4 November 2011
Kyrgyzstan is situated in a neighborhood in which no other resembles it. Like it or not, and if not still showing a first class success, Kyrgyzstan has managed to build a kind of democracy that was working as seen few days ago. Kyrgyzstan conducted Presidential elections on 30 October that was free, transparent and democratic in Central Asian standards. Since the ouster of Kurmanbak Bakiyev in April 2010, Kyrgyzstan has improved its democratic credentials, and people of the country have shown their approval of this by voting yes to the leaders of April 2010 ‘revolution’ with % 63 in the elections. Few screams of the defeated were heard but remained minor and weak. There are however still great domestic challenges that both the President and government in the country have to deal with from imrovement of economic well-being and reduction of corruption to reconcliation between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups living in the south of the country. Prolongation of these problems will always put the Kyrgyz politics into the risk of facing violent social and political changes similar to the ones withnessed twice within 20 years of its short independence.
If domestic problems all together is one thing, external challenge is another in the case of Kyrgyzstan. They are, of course, strongly linked to one another in what shape and intensity they would take. Due to the weakness of the state and country, Kyrgyz democracy is very much open to external influences that are exerted in the forms of geopolitical games played by strong powers and antagonism exerted by neighbouring Central Asian states. Of these actors, Russia is the most important and influencial one. While Russia strongly being in the region, it can be seen that Kyrgyzstan can and will only be able to have a level of democracy that Armenia has since independence enjoyed under Russia’s orbit. Of couse not without any condition, that is, if Kyrgyzstan plays the game according to the rules set by Vladimir Putin.
The ‘Land’, The ‘Lord’ and the Return of the ‘King’
Central Asia as a whole is a land whose ‘lordship’ has gradually moved back to Russia’s orbit especially under Putin- a ‘King’ who is now getting ready to re-claim his ‘throne’ in the Kremlin. Russia’s renewed dynamism in economic, political and security arenas in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan in particular is perhaps the most crucial determining factor on the fate of Kyrgyz democracy in the coming years.
While he was still being the Prime Minister of the country, the newly-elected President, Almazbek Atambayev, already uttered positive views on whether his country should be part of Russian-led Customs Union that came into force in January 2010 between the Russian Federation, Belarus and Kazakstan. Despite some opposite views that participation of Kyrgyzstan could harm country’s economic interests referring particulalry to those with China and committments made in the World Trade Organisation, Atambayev has all along been willing to joining to the grouping of the three. This decision of Atambayev seemed to be perhaps made out of both economic necessity and political ‘obligation’ towards Russia. By doing this, Kyrgyzstan will secure some economic gains like continuing to get Russian fuel with lower cost, new financial loans and credits that were cancelled due for the most part to Bakiyev’s mischiefs before he was ousted in April 2010, and free movement of migrant Kygzy workers in the Russian Federation, number of whom are reported to be 600 thousands. It is important to note that remittances of Kyrgyz workers in Russia are made up of 40 % of Kyrgyzstan’s annual budget- a significant income for a country in which most people only earn about $ 1000 for their annual livelihoods.
In his Article in Izvestia on 4 October, Putin said “we are not going to stop here [Customs Union] and are setting an ambitious goal- to achieve an even higher integration level in the Eurasian Union.” Neither will the latest Eurasian Union proposal of Putin face a challenge from Atambayev on Kyrgyzstan’s own part since the latter already thanked the soon-to-be-‘recrowned King’ of the Kremlin in a number of times for his support in hard times of the country and the run up to the Presidential elections. It is not indeed a coincidence for many observers in and out of Kyrgyzstan that Atambayev was a man of Putin and whose support was seen as the main factor in the recent race to the top job in the Kyrgyz elections.
On the security sector, Russia, or in true sense of the word Putin, factor can be clearly seen and heard. The new President of Kyrgyzstan has repeated again and again that Manas Air Base used by the US in the war effort in Afghanistan will be closed by the end of the lease in 2014. Why does he need to repeat this pledge so often while there are still a lengty time to discuss the contract? Likewise, Kyrgyz, Russian and American parties recently sorted out the most contentious fuel delivery issue to the Manas Base since the overthrow of Bakiyev by taking the Russian side into the business. Nothing, but the Putin factor tells the truth. It is him who was all the way strongly opposed to the maintenance of the Manas Base during the Bakiyev reign. It was one of the main factors that led to the ouster of Bakiyev. In fact, Putin’s opposition to the Manas Base was not necessarily caused by its harm to the Russia’s national interests. Just the opposite, when realistically thinking, the Manas Base was and is an important element in the figth against radicalism and drug trafficking in Afghanistan and whose stabilisation is of great importance for the security of Russian Federation. Why then? It is just for pride Putin feels and so to play a greater role in the region and not to leave the place like a free land where the US seems to have largely rode its own horses. What will then all these make with Kyrgyz democracy?
Armenian Model for Kyrgyz Democracy
Cutting it short, Russia is the main actor in the region and Kyrgyzstan in particular. It seems to continue like that for a considerable time period as Putin, the main architect of a numer of Russian economic, politcal and security assertiveness in Cenral Asia since 2000, set off for the Kremlin in 2012. All these do not suggest Kyrgyz democracy will fail in its accomplishment of more proggress. Quite the opposite, it can still make.
Kyrgyzstan will not have anything better to offer in the name of democracy in Post-Soviet space than what Armenia has already offered. Unlike other states in post-Soviet territories, Armenia has enjoyed at least a certain degree of electoral democracy- smooth successions of Presidents/governments via elections which were faily transparant and democratic. But this has been succeeded by the Armenian policy makers only through political, economic and security integration with Russia. Today at least 80 %, if not all, Armenian economy is owned and run by Russian capital from construction and telecomunication industries to energy sector. Country’s security has been long taken under guarantee by Russian arms sold in lower prices to Yerevan and military base in Gymri, the lease of which was extended up until 2044 with the agrement signed in August 2010. Also, Armenia is the most enthusiastic supporter among all post-Soviet countries on stronger political and military integration around Russian-led organisations like Commonwealth of Independent States and Collective Security Threaty Organisation. Hence, Armenia has long been safe and secure in economic and political terms thanks to Russia, and able to excersise its ‘unique’ democracy under that protection, and will look like to be so at least until the year 2044. After then? Who knows what happens in this geography!
All these suggest very clearly that as long as Kyrgyzstan continues to act in line with what Putin wants it to act in political, economic and security matters, then Kyrgyzstan can excercise as much freedom and democracy as it would like to have. The Kyrgyz state, no matter if it is democratic or not, is far from resolving its heavy domestic problems. It has always been, and will likey be, in need of material, financial and security asistance from outside. No other power, but Russia, is willing to provide such a level of assistance to Kyrgyzstan. It appears that Atambayev has already been promissed of getting Russian financial aid since the release of about $ 107 million loan to Kyrgyzstan through Minister of Finance of Russia is being in these days talked. Other actors like the US and EU are very cautious and weary about what kind of solid policies they should adopt towards Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general. Comparing Russian presence in the country, economic and military engagement of these actors always remained cautiously designed and stingily implemented. In terms of their democracy advocacy, both the US and the EU already threw in the towel as seen in the examples of their re-engagemet with Islam Kerimov of Uzbekistan without any condition on the latter’s appalling democracy rank and human rights crimes.
In such a domestic and international environment, the new democracy attempt of Kyrgyzstan will probably be bound to what others are thinking and doing about it. Most importantly, it will be Putin, as the new ‘King’ in the Kremlin from 2012 onwards. As long as Kyrgyz leadership manages to establish a fine balance and sustains it manly between Russia and the US, it may have a chance to enhance its democratic development, at least in electoral form, in a confined space of country’s trecherous borders. Kyrgyz democracy will therefore still be as lonely as it has been in Central Asia for a long time, just like the one Armenia has about 20 years ‘relished’ in the South Caucasus.