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Kyrgyzstan: Experts Think Country Faces Democracy Test

President Bakiev at his inauguration on 14 August Kyrgyzstan’s new government and parliament must soon confront a range of tough questions that will show citizens the sincerity of reform pledges and signal where power is centered. Experts from a Washington-based agency involved in Kyrgyz electoral reforms say the relationship between new President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the parliament elected in February will be a key factor affecting institutional changes. They anticipate few foreign policy changes but worry about the impact of unrest in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Washington, 18 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Experts from the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) say the new leadership of Kyrgyzstan has skillfully handled a series of challenges during its short period in power.

But in a roundtable discussion this week in Washington, they said President Bakiev’s government will have to act soon on economic and institutional problems to sustain popular support five months after the ouster of Askar Akaev.

Eric Rudenshiold, who directs IFES programs in Europe and Asia and previously worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Central Asia, said Bakiev, legitimately elected in July, is likely to be challenged by the new parliament, which was brought to power by polls that were contested and eventually led to Akaev’s departure.

“I think one of the first challenges that the Bakiev presidency faces is around the reform of the constitution, whether there will be a popular referendum or whether there will be parliamentary decision, because [among] many of the issues that come to fore that are looking to be discussed will be the restructuring of this parliament, whether there will be a magic 30 seats added on a party list system or whether there will be a redo of the elections per se,” Rudenshiold said.

Bakiev and other interim Kyrgyz leaders agreed after the March revolution not to immediately hold new elections to preserve calm.

The result, said Rudenshiold, is a chamber in which there is a “blank slate” of members lacking a discernable power bloc. That contrasts with the pro-government parliamentary majorities enjoyed by new presidents in Georgia and Ukraine following leadership changes in those two countries.

Rudenshiold added that the Kyrgyz parliament has a number of Akayev supporters, which has raised concern among some citizens.

“In talking to young people, some of the youth groups that IFES works with, I know it’s a source of concern to them," Rudenshiold said. "They consider this an illegally elected parliament whereas older voters tend to look at it as the parliament and something which they are saddled with one way or another.”
"The Bakiev dealing with heightened expectations and now greater levels of populism and a greater idea of citizen engagement in politics.”

Rudenshiold said more electoral reforms are necessary, including a revamping of voter lists, new campaign finance provisions, and further training of election professionals.

Bakiev, in his recent inaugural speech, promised to battle corruption and address the country’s serious economic problems. Kyrgyzstan is a poor, landlocked country with a mostly agricultural economy and a per capita gross domestic product of $1,600.

Tom Wood, a Kyrgyzstan program officer for IFES, said it is significant that the country’s change in regimes did not involve large-scale violence, ethnic conflict, or foreign intervention.

But he told the roundtable discussion that a newly activist citizenry will soon be demanding government action to improve the economy.

“The rural poverty that has arisen due to collapsing infrastructure and botched land reform continues to have a serious impact on the economy," Wood said. "Again, the Bakiev government will have a very narrow window to address this issue. It’s dealing with heightened expectations and now greater levels of populism and a greater idea of citizen engagement in politics.”

Panelists said government leaders adeptly handled the recent crisis over the influx of hundreds of refugees fleeing a crackdown in neighboring Uzbekistan. Most of the refugees have been relocated to third countries despite Uzbek pressure for their return.

But the country, with a large ethnic Uzbek population, will continue to be vulnerable to upheavals in Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyzstan must continue to deal with the implications of the Uzbek crackdown in May against an uprising in Andijon, said Anthony Bowyer, program manager for the Central Asia division of IFES. He said Uzbekistan’s call for the United States to vacate a key air base places further pressure on Kyrgyzstan, where another U.S. base is located.

“It really does put Kyrgyzstan in an interesting and awkward position to try to balance their commitments to the war on terror with the United States, the interests of the Russian Federation, and some are suggesting, China,” Bowyer said.

IFES trained thousands of Kyrgyz Central Electoral Commission workers for July’s presidential polls. The foundation, a nongovernmental organization, also receives funding from the United States to manage projects in civil society development and civic education in Kyrgyzstan.

[For more on the region, see our "Central Asia In Focus" webpage.]