By Gulay Mutlu
Kyrgyzstan is one of the Central Asian countries that is surrounded by authoritarian regimes and trying to pass toward democracy. Among these countries, it also has a different political history. In 2011, at the end of October, Almazbek Atambayev, the prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, was elected president. This election was the most significant event that began in a new era in the democratic development of Kyrgyzstan. From that point of view, the election has a symbolic meaning for the country. Prior to the presidential elections, the authority of the president had been reduced and the power of the parliament gradually became greater. That means in its twentieth year of independence, power changed hands peacefully in Kyrgyzstan.
Brave enough to change itself
The most significant issue in Kyrgyzstan which led to two uprisings in the country is the north-south division. Presidents represented their regions before the 2010 uprising. The president, who favored his relatives and clans, was not supported by others. However, Atambayev, whose main constituency is in the more urbanized north, has gained significant support from the south which includes Uzbek minorities by using the slogan “Kyrgyzstan is for all”. He has obtained support from ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks and become a unifying figure among them.
Bakiev was widely considered an authoritarian leader. He gave too much power to the institutions of the presidency and provided too much wealth to his family. Although today institutional changes have enhanced the parliamentary system, the worry remains about corruption in Kyrgyz politics and society. Despite the concerns about the political instability of the country, it can be said that the transition is continuing smoothly.
In the past, politicians have been involved in fraud and corruption. However, today the progress that Kyrgyzstan has shown can not be ignored. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia which is brave enough to change itself and pass to a democratic regime. Moreover, it is the first country to determine the political system it needs to overcome its domestic and international problems. Therefore, having succeeded or not, its effort to achieve a transition is much more valuable. Bishkek shows this courage right in the middle of its authoritarian neighbors and is making efforts to become an “island of democracy” in the region.
Regional effects of “island of democracy”
It is not only a difficult path but also a painful process to skip to democracy. However Kyrgyzstan is the pioneer country in Central Asia brave enough to do that. The Russian position toward the democratic transition of Kyrgyzstan is not neutral. First, Russia was accused by President Atambayev of “shirking financial obligations and interfering in the Kyrgyz Republic’s domestic politics.” It shows that Moscow has concerns about a democratic Kyrgyzstan, from the perspective of the region. Since Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in the region, for a democratic transition,it must enhance its economic and social structure by means of financing. Second, authoritarian regimes are more manageable for both Russia and China. They have an argument that if the authoritarian regimes change and democracy prevails in Central Asia, the Western influence will be increased in the region. Consequently, it will be difficult to affect these countries both politically and socially. That point of view reflects the Russian position toward democracy for not only Kyrgyzstan but also for the whole region. If Kyrgyzstan succeeds in the transition process, this will mean instability to Russia, since Russia dominates the region more easily through authoritarian regimes. A wave of democracy originating from Kyrgyzstan may spread in the region, resulting in a shift of axes toward the West and threaten Russia’s dominant role in the region.Russia has always been on the opposite side of the “colored revolutions” and it is still against changing regimes in the Middle East and Africa.
Other Central Asian countries are also suspicious about the transition to democracy in Kyrgyzstan. There are two options for the country. If it succeeds in the transition process it will serve as a good model for Central Asian nations.Protests may spread to nations in the region. For instance, some leaders in Central Asia became anxious after the unrest in Middle Eastern and African countries due to the possibility of the protests spreading towards their borderlands. On the other hand, if it fails, it will be a good model for the other Central Asian leaders in supporting the status-quo, i.e. the current authoritarian regimes. They can use the negative results of the transition as a disincentive factor in their respective countries.
Kyrgyzstan is about to make a historic transition in its domestic and foreign policy. While laying the foundations of a democratic system, which is of utmost importance for the future of the country, Bishkek and international actors are trying to dissipate the significant deficiencies in the infrastructure. As long as Bishkek succeeds in the implementation of the reforms, it will manage to collect its social, political and economic benefits in addition to posing a truly thriving model toward Central Asia.
1. Economist intelligence Unit, Country Report 3rd Quarter 2012, p.14