Why Kyrgyzstan’s Presidential Election Matters

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Almazbek Atambayev casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. (Photo: Vladimir Voronin / AP)

From the farce of Borat to the ignorance of Herman Cain, the politics and people of Central Asia get short shrift in the U.S. But deride the ‘Stans at your peril. The old crossroads of the Silk Road now rest upon 21st century geo-political faultlines, etched by the competing strategic interests of Russia, China, and the U.S. Uzbekistan — mocked by Republican hopeful Cain — is the most populous country in Central Asia and a key transit hub for U.S. troops and equipment into Afghanistan. Kazakhstan to the north is one of the most natural gas and oil-rich countries in the world. And, in a region dominated by post-Soviet authoritarian regimes, tiny, landlocked Kyrgyzstan is its greatest hope for democratic progress.

The Kyrgyz presidential election held this Sunday may mark the first fair and free transfer of power since the Central Asian republics won their independence following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Despite evidence of incidents of vote-fraud and ballot stuffing in some areas, international observers seemed content with the verdict: Almazbek Atambayev, Kyrgyzstan’s current prime minister and the front-runner during the campaign, will be the country’s next President, having won some 63% of the vote — a huge majority in an election where 17 candidates were on the ballot. The Obama Administration applauded the vote, saying the Kyrgyz people “have taken an important and courageous step on the path of democracy.” That path, though, may also lead to a waning of American influence.One of the first declarations made by Atambayev, seen as a pro-Russian candidate, was a repeat of his vow to shutter the pivotal U.S. military base at Manas once its lease expires in 2014. The facility there has been crucial for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, not least as the security situation in (and U.S. diplomatic ties with) Pakistan worsens. Atambayev told reporters on Tuesday: “We know that the United States is often engaged in conflict. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, and now relations are tense with Iran. I would not want for one of these countries to launch a retaliatory strike on the military base.” Yet Kyrgyz officials have made no such noises over the presence of a similar Russian installation on its mountainous border with China.

(READ: A brief history of Kyrgystan.)

Even though U.S. operations are set to wind down in Afghanistan, it’s not certain whether Washington strategists were willing to relinquish the Manas facility, which has been a geo-political touchstone ever since it was opened by the Bush Administration in 2001. Moscow, clearly unhappy with the entrenched presence of U.S. hard power so deep in Russia’s historic backyard, has pressured the Kyrgyz to push the Americans out; Bishkek, meanwhile, has used its strategic location as leverage to woo the highest bidder in a growing Central Asian great game, including expanding Chinese interests.

Atambayev’s victory, though, likely marks the return of Russian preeminence. Nearly half a million Kyrgyz work in Russia, a massive proportion of the 5.5. million population. The country’s interim President Roza Otunbayeva — feted earlier this year by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an “international woman of courage” — has said Kyrgyzstan will consider joining the “Eurasia Union” recently proposed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an economic alliance spearheaded by Moscow of former Soviet republics, in the style of the E.U. In January, Atambayev sponsored a proposal in the Kyrgyz legislature to name a mountain after the Russian premier.

The New York Times reported over the weekend:

Much of the Kyrgyz elite, even those seen as strongly pro-Western, seems to believe that the country has little choice but to cast its lot with Russia. Many are suspicious of growing Chinese influence in the region. But perhaps more important, they fear abandonment by the United States.

U.S. engagement here and throughout the region has, more often than not, been insubstantial and shaped principally around the challenge of Afghanistan.
Following Kyrgyzstan’s so-called Tulip Revolution in 2005 — when protesters toppled an autocrat who had held power since independence in 1991 — there was a brief moment when it seemed Kyrgyzstan was gravitating into the orbit of Western democracies. Bishkek is home to myriad NGOs and a budding civil society. Foreign journalists have an easier time here than in repressive Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, or semi-lawless Tajikistan.

(PHOTOS: Kyrgyzstan’s struggle for power.)

But the regime that took over in 2005 proved to be as rapacious and authoritarian as its predecessor, and succumbed last year to a bloody, chaotic uprising. Ethnic strife between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks soon followed in the country’s south, leading to some 2,000 deaths and tens of thousands being displaced. The situation has yet to truly improve, says Joshua Foust, a Washington-based Central Asia analyst who reported from Kyrgyzstan last week:

I returned from a research trip to [the city of] Osh this week, where I was trying to understand the economic effect of last year’s riots. They were, in a word, devastating: thousands of Uzbeks remain out of work and unable to restart their businesses, thousands more are under virtual house arrest in their mahallahs, or neighborhoods, outside of town. The few Kyrgyz officials who would speak with me denied it was a problem, while the many Uzbeks I spoke with expressed hopelessness and a desire to either flee the area or start fighting back.

Of all the candidates in the election, Atambayev may be Kyrgyzstan’s best bet for unity. Hailing from the more Russified north of the country, he won a significant number of votes from embittered Uzbeks in the more nationalist, rural south. Yet Foust suggests there may be “another spasm of violence” in the aftermath of the elections, especially if Atambayev’s rivals seize on whatever evidence there is of voting irregularities.

Atambayev, for his part, has promised reconciliation and stability. “I’m going to act in such a way that in Kyrgyzstan there will be no more grounds for revolutions,” he said on Monday. “People are tired of them.” Hopefully that means establishing a responsible democracy in Bishkek — a first for Central Asia — and not following the now much-trodden road down to Moscow-inspired authoritarianism.

MORE: Kyrgyzstan’s leaders cozy up to Russia.