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Qishloq Ovozi

Topchubek Turgunaliev (right) and Jypar Jeksheev, two of the five co-chairmen of the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement, address a protest rally demanding democratic reforms in central Bishkek on June 5, 1990.

Kyrgyzstan has faced some rough times since 2005, with revolutions and ethnic violence among the myriad problems that have beset the country.

But it also remains ahead of its Central Asia neighbors when it comes to democracy. I know that is a very relative statement, but I want to draw attention to a recent event that could only happen in Kyrgyzstan. It shows that the small, mountainous country of 5.5 million people continues to stand apart from the other countries in the region.

At the end of May, members of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan (DDK) met at the Kyrgyz National Drama Theater in the capital, Bishkek. It was the same theater where the DDK was founded in 1990.

The story of the DDK in 1990 resembles events in many former Soviet republics. Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika had loosened some of the restrictions on forming political groups, and young people -- and some not so young people -- were testing the boundaries of this newfound opportunity. Kyrgyzstan was no exception, but events in Kyrgyzstan in the first months of the DDK's existence were, in hindsight, an example of what was to come.

In June 1990, ethnic violence broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in the first Osh riots, and Soviet troops were needed to stop the fighting. In October 1990, it was Kyrgyzstan's turn to "elect" a republican president -- the same process that had seen Nursultan Nazarbaev become president of Kazakhstan, Islam Karimov become president of Uzbekistan, and, at the end of October 1990, Saparmurat Niyazov become president of Turkmenistan. Each was the first secretary of the Communist Party in his respective Soviet republic. The paradigm was established, and it seemed the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic, Absamat Masaliev, would assume that same role.

But neither he nor his opponent in the election, the president of the Council of Ministers of Kyrgyz S.S.R., Apas Jumagulov, received a majority of votes in the Supreme Soviet, and eventually an alternative candidate was chosen: Askar Akaev.

Leading up to May 1990, some of the more ambitious political activists of the time decided the anticommunist parties and movements that already existed were insufficient to influence politics in "Kirghizia," and unity was needed if new views and ideas would have any chance of being at least heard, if not necessarily realized.

The DDK elected five co-chairmen: the leader of the Asaba (Flag) party, Kadyr Matkaziev; a co-leader of the Ashar movement, Jypar Jeksheev; Topchubek Turgunaliev, who was a mainstay in Kyrgyzstan's opposition for much of the 1990s; Tolon Dyikanbaev; and writer Kazat Akmatov. The list of members and supporters of the DDK reads like a "who's who" of politics in independent Kyrgyzstan, but I'll limit myself to mentioning Abdygani Erkebaev, later a speaker of parliament; Kubanychbek Jumaliev, later a prime minister; and Tursunbek Akun and Tursubai Bakir Uulu, both of whom later served as Kyrgyz ombudsmen. Various ethnic groups were represented in the DDK, the movement's draft program was drawn up by Kamilya Kenenbaeva from the Women's Pedagogical Institute in Bishkek, and the draft regulations were prepared by my friend, the former director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, Tynchtykbek Tchoroev.

Returning to May 2015, the DDK held a reunion. That might not sound like much, but consider what my colleagues at Azattyk asked me: In what other Central Asia state could you hold a reunion of opposition activists from 1990?

In every other Central Asian state, opposition leaders of that era (those who are still alive) have either fled the country or are in jail. The systems of government in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are designed, to varying degrees, to quash government opponents. Yet in Kyrgyzstan such people were just honored for their contributions in helping the country start down a different, more hopeful, path.

None of this means Kyrgyzstan does not have a long list of issues to confront, and certainly pressure from the Kremlin has led the Kyrgyz government to consider some odious legislation recently. For instance, the antigay and foreign-agent laws.

But Kyrgyzstan is still ahead of its neighbors regarding rights for its citizens.

For those who doubt that, I would recommend watching parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan later this year and then comparing what you see with parliamentary elections in any other Central Asian state.

-- RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

*For those who would like to know more about the DDK and events in Kyrgyzstan just prior to and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, you can download a relevant text in Russian here.

An employee changes an exchange rate at a currency exchange office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February.

When Russia's economic decline started last year, many people forecast the effects would soon be acutely felt in Central Asia. These predictions were correct and six months into 2015 the signs of an economic downturn in Central Asia have been manifesting themselves.

To look at what is happening and how far the economic situation could further deteriorate RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel of experts.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating in the discussion from London was Alex Nice, a writer and analyst covering Central Asia for The Economist, and from Washington Catherine Putz, editor at The Diplomat and author of many articles about Central Asia. Here in the studio in Prague, Uzbek Service director Alisher Sidikov took part, as did our intern from Glasgow University, Bradley Jardine. I made some remarks also, as always.

A drop in remittances from Russia to Central Asia was unavoidable. At times there have been as many as 8 million citizens of Central Asian countries working in Russia. Most came from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. According to Russia's central bank, during 2013 migrant laborers sent some $6.63 billion to Uzbekistan, some $4.15 billion to Tajikistan, and $2.08 billion to Kyrgyzstan.

Sidikov noted that statistics from Russia on June 18 showed remittances to Uzbekistan fell by some 49 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2014. The National Bank of Tajikistan said the same day that remittances from Russia to Tajikistan in the first three months of 2015 fell 43.8 percent compared to 2014. Kyrgyz officials said at the start of June that remittances from Russia had dropped 37.3 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of this year.

But Sidikov explained that the drop in remittances did not presage a mass return of Uzbekistan's migrant laborers. He said some of Uzbekistan's migrant laborers in Russia are simply relocating from places such as Moscow and St. Petersburg to other areas inside Russia, like Tatarstan. And others are heading to Turkey, Middle Eastern countries, or even South Korea to find work.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan do not have so many migrant laborers as their Central Asian neighbor neighbors, but their economies have also been hit due to their reliance on hydrocarbons as their major exports.

Nice pointed out that "whereas last year we saw a growth of 5 percent [in Kazakhstan], then it's on course to be closer to 1 or 1.5 percent [in 2015]." Nice said the falling price of oil had hit Kazakhstan's economy hard, and, accompanied by yet another delay in the commercial launch of the country's key Kashagan oil-field project, this could lead to a slowdown in investment and delays in the completion of projects, like Kashagan, that are already under way.

Jardine noted that Turkmenistan had "been hit by the fact its partners no longer want to import [and] it's been hit by the falling prices." Russian imports have fallen from more than 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) less than 10 years ago to 4 bcm this year. Iran has already announced its expanding internal pipeline network will soon mitigate the need to import Turkmen gas for the Islamic republic's northern provinces. That leaves China as the only long-term customer for Turkmen gas and currently Turkmenistan is still using its gas shipments to pay off Chinese loans used to build the pipelines from Turkmenistan to China.

Putz added that "commodity prices across the board have fallen, so...you have the Uzbek economy very much wrapped up in cotton, that falls, gold in Kyrgyzstan, and similarly materials in Tajikistan, and so even states which are not necessarily rich in hydrocarbons still feel the effect."

All that has led to a devaluation of all five countries' currencies and while that has not yet led to serious social unrest, Nice predicted further devaluation was likely in the months ahead.

One more complication: an abnormal cold spell early this spring severely damaged fruit trees in the Ferghana Valley and it remains to be seen how that will affect the harvest this year.

What Can Be Done?

So what can the Central Asian governments do to alleviate the situation?

Nice said Kazakhstan was in a better position than the others since "they have the resources from the sovereign wealth fund to launch a counter-stimulus program to try to support growth which they've done, some $3 billion a year for the next three years."

The other four countries are not in the same position. Sidikov soberly stated that Uzbek President Islam Karimov, an economist by training, has been in power for a quarter of a century. During this time as head of state "whatever he could have done with the economy he's done," Sidikov said, holding out little hope that the Uzbek authorities could be creative in finding solutions to these current problems.

Putz pointed out that "some of these economic problems...they feel more acute right now but they're not new." Authorities in Central Asia have simply not prepared for the eventuality in which they now find themselves.

The five Central Asian states have always been more than content to rely on outside entities to help them out financially, especially Russia. But with Russia increasingly burdened with its own financial problems, China has taken the investment lead in Central Asia. It would be fair to say that without Chinese money in Central Asia, the region would be in dire straits at the moment.

One suggestion was to allow Western companies greater access to Central Asian projects. Western companies did play a large role in Central Asia during the 1990s but have signed few major contracts since the turn of the century. This is partly due to the risk factor of doing business in Central Asia, an area known for rampant corruption. But in the case of hydrocarbon projects in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it has also been due to those governments' reluctance to sign contracts with Western companies to develop oil and gas fields on their territories.

The panel discussed these issues and others, such as the reasons international financial organizations accept the Central Asian governments' economic figures, and the entire roundtable 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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