Kyrgyzstan’s chance to stand out in Central Asia

Landmark vote in post-Soviet state sets an example in a regional sea of authoritarianism.

More than 2,000 candidates representing 14 parties are running for the 120 seats in parliament [Igor Kovalenko/EPA]
More than 2,000 candidates representing 14 parties are running for the 120 seats in parliament [Igor Kovalenko/EPA]

As Kyrgyzstan holds a landmark election, I feel the interconnectedness of it all. I wake in the dark to the competing sound of the Muezzins’ calls, echoing off Mount Sulayman in the dusty crossroad city of Osh.

Here in the heart of Central Asia, the battle for power has not yet been lost or won. Soviet murals survive on decaying walls.

Arcs of influence intersect, fracture and refract. My friend Mohamed has turned away from a secular, Russified lifestyle. He is following an arc of faith, as young and old like him turn to Islam.

But the arcs of the Kremlin are still strong. Gazprom, Russian gas provider, is king in Kyrgyzstan. Russian media is a staple diet for many, and the Moscow-led Eurasian Union appears to have given Russian exports a boost. Kyrgyz farmers are asking the campaigning politicians why they have been unable to sell as much of their crops this year as their produce fails to flow northward.

As we drive through the south, I marvel at another arc – the flexing wing of China’s quiet economic expansion – its construction of gleaming pylons and new, un-potholed roads that wend their way through Kyrgyz mountains and valleys.

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Then there are the waning American and European arcs of influence. The United States has lost its military base in Kyrgyzstan. But Vladimir Putin still has his. The Western buttressing of civil society and human rights risks buckling under the weight of strident Kyrgyz nationalism. It in turn has been inspired by Russia’s arc of intolerance, cloning a clampdown on sexual minorities and civic groups that espouse liberal freedoms.

It’s impossible not to notice the outflowing arcs of migration – a million or more Kyrgyz, a fifth of the population, emptying the land to labour abroad, most of them an underclass in unremarkable towns across – you guessed it – Russia.

Gulnara, who spends her days picking through radioactive wasteland in Mailuu-Suu for nickel castings (a legacy of Soviet uranium mining) earns a dollar a day. She dreams of taking her whole family to Russia. At least, she says, she might one day afford to send her 18-year-old son.

Despite this desperation, visitors to Kyrgyzstan must be beguiled by its uniqueness and its beauty. They may be drawn by its perpetual mountain peaks of white or by its vibrant society, its mixed suburbs of Russian, Tartar, Caucasian and Kyrgyz, whose children still play together in the back yards of Bishkek’s housing estates.

They may even be beguiled by its politics. Kyrgyzstan’s president, Almazbek Atambayev hasn’t stolen like his predecessors, or his neighbours. He does exercise a strong grip over the state, but he likes to remind everyone that in two years’ time he’ll leave without a fight, in accordance with the constitution. He wants to go down in history for having done things differently. We don’t know yet whether he’ll get his wish.

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My old friend and colleague, Maria Golovina, who frequently travelled to Kyrgyzstan to report for the Reuters news agency and who tragically died this year before her time, used to say that in this part of the world everything runs in a five-year cycle.

Ten years ago Kyrgyz citizens celebrated their Tulip Revolution triumphantly expelling Askar Akayev their first president and his family, for having grown rotten with corruption.

Five years ago the country experienced another political earthquake followed by inter-ethnic rage after then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was punished for the same gluttony as his predecessor. At least 87 people bled to death on the streets of Bishkek. He fled with his tail between his legs to Belarus.

So what will be the outcome this time round? Kyrgyz democracy, to put it mildly, problematic. It is a competition between a scheming oligarch elite for an ineffectual parliament. It is plural and unpredictable, yet thin and brittle, and saturated with the unpalatable taste of the ethno-nationalists for whom diversity is a dirty word.

Plural, because 14 political parties are competing, something Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan are incapable of conceiving. Unpredictable, because, unlike other elections in this part of the world, the outcome is uncertain. The Kyrgyz government has introduced a biometric voting system to eliminate fraud.

Thin, because the same oligarchs the electorate voted for in 2010 have formed cynical alliances political expedience, sometimes with arch rivals. Their political parties offer little choice in terms of policy. And from the billboards and posters, so many candidates peer down at the electorate with sullen faces as if impassive to the endless problems facing ordinary voters – the systemic corruption, the unbearable fuel and electricity price hikes, a tumbling currency.

Brittle, because there is nothing some Kyrgyz politicians like more to do than to start a protest movement, blockade a road, or incite violence if the outcome doesn’t go their way. No one has forgotten this country’s capacity for bloodshed. Hundreds died – the majority of them Uzbek – in Osh, in flaming June 2010’s pogroms.

But for all its imperfections, Kyrgyz democracy still has a chance to prevail, buffeted as it is by changeable gales of internal and external influence. Because, despite it all, it is stubbornly persistent, bobbing in a Central Asian sea of authoritarianism.

Kyrgyz people on horseback with the flags of political party ‘Bir Bol’ (We shall be together), in Ala-Too village about 30km from Bishkek [Igor Kovalenko/EPA]
Source : Al Jazeera


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