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A Sinking ‘Island of Democracy’

by Ben Judah 26 August 2009 BISHKEK | Kurmanbek Bakiev was once hailed as a democrat, ascending to the presidency of this Central Asian republic during the "tulip revolution" of 2005. Without natural resources like oil or gas to fuel an over-powerful executive and a secular post-Soviet society in the capital, Bishkek, it was hoped that Kyrgyzstan could offer a progressive alternative to the neighboring authoritarian regimes that surround it. But following afraudulent presidential election on 23 July and a growing pattern of arbitrary arrests and draconian control laws, Kyrgyzstan is sliding backward.

Bakyt Beshimov is a member of the Kyrgyz parliament and deputy chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party. He was the campaign chief to the leading challenger to the presidency, Almazbek Atambayev. He is not optimistic about the future. "Kyrgyzstan became an authoritarian country as soon as Bakiev started implementing a policy of liquidating liberties in 2006. Bakiev then rolled back the democratic gains of the past 15 years. We are now more than authoritarian state. We are entering despotism. Kyrgyzstan was once an island of democracy in Central Asia that has now sunk to the bottom of the ocean."

The rock that Kyrgyz democracy has foundered on has been Bakiev's geopolitical success in playing off both Russia and the United States. In February, Kyrgyzstan took a massive aid package from Moscow in return for closing down the U.S. air base atManas , a critical link in the supply-chain to Afghanistan - then in July reopened it (as a "transit centre") in return for a higher rent. Russia has responded by deciding to open a further base in the country, again at the cost of greater support for Bakiev. This has muted international criticism and emboldened the government.

Opposition supporters believe that the United States has betrayed its democratic principles in exchange for access to Manas. Even at night the scale of the operation there is intimidating. Alongside the few Soviet-era planes using Manas international airport, dozens of hulking unmarked U.S. aircraft land every few hours. Sergei, who works at the airport, believes that this presence comes at a cost. "Look at the size of it.. ... Obama only cares about that ... not our democracy. ... They help Bakiev more than a thousand police officers by needing this place."


Since the July election, activists have been arrested and journalists driven from the country. Diana is a young human-rights campaigner. On 25 July she was arrested when trying to hold a vigil for protesters in Iran. "We were holding a peaceful gathering for those being persecuted in Iran when the police arrived. They were very aggressive. They barked at us, ‘So why have you come down to the streets?' I was then arrested and taken immediately to the police station. We were fined on the spot for breaking Bakiev's laws." She is nervous that next time she may be imprisoned.

In early July the independent journalist Almaz Tashiyev was severely beaten by eight police officers. This vocal critic of the government died following surgery. In early August, Syrgak Abdyldaev, a prominent journalist, fled Kyrgyzstan with his wife after receiving death threats. Bakiev's government passed a repressive media law in 2008, part of a process that has in recent years seen his son Maxim Bakiev construct a web of influence and control over national television. Shamaral Machiyev, chairman of the Bishkek branch of the International Court of Arbitration, explained the deteriorating situation: "Over the past year we have seen a dramatic rise in the number of attacks on journalists. We have called repeatedly for actions to protect reporters and permit them to work safely. But it is still too early to say after the elections as to whether or not the situation will continue to degenerate."

Saltanat Baetova is a lawyer linked to the opposition. "It is clear to me that Bakiev and his clan have been planning to implement this harsh rule for years. In September 2008 they passed the Law for Peaceful Meetings and Demonstrations, and a succession of special laws and bylaws has strictly limited freedom of assembly. There is only one place in Bishkek were we are allowed to rally and that is right at the very edge of the city. There no one can see you." She is disappointed by the opposition's lack of effectiveness since the elections and believes the political degeneration is set to continue.

Tolekan Ismailova is the director of the Human Rights Centre - Citizens against Corruption. She believes that the government murdered her husband. "He was a leading critic of the state and when he fell ill ... he was given the wrong medication in extremely suspicious circumstances that point directly to the government. It was murder." She dries her eyes and continues. "I am certain that they will try and kill me. My security situation is extremely precarious." She was arrested and temporarily detained when protesting against the election results on 25 July.

"I used to travel to Uzbekistan and be shocked by what I saw there ... but it's fast becoming like that here. Once the summer holidays are over we are going to see a rash of anti-NGO laws. They want things to be just as they are in Putin's Russia." Ismailova is dismissive of the opposition that attempted to face down Bakiev at the polls. "The opposition is not effective and contains many of the same old corrupt elements. These people are not for the most part sincere defenders of human rights."


The members of Kyrgyzstan's anti-government intelligentsia now live amid suspicion. Mars Sariyev is a prominent independent political analyst. At mid-point in our interview, he noticed somebody listening into the conversation. "Sorry," he said, "I think we should move to another table. ... You never know here ... with the informers."

He believes that Kyrgyz society is degenerating. "In fact if you look behind the political labels of the government and the opposition you will see that both are clientele networks based on tribal clans. Kyrgyz history has for most of the past century been an oscillation of power between northern and southern clans, and now power is primarily in the hands of Bakiev's Ichkerlik group. The opposition is primarily from the Utuz-Uul group, though both have links and allies across the country. I am concerned that we are seeing society becoming increasingly tribal zed, breaking up the nation. We could be drifting toward the kind of social makeup, if not the violence, one sees in northern Afghanistan. And there is nothing more dangerous than tribal politics."

Since 2005, Bakiev's family has carved up national wealth among themselves. With security forces in the hands of his brother Janys Bakiev and media orchestrated by his eldest son, Maxim, rumors circulate among Bishkek's reporters and academics that tensions between the two will determine the coming course of politics. But the outskirts of the city tell a different story. Here unemployed young men are turning old, without the money even to start a family.

Timur has recently started going to the mosque. "Democracy has failed here ... and like a ghost in the machine the dictatorship is back. ... We need order but virtue above all. We need more Islam." The Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir is growing in Kyrgyzstan. There have been arrests of Islamic radicals and a security operation that involved the storming of a small refuge for supposed Taliban volunteers in Kosh-Korgon; both have raised alarm that the social conditions that breed terrorism elsewhere might be emerging in rural Kyrgyzstan. Bakyt Beshimov, the lawmaker, agrees. "There are two grand political projects that I perceive competing for the Central Asian future: that of secularized modernity and that of Islamism. As the government moves to isolate and box in the secular opposition it is paving the way for a far more dangerous Islamist force to take our place."
Ben Judah is a journalist in Moscow and an international correspondent with ISN Security Watch. This article originally appeared on
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