Kyrgyzstan: A Deceptive Calm
Asia Briefing N°79
14 Aug 2008
Long viewed as a relatively liberal aberration in Central Asia’s authoritarian landscape, Kyrgyzstan has since the autumn of 2007 transformed its political system into a functional one-party state ruled by a small elite, with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s family at its core. The key change came in December when, after an electoral campaign widely criticised for blatant bias in favour of the ruling party, a new parliament was returned that is dominated by Ak Zhol, President Bakiyev’s newly-created political machine, with decorative roles assigned to two parties that were apportioned seats in contravention to the electoral code. The opposition, sidelined by events, has lapsed into apathy, and a superficial calm has overtaken the usually boisterous political scene. This calm may, however, prove deceptive, given worsening corruption, increasing disillusionment with politics and a series of major economic crises that could strike before year’s end.
Thus far the changes have achieved one result: parliamentary democracy in Kyrgyzstan has been hobbled. The task of the new legislature, presidential aides say bluntly, is to implement the president’s will with minimal discussion and zero dissent. Though the innovations bear strong resemblances to both the Kazakh and Russian political systems, they were not introduced because of outside pressure. They are a good example of how the Vladimir Putin model of governance is being copied in Central Asia for personal interest rather than ideological affinity.
The president’s team was motivated purely by the desire to concentrate power in its hands. Bakiyev’s advisers claim they want to break out of the political paralysis and infighting that has marked the time since independence in 1991. The liberal democratic model has failed, they say; the Russian model of limited democracy, a marginalised opposition and strong presidential power is far better suited to the country at this stage in its development. They speak of pushing through over the next two years a program of radical privatisation, particularly of energy resources. Though there has been little sign of this so far, the ruling elite remains committed to selling off large parts of the country’s energy infrastructure as soon as it can.
The changes seem less a revolution than an intensified version of policies pursued by Bakiyev’s predecessor, Askar Akayev. The Akayev administration also concentrated power in family members and close supporters, played opposition factions off against each other, but was eventually overthrown in 2005 by the disgruntled political and business elite, led by Bakiyev, in the grandiloquently named Tulip Revolution. Instead of opening up politics, however, Bakiyev, too, is creating a system whose hallmarks are overweening control by the ruling family, widespread corruption and, most significantly, a monopoly over economic and political patronage. Critics allege that the newly strengthened political dispensation will simply transfer key national assets to the president’s relatives and close supporters.
There is concern also that Bakiyev’s “national agenda” is in fact a collection of personal, short-term priorities, and that major issues in need of attention – among them grinding poverty, HIV/AIDS and narcotics – will be ignored. Given the opposition’s disarray, there is little likelihood that Bakiyev’s plans will face any serious political challenge in the short run. He seems determined to stay in office until 2015 and then hand over to a successor who can be trusted to defend his family interests.
First, however, the Bakiyev administration has to survive the next winter. The success of the election operation infused the president’s team with a sense of infallibity that borders on hubris. The challenges it is facing now, however, are infinitely more complex than choreographing an election.
Inflation is developing disconcerting momentum. Food prices increased in the first six months of the year by at least 20 per cent. A major energy crisis, triggered by domestic factors, not world prices, is looming. Government handling of these issues has not been impressive. Complacency and vague talk of emergency plans has given way to appeals for outside aid, calls for a 30 per cent cut in winter electricity consumption and warnings there will be only enough power for light, not heating. Even more disturbing for the regime, perhaps, is growing speculation within society that it is not just mishandling the economy, but that corrupt members of the Bakiyev administration themselves contributed to the energy crisis. Such street talk is often based on little more than gossip but is frequently a sign of eroding confidence in the state. Many observers, including some presidential advisers, feel that pent-up popular anger – at spiralling food and fuel prices, power cuts and drastically declining public services – could well erupt when the weather turns cold.
Bishkek/Brussels, 14 August 2008