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Qishloq Ovozi

Candidates from the Bir Bol party attend an election rally in Naryn.

Kyrgyzstan is about to conduct what are, arguably, the most important elections in Central Asia's post-Soviet history. For the first time, the field going into parliamentary elections appears to be wide open among the 14 political parties competing.

Just as important for Kyrgyzstan, these elections could go a long way in restoring the image of the country as Central Asia's best hope for democracy, an image that has been damaged by two revolutions and an outbreak of interethnic violence since 2005.

Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia with a parliamentary system of government and these are the second elections to be held within the framework of this system.

The day of elections is October 4. More than 2,000 candidates are running for 120 seats in the Jorgorku Kenesh, or parliament. All the new deputies will be selected from party lists, so voters are casting ballots for parties, not individuals, though many of the candidates at the top of those party lists are familiar political figures.

No party can win more than 65 seats in parliament. At least 30 percent of the seats must go to female candidates and spaces are also reserved for representatives of ethnic groups and those with physical handicaps.

Kyrgyzstan's media has been reporting that, at most, six parties will win seats in parliament. But even so, driving around Bishkek it is clear that all 14 of the parties have been free to advertise themselves on billboards and other places around the Kyrgyz capital -- which speaks well for their ability to campaign, and in those neighboring Central Asian states that have had genuine opposition parties.

With only a few weeks left until the elections there have been no complaints by candidates or party supporters of interference in meeting with voters. Such accusations have been made in previous elections in Kyrgyzstan, and in neighboring Central Asian states where there are genuine opposition parties.

Not Without Problems

That said, Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections have never been free from controversy and these upcoming elections are no exception. There are 234 candidates on the party lists who have previously been charged with crimes; some have been sent to prison, three are currently fugitives. The head of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, Tuygunaly Abdraimov, said on September 4, the day campaigning officially started, that each party participating in the elections had "10 to 25 people previously charged" with some offense.

To register voters, Kyrgyzstan is using a new biometric system that has confused some voters. The population is currently at about 5.8 million, but only about 2.5 million are registered to cast ballots. There are several hundred thousand citizens outside the country, most working as migrant laborers in Russia. There will be six places where Kyrgyzstan's citizens in Russia can vote but Deputy Prime Minister Tayyrbek Sarpashev said at the start of September that he expected that "out of some 500,000, maybe 11,000 will go to cast ballots."

There have also been complaints from some political parties that their campaign posters have been removed from public places. Ata-Meken said some of their campaign posters had been removed from areas of Bishkek but authorities in Kyrgyzstan's capital explained that those posters were placed on the walls of businesses or private residences without the permission of the owners. Respublika-Ata-Jurt similarly complained about the removal of some of their campaign ads in the capital, but Bishkek officials said the party's pledge to have "roads without bribes" was insulting to local police. However, such campaign posters from Respublika-Ata-Jurt were still visible around Bishkek.

Something special is about to happen in Kyrgyzstan and, depending on the results and how the population accepts the final outcome, the country could go far in regaining its image as an "island of democracy" in Central Asia.

For the next couple of weeks I will be traveling around Kyrgyzstan speaking to as many people as possible about the upcoming poll, how they view the elections, what they know about the political parties, what they want from their elected members of parliament, and other matters related to the elections.

So if you want to know more about the upcoming parliamentary elections and what people think, or simply wish to have a short geography lesson on Kyrgyzstan, you can follow along as I make my way through the country, visiting not just the big towns and cities, but the smaller villages and settlements you'll have a hard time finding on any map.

The Aral Sea "is probably the classic example of mismanagement and man-made disaster."

Once, long ago, the Amu-Darya, one of Central Asia's two great rivers, emptied into the Caspian Sea. There is still evidence of the "Uzboy" canal system in what is now southwestern Turkmenistan and indications that some 4,000 years ago it was a rich agricultural area. Now it is just a desert and there are concerns that mismanagement of water resources and climate change could transform other parts of Central Asia into desert lands.

The region's population is roughly 10 times the size it was just 100 years ago, many of the same policies that led to the desiccation of the Aral Sea are still in place, the glaciers in the mountains to the east are melting at an alarming rate, and the effects of climate change are increasingly evident.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel discussion (majlis) to review the water situation in Central Asia and neighboring states, examine regional water-supply forecasts for 35, 50, or 100 years from now, and consider whether water could be cause for conflict there.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating in the discussion from Iran was Kaveh Madani, an expert in global water issues from the Imperial College in London, and Ryskeldi Satke, a Bishkek-based journalist who has been investigating the recession of Central Asia's glaciers and the causes of this process. And I had a few things to say also.

Satke started the discussion by citing figures from recent studies that showed that glaciers in the Tien-Shan Mountains in Central Asia "lost 27 percent of their total mass over the last 50 years" and that, by the year 2050, "the remaining ice in the Tien-Shan glaciers could be lost further."

Satke, who has written several articles on how the Kumtor gold-mining project in Kyrgyzstan has negatively affected a nearby glacier, pointed out that the problem of receding glaciers is not unique to Central Asia. He said that in "Afghanistan and Pakistan, 93 percent of the glaciers there [are] retreating the same way."

Madani drew attention to Lake Orumieh (Urmia) in Iran and noted similarities with Central Asia.

"What we are seeing in Lake Urmia was the Aral Sea syndrome, [and] Lake Urmia is not the only one. We're seeing this [syndrome] happening in many, many places."

Madani noted, though, that this syndrome is the product of mismanagement, not climate change.

"The Aral Sea is probably the classic example of mismanagement and man-made disaster but we're seeing this elsewhere. The problem is in the developing world."

It is still unclear how bad the situation is. Studies are being done now in some of the affected countries of inner Asia, but Satke recalled these studies only resumed relatively recently.

"After the '90s, when the Soviet state collapsed, for about two decades, for close to 15 years, there were no activities," he said. As a result, regarding the situation in Central Asia, there is only data from the Soviet period and roughly the last five years.

Even without comprehensive data, however, it is evident that a dire predicament exists, and that there is no immediate way out. It was noted during the discussion that Central Asia's population has risen from some 6 to 8 million at the start of the 20th century to some 66 million today. One of the main causes of the drying out of the Aral Sea was the irrigation of Central Asian land, particularly former colonial master Russia's decision to make the region Moscow's cotton plantation. Cotton is still a vital part of state revenue for most of the current Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan, though the plant requires a huge amount of water.

Added to all this are the creeping effects of climate change. Madani and Satke both said it is too early to tell how many of the current problems are the result of climate change, though unusual heat this summer in Central Asia and floods in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan could be indications of such a process.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov suggested in September 2012 that a scarcity of water could be reason for future regional wars. It already has been the source of conflict among small communities along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

But Madani cautioned that, to date, "we have never had in history two nations fighting over water." But he added that water has been mixed into a basket of grievances that have started wars. More optimistically, Madani said history shows there can be cooperation on water issues and such cooperation is not based on the style of governance between affected states -- even the despot can cooperate with the democrat over water issues.

These issues concerning water and its use in Central Asia were discussed in greater depth during the roundtable, as were other topics, such as the push for hydropower plants in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan or the possibilities for a regional approach to the growing problem.

An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here:​

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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