almazbek Atambaev (centre) on the campaign trail last month.

Kyrgyzstan's President-elect Almazbek Atambaev (centre) on the campaign trail last month.

Kyrgyzstan's bumpy presidential election this October 30 drew a few harsh words from the international community, which approved the results but said "significant" work was still needed to avoid voter irregularities.

But for perspective, look around the Central Asian neighborhood.

There's Kazakhstan, where the OSCE condemned April's presidential vote for their "absence of opposition candidates" and "non-competitive environment."

Or Tajikistan, where observers said parliamentary polls last year "failed on many basic democratic standards."

Finally, there's Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which have repeatedly been ranked among the most repressive regimes in the world by the Freedom House watchdog group.

In a region dominated by long-ruling autocrats, Kyrgyzstan stands out as a progressive, if struggling, exception.

A Distinctive Parliamentary System

Its election on October 30 of Almazbek Atambaev, the country's moderate prime minister, came at the end of a lively campaign season featuring 16 candidates and boisterous debates.

Atambaev -- unlike his Central Asian counterparts, three of whom have entered or are nearing their third decade of leadership -- is slated to serve for a single, six-year term.

And he has vowed to preserve the country's parliamentary system of government, which is unique to the region and was established last year to shatter strong presidential rule.

To many outside the former Soviet space, Kyrgyzstan is frequently held up as the sole democratic hope in a region shackled by authoritarian rule. Within Central Asia, however, people are less impressed.

While ordinary Central Asians may see Kyrgyzstan as an enviable model, other observers see their mountainous neighbor of 5 million as weak, unstable, and a compelling argument for preserving the status quo at home.

Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Kyrgyzstan, enjoys robust educational and political exchanges with its neighbor to the north, which serves as the regional hub for many international universities and think tanks.

Regional And Ethnic Friction

But that border became a flashpoint when Tajik militants were accused of participating in ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan's south in June 2010.

The situation remained tense in the months that followed, when Kyrgyz officials accused Tajikistan of harboring relatives of ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who had been toppled in April by public protests.

Bakiev's ouster and the death of nearly 500 Uzbek and Kyrgyz civilians in the unexplained clashes were the low points in a tumultuous year for Kyrgyzstan, and alerted Tajikistan to the dangers of regional and ethnic friction.

Even now, Rahmatullo Zoirov, the head of Tajikistan's opposition Social Democratic Party, sees the Kyrgyz election as a competition between north and south -- and one that Atambaev, the northern candidate, was able to win because of his close ties to Bishkek and the outgoing president, Roza Otunbaeva:

"In elections where you have a struggle between a legislative government and executive authority, this [Kyrgyz] vote demonstrates that the executive government is going to be more powerful," he says. "Atambaev's main rival was [Adakhan] Madumarov, the parliament speaker. Madumarov is one of the leaders from the south."

"Atambaev is one of the main leaders from the north. Therefore, the opportunities for the executive government to organize the election were much better than the parliament's."

Uzbekistan's Dismissive Attitude

In Uzbekistan, a relatively isolated nation of 27 million, President Islam Karimov has maintained a dismissive attitude toward his far smaller neighbor to the east.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Uzbek newspapers and television offered little information about the Kyrgyz presidential contest, and in general, any media coverage -- like that of last year's deadly clashes, in which ethnic Uzbeks were the disproportionate victims -- tend to focus on Uzbekistan's own, preferably paternal, role in the events.

Even seasoned Uzbek observers and known critics of Karimov see little to envy in Kyrgyzstan, which they view as uncultured and violent compared to Uzbekistan's historical reputation as a Silk Road sophisticate.

Sociologist Bakhadir Musaev, a respected commentator on Central Asia, believes last year's brutal clashes leave Kyrgyzstan in no position to serve as a political standard-bearer:

"Considering what has happened at the cost of so many lost lives, is this democracy?" he asks.

'Unbridled Nationalism'

"We're seeing unbridled nationalism of the most primitive kind, and you're talking about sprouts of democracy. It's a lie.

"And these [leaders] have been called pioneers in building a parliamentary republic. It's a myth.

"They are nobodies, blank spaces. They are being manipulated by someone who wants this piece of land for geopolitical reasons."

Kyrgyzstan traditionally enjoys closer relations with its massive and wealthy neighbor to the north, Kazakhstan, with whom it shares strong cultural ties and to whom it looks for friendly investment.

But Kyrgyzstan, which has few natural resources and is highly dependent on remittances from migrant workers, is ultimately a partner of little consequence for oil-rich Kazakhstan, whose per capita income is more than 10 times greater.

Kazakhstan's longstanding President Nursultan Nazarbaev

Kazakhstan's longstanding President Nursultan Nazarbaev

The country's de facto president-for-life, Nursultan Nazarbaev -- who as the first leader of independent Kazakhstan enjoys special rights to stand for eternal reelection -- has defended strong presidential rule as the reason for his country's economic success, and has heard few complaints from a large and compliant middle class.

Some observers have suggested Nazarbaev would be among the most eager to see Kyrgyzstan renounce its parliamentary system, which could be seen as a threat to strong presidential rule if it begins to thrive.

But Nazarbaev seems unruffled, and has on at least one occasion said publicly, "If you think things are bad [in Kazakhstan], go to Kyrgyzstan and you'll find out what bad is."

One observer noted wryly that just as Sicily is forever associated with the mafia, Kyrgyzstan, for many Kazakhs, is associated with the looting and chaos of last year's unrest.

'Young Democracy Has Passed The Test'

Still, some in Kazakh political circles see something to admire in Kyrgyzstan's different approach.

Amirzhan Kossanov, the deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, maintains that Kyrgyzstan's model may prove more persuasive if it can emerge from its recent history of political turmoil and prove itself to be a stable and thriving parliamentary democracy.

"In any case, Kyrgyzstan's young democracy has passed the test," he says, adding that the country still needs time to reflect on and reassess the legacy of ousted former presidents Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev.

"There could be an effort by those connected with previous regimes and by different kind of clans to influence Kyrgyz politics," he says.

"But all of these are part of a lively process, and if Kyrgyzstan remains on the track set by its current constitution and laws, then it will definitely become a model for other neighboring states."

While Central Asia's autocrats may be the last to endorse the Kyrgyz model, there are signs that ordinary citizens are looking on with admiration.

In a comment submitted to the website of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, a reader identified only as a migrant wrote that "The Tajik people should know that there is no reason we should be different than the Kyrgyz people. Our great nation also deserves the better life that the Kyrgyz people have achieved for themselves."

RFE/RL correspondents Balzhan Kalakova and Nurmuhammad Kholov contributed to this report

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