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Who Will Choose Kyrgyzstan's Future?

A Kyrgyz man casts his ballot into a portable ballot box at his home during parliamentary elections in the village of Kyzyl-Berlik on October 10.
A Kyrgyz man casts his ballot into a portable ballot box at his home during parliamentary elections in the village of Kyzyl-Berlik on October 10.
Despite the fact that Kyrgyzstan's October 10 parliamentary elections went off smoothly and without violence, the vote has produced shocking and unexpected results. Most observers -- myself included -- were surprised that the Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party placed first with 8.7 percent. Most of that party's leaders support former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was ousted from office by a popular uprising in April and has since been living in Belarus.

Perhaps the most shocking election result, however, was the extremely poor performance of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, which barely surpassed the 5 percent threshold for seats in parliament. Considering that Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebaev was a key architect of the constitutional reforms that shifted power to the parliament and were widely supported by Kyrgyz citizens, it was extremely odd to see his party end up in fifth place behind the Ata-Jurt party, the Social Democratic Party, and the pro-Russian Republic and Ar-Namys (Dignity) parties.

"Today is a historic day for the Republic of Kyrgyzstan," said interim President Roza Otunabeva on election day. "The people will choose their fate and their future."

Moscow's Top Priority

But perhaps Otunbaeva was being overly optimistic. What kind of future have the Kyrgyz people chosen by voting for the pro-Bakiev party, as well as for two Kremlin-backed parties? All three oppose the new constitution that the Kyrgyz people just endorsed in a referendum. All have pledged to restore the presidential system that produced corrupt, autocratic, one-man rule in Kyrgyzstan. It is clear where the impetus for these policies comes from. Destroying parliamentary democracy in Kyrgyzstan is Moscow's top priority in Central Asia these days.

This month's elections were the first time in the history of independent Kyrgyzstan that we saw such direct and brazen intervention by outside players. Some experts have estimated that as much as $70 million flowed into the election campaigns of the pro-Russian parties. Few doubt that Ar-Namys got generous financial support from Kremlin-linked patrons, although opaque political financing makes it impossible to know for certain.

It is worth recalling that in 2007, Feliks Kulov, the former prime minister who heads Ar-Namys, raised the idea of Kyrgyzstan joining the Russian Federation. Kulov does not speak Kyrgyz and, in my view, has never shown much regard for Kyrgyz statehood or sovereignty.

In the days just before the election, Social Democrat leader Almaz Atambaev, Republic party leader Omurbek Babnov, and Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) party head Temir Sariev all visited Moscow. But the man who was at the center of attention and who actually met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was Kulov.

Postelection Scheming?

So it came as no surprise when all four men flew off to the Kremlin again immediately after the October 10 vote. There were, of course, no official reports on what the politicians discussed, but analysts agree that the Kremlin is seeking to form a pro-Russia coalition that will dismantle the new parliamentary system, restore Russian-style autocratic rule in Kyrgyzstan, and pursue "pragmatic" policies vis-a-vis Russia.

Kulov claimed he traveled to Moscow to visit a sick friend but offered no explanation for why he was in the Kremlin. Ata-Jurt party head Myktybek Abdyladaev also rushed off to Moscow; he claimed he put off the process of negotiating a coalition in order to visit his Russian wife's relatives. I'm sure I'm not alone in being touched at what devoted friends and relatives our Kyrgyz politicians can be!

But many Kyrgyz citizens and journalists were more cynical, seeing these touching visits as attempts to undermine Kyrgyzstan's sovereignty. AKIpress published a satirical article that claimed the men had to fly to Moscow dressed as women to avoid the general opprobrium.

President Otunbaeva was unable to summon the party leaders to discuss the next steps in forming a coalition and a government because they were all off visiting friends and relatives in Moscow. Of course, their hasty trips had nothing to do with the prospects of more Kremlin money or their eagerness to be the first to get the Kremlin's blessing.

Blame To Go Around

Otunbaeva had to wait until October 19 to convene a gathering of all the party leaders.

During the run-up to the elections, Moscow made great efforts to undermine the campaigns of parties it views as "unpragmatic." The main target of the smear attacks was Tekebaev. Day after day, the Russian federal television channels praised the pro-Russian parties and hurled mud at Tekebaev. Because of the quasi-monopoly of Russian state television over Kyrgyzstan's airwaves, the Kremlin's soft power undoubtedly influenced the outcome of the elections.

This is not to say that Kyrgyzstan's politicians don't deserve a fair share of the blame. Many of them have showed that their personal goals and ambitions are their top priority. In the run-up to the vote, several parties missed an historic chance to guarantee a strong parliamentary faction by contesting the election as a coalition. It was widely expected that Social Democrat leader Atambaev and Ata-Meken's Tekebaev would form a bloc that would attract other April revolution supporters like Temir Sariev and Alikbek Jekshenkulov. That coalition, though, never materialized, and the fragmented supporters of the parliamentary system were unable to cope with Moscow's interference.

In the 10 days since the elections, the situation in Kyrgyzstan has become more tense. In Bishkek on October 20, a group of Kyrgyz youths demonstrated outside the Russian Embassy carrying placards reading, "Putin -- Hands Off Kyrgyzstan!" Across the country, there have been demonstrations in support of the April revolution, with protesters saying they would defend the April revolution and not allow the pro-Bakiev Ata-Jurt party to take power.

But in the face of these signs of unrest, the politicians have remained silent.

Possible Scenarios

As the situation now stands, I think there are three possible outcomes. First, a pro-parliamentary coalition could still be formed. Ata-Meken and the Social Democrats could cut a deal with the Republic party. Republic party leader Babanov is pro-Russian, but he is well-educated and fairly sophisticated. Under this scenario, a ruling coalition could be formed that would strengthen the new parliamentary democracy. However, although such a coalition is still being discussed, it seems highly unlikely.

A second possibility would be the emergence of a pro-Kremlin coalition comprising the four parties whose leaders went to Moscow following the elections. Under this scenario, Ata-Meken would be an opposition party in parliament and the government would set about the task of dismantling the parliamentary system and restoring authoritarian rule. Such a scenario is fraught with the danger of yet another popular uprising and more bloodshed.

The least likely scenario would be for all five parties to realize that they each have relatively low levels of support and that the Kyrgyz people are angry about the outside interference in the country’s affairs. Under this scenario, all five parties would agree to form a coalition government to defend Kyrgyzstan's sovereignty. However, given the divergent platforms of the five parties, such a coalition seems more than unlikely and would nonetheless be extremely fragile.

At the same time, several parties that did not receive enough votes to enter parliament have been demanding a recount and casting doubt on the validity of the results. Otunbaeva could annul the October 10 vote and call for new elections, possibly in February 2011.

Despite the developments of the last few weeks, I remain optimistic that parliamentary democracy can triumph in my country. Kyrgyzstan has a history of making its own choices. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Bishkek moved to launch its own national currency over the objections of many experts. But it quickly became apparent that this was the correct policy. When Kyrgyzstan applied to enter the World Trade Organization, experts again expressed doubts about the country's readiness. But Kyrgyzstan has turned out to be a successful member of the global trading bloc.

Now the Kyrgyz people have repeatedly rejected authoritarian presidential rule and are chafing against Moscow's efforts to reestablish it. The main question is whether the Kremlin will be wise enough to step back and allow the country to form a legitimate government or will it keep trying to impose its will until the next outburst of violence.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a Kyrgyz journalist based in Geneva. She has worked at BBC radio, RFE/RL, IWPR, and as editor in chief of independent newspaper "De Facto." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL