Kyrgyzstan is not just the only democracy in Central Asia but also has a more democratic political system than Russia and many other former Soviet states.
On Saturday, Kyrgyzstan's former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev was officially declared winner in a crucial presidential election held two weeks ago. Running against 15 candidates, he won nearly 63 per cent of the votes, well above the 50-per cent needed to dispense with a runoff.
Even though international monitors criticised faulty voter lists, cases of multiple voting and ballot stuffing, they applauded the free and peaceful election that reconfirmed Kyrgyzstan's status as an “Island of Democracy” in Central Asia.
The presidential poll marked a crucial stage in Kyrgyzstan's daring experiment of building a western-type democracy in an undemocratic regional environment. All other former Soviet states in Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have authoritarian or downright dictatorial regimes. The only other country that has seen a change in top leadership since the break-up of the Soviet Union two decades ago is Turkmenistan, where dictator Saparmurad Niyazov died five years ago.
The democratic experiment in Kyrgyzstan began even before the fall of the Soviet Union, when mathematician Askar Akayev, former president of the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, was elected the country's first President in 1990. He declared the goal of building a liberal democracy with western-style political institutions and free market economy.
However, the traditional society based on a network of tribal and clan identities and loyalties, which 70 years of Soviet communism failed to reform, prevailed again. Corruption, nepotism, and regional and ethnic rivalries stymied Mr. Akayev's political reforms. Economic reforms undertaken according to International Monetary Fund prescriptions finished the job the disintegration of the single Soviet economic machine started — they destroyed Kyrgyzstan's industry, which was the most developed in Central Asia, and plunged the country into poverty.
In 2005, people's anger against the greedy ruling clan fuelled by western human rights organisations erupted in violent riots that forced President Akayev to flee the country. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, proved even more rapacious, putting the economy under the control of his big family, while prices soared and poverty grew more glaring. A steep hike in fuel prices last year provoked the popular revolt that topped the Bakiyev regime.
Opposition leaders led by westernised politician Rosa Otunbayeva, a former ambassador to the U.S. and the United Kingdom, who came to power after Mr. Bakiyev's ouster, decided that the Kyrgyz political system was not liberal enough. They wrote a new Constitution to devolve authority from the President to Parliament and the Prime Minister. It was the eighth time the Constitution was rewritten in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. The new Constitution won praise from the Venice Commission, the constitutional law advisory body of the Council of Europe, but was greeted with scepticism in Moscow. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that the parliamentary republic model could be a recipe for disaster in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan's transition from a presidential to parliamentary republic that began with the election of a new Parliament in October 2010 will be completed in December, when interim President Otunbayeva steps down and makes room for Mr. Atambaev. It will be a milestone for the Kyrgyz democracy: the country, for the first time, will see power change hands through orderly, contested elections rather than turmoil and violence. Kyrgyzstan today is not only the only democracy in Central Asia but has a more democratic political system than Russia and many other former Soviet states.
Some experts, however, think Kyrgyzstan has chosen the wrong path to democracy.
Murat Ukushov, a respected Kyrgyz authority on constitutional law, says it was a mistake to transplant the “advanced” European model of democracy. For, a western-type democracy will not work in a country that lacks an economic and social basis for it.
“The introduction of the parliamentary form of government in a vastly unprepared, politically and economically unstable society that is torn by tribal, clan and regional divisions is fraught with a power vacuum, anarchy and ochlocracy [mob rule], and may lead to the loss of statehood,” the expert wrote in a recent article.
Dr. Ukushov, who helped write the first Constitution of independent Kyrgyzstan in the early 1990s, today says it was the work of “young naïve romantic idealists.” Kyrgyzstan should adopt the so-called “Asian model” of transition to democracy “through authoritarianism and institutionalisation of authoritarian forms of democracy,” which has worked so well in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan.
The expert is convinced that Kyrgyzstan needs a strong government to cope with soaring crime, massive drug trafficking, rampant corruption, extreme ethnic enmities that take violent forms and authorities that practise double standards and lack public trust. “The paramount task facing Kyrgyzstan today is to enforce law and order, both in the government and in the country, using if necessary harsh methods,” he says.
However, a strong government is one thing that Kyrgyzstan lacks today. The President, limited to a single six-year term by the new Constitution, has also lost the authority to appoint the Prime Minister or influence the budget process. The Parliament elected last year is split as regional, clan-based and faction-torn parties struggle to form shaky coalitions. The state administration is paralysed by corruption and incompetence.
Meanwhile, challenges facing the new leadership are daunting. One of the most pressing tasks is healing the rift between the north and the south separated by high mountain ranges. Traditional rivalries between the better-off Europeanised and Russified north and the poor agricultural south have intensified since independence. Southern clans gained the upper hand when northerner Akayev was ousted by southerner Bakiyev in 2005. However, the north has now regained its dominance following the impressive victory of its main candidate, Atambaev, over his two main rivals from the south, former Parliament Speaker Adakhan Madumarov and ex-Emergency Services Minister Kamchibek Tashiyev, who came second and third with 14 per cent of the vote each. Unless the losers are offered some compensation for their defeat, they may foment turmoil in the explosive south.
Last year, the southern provinces saw the worst-ever ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan's history, provoked by supporters of the ousted President Bakiyev. Hundreds died in riots that targeted ethnic Uzbeks and tens of thousands fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Tensions are still running high as thousands of Uzbeks remain displaced and complain of continued harassment and discrimination. This creates a fertile ground for the spread of militant Islam in the region.
As Kyrgyzstan stumbled through chaotic regime changes, its population sank deeper into poverty. According to the U.N. World Food Programme, about 1.4 million people, or nearly one-third of its 5.5-million population, suffered from malnutrition in 2010 and the number has since grown. Up to a million working-age Kyrgyz earn a living as seasonal workers in Russia and Kazakhstan. The money they send home — about $2 billion — is comparable to Kyrgyzstan's budget and provides livelihood to every second family. Chronic poverty and lack of jobs have helped turn Kyrgyzstan into a major transit route for Afghan heroin. When Mr. Bakiyev was President, his family was accused of controlling the entire narcotics trade in Kyrgyzstan. Drug barons are believed to have instigated last year's bloody rioting in the country's south.
With these overwhelming problems threatening to undermine the Kyrgyz statehood, most candidates in last month's presidential elections vowed to rewrite the Constitution back to the presidential form but President-elect Atambaev said he would not touch the basic law. “I'm a team player,” he said. “I don't want to strengthen the authority of the President.”
Mr. Atambaev showed his political skills during the presidential race when he persuaded several serious rivals to stand down in his favour. Whether he would be just as successful as President will largely depend on how adroitly he walks the tightrope of relations with the two main outside players — Russia and the U.S., both of which have military bases in Kyrgyzstan.
The U.S. orchestrated the “tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan that toppled Mr. Akayev, while Russia reportedly had a hand in the ouster of Mr. Bakieyv after he reneged on his pledge to close the U.S. airbase in Kyrgyzstan.
Mr. Atambaev has indicated he is going to ally Kyrgyzstan closer to Russia. He reaffirmed his country's intention to join the customs union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, and at his very first post-election press conference promised to shut down the U.S. airbase when its lease expires in 2014. At the same time, Washington said the new Kyrgyz leadership had conveyed its willingness to hold talks on the future of the base, which brings $100 billion to the Kyrgyz budget in annual rent and service charges.
The last thing Kyrgyzstan's fragile democracy needs at this critical juncture of its evolution is to become once again a focal point of big power rivalries.