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No Georgia

The Kyrgyz are demanding change, not Georgian-style upheaval. If Kyrgyz leaders refuse to listen, the country’s economy, not just its politics, will be set back years. by David Lewis 23 August 2004 Editor’s note: This autumn and winter, most of Central Asia’s states will hold local or parliamentary elections (or, in Kyrgyzstan’s case, both). In all of them, democracy is limited. Nonetheless, the elections will be important milestones and indicate some significant choices. To provide readers with a senses of the stakes and the options in play, TOL invited the International Crisis Group, a think tank devoted to averting or alleviating crises, to write an editorial about Kyrgyzstan based on a report it produced on 11 August, “Political Transition in Kyrgyzstan: Problems and Prospects.”


When Kyrgyz citizens go to the polls to elect a new parliament and president in 2005, they will be making a statement not just about their own political future, but about the viability of democracy for the whole Central Asian region. Kyrgyzstan's political system has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, with President Askar Akaev seeking to bolster his position in the face of increased opposition.

Akaev should leave office in 2005, according to the constitution, because he has already served two terms, and he has promised international visitors that he will do so. But skeptics remain. Stepping down from the top job in a Central Asian state is not easy: A whole host of family members and hangers-on depend on you for protection and wealth. And there is always the fear that the new leader will try to blame everything on the old leadership--perhaps even try to prosecute him or his family.

In Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, this problem seems to have been largely resolved: None of those countries’ leaders shows any intention of stepping down. Like Heidar Aliev in Azerbaijan, they will probably leave office only in an ambulance.

Kyrgyzstan is a little different. First, there are some credible alternative candidates for the president's job; second, the country still has a fairly lively opposition, although riven by personal disputes; and third, Kyrgyzstan is highly dependent on external goodwill to keep its economy functioning, which is not the case in gas- and oil-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan or protectionist Uzbekistan.

Plenty of potential successors are waiting in the wings. Former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev is probably the most experienced, but popular opposition leaders, such as Adakhan Madumarov, will also likely be running. And as the political process heats up, more and more potential candidates will emerge, some of them experienced centrist officials who know the system from within. All of this is normal politics, and the Kyrgyz electorate is mature enough to make its own choice.

But a real transition of power would mean a good number of powerful people losing their jobs, and with them the economic and business advantages that make power so lucrative. So although the authorities make all the right noises about conducting free and fair elections, there are plenty who would like to see as little change to the status quo as possible.

The electoral process in Kyrgyzstan has always been under the control of the political authorities. Previous elections have been marked by wide-scale interference by electoral commissions and by the political authorities. Although the government has promised free and fair elections in 2005, nobody believes it will happen just like that. To make sure there is real competition, there needs to be agreement among elites to rely on the ballot box as the arbiter of political power, and an active civil society and media to back them up.

There is some progress in this direction. Centrist officials opposed to Akaev are beginning to talk--quietly so far--about ways they can unite to push for change. And civil society is starting to work on election-related issues. Apart from the NGO Coalition--a group of NGOs that provides independent monitors at election time--there are other NGOs, such as Civil Society Against Corruption, that will be actively involved in the electoral process. A program for NGOs funded by the U.S. Agency for Development (USAID) to run election-related projects will also promote further activities.

There are lots of divisions in Kyrgyz civil society, and a real artificiality about some NGOs. Many are dependent on external financing, opening them up to criticism from the authorities as being playthings of the Americans. But this external support is natural in the circumstances. Local businessmen who have tried to finance opposition parties have run into trouble very quickly; the state is happy to use the tax police or dubious criminal cases against businessmen to keep them in line. For the time being, international assistance will be a normal part of the Kyrgyz political process.

The international community could play a vital role. So far assistance has been slow in coming and poorly coordinated. The UN has an electoral assistance program, focused mainly on technical aid to the Central Electoral Commission. The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) is gradually beginning to put together some election-related programs, although its resources in Bishkek are stretched. Other major donors, such as the United States, have promised much but been slow to deliver. Now, some momentum is at last appearing, and USAID is putting together a series of programs, starting with local elections due in October 2004.

Beyond this electoral assistance, there needs to be political pressure on the government to allow elections to proceed without interference. With a foreign debt of 115 percent of GDP, Kyrgyzstan is still very dependent on external financing and help with debt restructuring. Diplomats should be making it clear to the Kyrgyz authorities that sympathy from finance ministries and lenders will be in short supply if the elections are rigged. Conversely, a real transition of power through the democratic process should lead to real increases in grants and assistance, and an advantageous deal to restructure Kyrgyzstan's debt by the end of the decade.

Kyrgyzstan is not Georgia, and nobody really is looking for that level of political upheaval in a country with still-fragile state structures and an economy that is only now showing signs of recovery from a long depression. But the electorate is ready for change, and the Kyrgyz leadership needs to respond by letting the democratic process decide the transition. Anything less will set back Kyrgyzstan's political and economic development for years and make the democratic prospects of the rest of the region dim indeed.
David Lewis is Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.
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