POWER AT THE CROSSROADS: APROPOS OF A CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL SITUATION IN KYRGYZSTAN
Nur Omarov, Ph.D. (Political Science), Vice President, International Research Foundation (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
At one time, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt said in his speech “On the Four Freedoms” that in the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These high ideals are still pertinent today for most countries of the world well versed in democratic changes. And they are especially significant for countries whose experience with democracy barely exceeds the past decade, which has been full of events that have been interpreted differently.
Our republic, which gained its independence at the beginning of the 1990s, has entered the third stage (as defined by the author of this article) in the modernization of its political and economic structure.1 The first two stages, which were typical of the sociopolitical development of all the contemporary Central Asian states, hark back to their constituency in czarist Russia, and then in the Soviet Union, in which the Russian Federation played a dominant role. Throughout the entire Soviet era, these states primarily constituted the U.S.S.R.’s raw material base, whereby their basic material and production resources were extensively developed, and Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty, as that of the other union republics, was purely decorative in nature, essentially restricted to state symbolism deprived of any real content. However, the time the republic spent as a constituent entity of the U.S.S.R. brought many positive changes, including access of the indigenous population to education, the expansion of information and communication opportunities, and so on.
The main distinguishing feature of the current stage is that, for the first time, our nation has the unique historical opportunity to choose its own path and implement the main principles of its independent development in the 21st century. After acquiring its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been able to turn a new page in the history of its statehood, the 2200th anniversary of which will fall in 2003. At the 57th session of the U.N. General Assembly, Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akaev came forward with an initiative to celebrate this auspicious occasion at a worldwide level.2
Another distinguishing feature of the current stage ensuing from the independent development of the countries in the region, is their active incorporation into globalization processes and their debut in the international arena as independent entities of political, economic, cultural, and other forms of cooperation. Along with their vast raw material and human resources, these new trends are reinforcing the primary significance Central Asia acquired during the 1990s and turning it from a periphery to one of the important geopolitical regions of the world. This also largely explains why leading states and international organizations are focusing increasing attention on it.
Moving into the unknown future means that enormous difficulties must be overcome. These primarily entail the rapid building of management and administration systems in keeping with world standards, as well as the formation of democratic norms and traditions. This is particularly difficult for Kyrgyzstan, which is objectively limited in natural resources, so its image of an “island of democracy” in the region is of special significance. Its leadership’s adherence to democratic standards has made it possible to attract a large amount of foreign investments into the country for modernizing its political, economic, social, and legal state institutions during the transition period.
In this respect, we are fully justified in asking to what extent the republic has succeeded in progressing along the path of democratic reforms, and what are its prospects as a “democratic leader” in Central Asia, a region that drifts toward autocracy. Once again, just as a few years ago, we are faced with a dilemma in evaluating the current situation in Kyrgyzstan—is it pre-parliamentary or pre-authoritarian?3 Which way will power in the country ultimately go? And last but not least, can peace and stability be preserved in the republic, or are we in store for chaos and unrest fraught with the loss of our national statehood?
Before answering these questions, we must note that, as some researchers justifiably comment, the differences between the “old” and “new” political elites in present-day Kyrgyzstan are no more than an external feature of modern Kyrgyz politics.4
The nature of the political processes in the republic is largely defined by a complicated system of traditional and neo-traditional relations, which encompass several levels. According to Vladimir Khanin, at the national level, this relates to the prolonged conflict between the northern Kyrgyz and southern Kyrgyz sub-ethnic communities, which during the Soviet and post-Soviet period acquired a different “contemporary” dimension. The first were more urbanized, Russified and less dependent on traditional ways of life, including adherence to religion. The second primarily represented agricultural regions, which were historically in the sphere of influence of the Uzbek civilization, where Islam and tradition as a whole retained a stronger foothold. In addition, this system incorporates contradictions between the “natives” and the “new arrivals,” which are expressed directly in the restricted access of the latter to the sphere of “high politics.”
All these features of Kyrgyz politics put together were manifested in the formation of various regional tribal groups in the political elites. Thus the political and social mobilization of a significant percentage of the Kyrgyz population is still based today on sub-ethnic and regional tribal solidarity and on the dependence of the “lower strata” on their “elites.” In the mass political consciousness, the success of “us” over “them” means special access to the distribution and use of national public resources for a specific sub-ethnic group.5
This in turn means that most of the parties officially registered in the country (at present there are 32) constitute a small circle of politicians, each one consisting of only a few hundred people, whereby all these organizations had and still have very limited influence. This is well illustrated by the results of the 1995 and 2000 parliamentary elections. For example, in 1995 only 161 candidates (of the total 1,021) were nominated by political parties and movements. At the 2000 parliamentary elections, most candidates (407 out of 420) were identified as independent on the ballot, highlighting the weak attraction of parties to the Kyrgyz electorate.6 All of this gives reason to believe that the party structure and formation of the republic’s real political elite are, as in most post-Soviet CIS states, at the embryonic stage.
In this way, the basic institutionalized form for expressing ethnic and political patron-client relations (dependence) in the country’s political sphere is informal neo-traditional power structures, that is, political (politicized) clans. The role of top link in these clans is usually played by a relatively small group of representatives of the national and regional political elites, joined by a system of personal and professional relations. The influence of these factors on each clan can vary, but family kinship and tribal relations nevertheless retain their fundamental significance.7 We can assume that the system of “checks and balances” is not formed by political parties and movements that are in opposition to each other (as is the case in a normal democratic state), but based on the representation of political clans in the executive and legislative power structures, which also depends on their influence at a particular time.
Consequently, a specific feature of Kyrgyz democracy (and statehood) is not the consistent and absolute dismantling of outmoded clan-tribal structures, but their incorporation into the contemporary power system. In other words, we have every right to say that the traditionalistic system of relations among various ethnic and social groups is both the main associate and the basic opponent of the current authorities. Members are recruited to the republic’s political elite through this system, on the one hand, and it creates real opposition to the building of a secular unitary state based on the principles of people’s power, a civil society, and a liberal economy, on the other. The way Askar Akaev defined the opposition to state power in the country back in 1994 is still pertinent to this day: “As for political opposition to state power, in Kyrgyzstan, as in Uzbekistan, it has its own particular features. It is not directed against the authorities in general, but first and foremost against the president. The activists of the opposition blame the president for the loss of their social status, prestigious posts, and so on. They are essentially interested in nothing else. So it is no accident that radical communists and radical democrats cooperate with each other in the opposition in the closest way. Our opposition bases its activity on some abstraction “of national interests,” which, in its opinion, the president ignores. In actual fact, this morbid concern with “national interests” has nothing in common with concern for the nation. Essentially, they couldn’t care less about what the nation is able to do at a given stage and what it is still historically unprepared for.”8
It is difficult to argue with this evaluation, particularly in light of the latest events. This is confirmed in particular by the fact that the actions taken by the opposition in the spring and summer of 2002 aimed at removing the current president from power found essentially no support among most of the republic’s population, who saw them only as a factor destabilizing the social and economic situation. An exception were the relatives of the direct victims of the Aksy events of 17-18 March of the same year, the involuntary hostages of the “manipulative game” that took place on the Kyrgyz political stage when some politicians “performed” the first “act” of the election campaign planned for 2005 for their electorate.
In this context, the main criticism of the authorities is that during past years they have been unable to achieve any perceptible success in creating private property, a middle class, strong parties, and other structures of a civil society required to play a stabilizing role in the state. The underdevelopment of these structures has in no small measure assisted the fact that a few members of the political beau monde brought the country to the brink of a civil conflict fraught with bloodshed and genuinely apocalyptic consequences for the population “protected” by the opposition. The fact that individual political forces interested in long-term destabilization of the domestic political situation have not excluded this development in events was confirmed by the assassination attempt made at the beginning of September 2002 on M. Ashirkulov, the republic’s Security Council secretary, which was in full keeping with the manifestations of political terrorism.
The virtual absence of several elements of a civil society noted above caused the international community to give a negative assessment of the results of the 2000 parliamentary and presidential elections, which then served as fertile ground for the cultivation of the political crisis in 2002 in the republic. The authorities were faced with a choice: either to undertake measures aimed at self-rehabilitation and improvement of the sociopolitical climate, or to continue the self-destructive periodical flirting with their political opponents, which essentially precludes genuine transformation of society.
The work of the Constitutional Assembly (CA), begun on the initiative of the republic’s president on 4 September, 2002, should be viewed precisely from this perspective. The CA adopted a decision on the need to introduce amendments and addenda to the Constitution, which were to define the upcoming 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections, and the country’s future. These amendments and addenda entailed the following changes: transfer, beginning in 2005, to a one-house parliament; increased representation of political parties and movements in the new parliament aimed at stimulating an expansion in their numbers; appointment by the president of the republic’s government with approval by the parliament; raising the role and expanding the authorities of the prime minister; reforming all levels of the country’s judicial system with joint efforts by the president and parliament; laying the basis for reform of local self-government structures and optimization of the country’s administrative and territorial structure.
These decisions, which are to be set forth in the final document of the Constitutional Assembly,9 point to a gradual transfer from the existing presidential-prime ministerial system of administration to a presidential-parliamentary organization of power. According to its members, the consistent implementation of the decisions made by the Constitutional Assembly will help to strengthen democracy in the republic on a corresponding legislative and legal basis.
It is also important that a discussion was held in the Constitutional Assembly among representatives of the political forces that to a certain extent reflect the standoff among the mentioned traditionalistic structures of the Kyrgyz establishment, the apogee of which was reached in July-August 2002. The overwhelming desire for consensus should be viewed as a positive factor, which found its logical expression in the decisions of the Constitutional Assembly. Despite the halfway nature and incompleteness of some of the decisions adopted, they have nevertheless formed a foundation for peace and stability in society.
The political crisis of 2002 was another graphic indication that the state administration system must be optimized. The sources of the Aksy tragedy and crisis phenomena ensuing from it were caused by the ineffective and insufficiently flexible power system, which is extremely alienated from the specific needs of specific ethnic social groups in specific regions and provinces of the republic. The need to reform the power structures is acquiring particular significance under Kyrgyzstan’s conditions, where the state continues to act as the main system-forming thread of society. This is not a return to the authoritarian style of management by means of personifying power in the personality of a particular leader (for example, the president or parliament speaker). On the contrary, the equal distribution of authority among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of power can help to erect a reliable obstacle to isolated informal influence groups manipulating the prestige of an individual leader.
The author of this article believes that, first, this requires focusing attention on the legal education of the republic’s citizens and overcoming their legal nihilism. A decrease in faith in the law and misunderstanding its significance greatly lowers the level of political and social awareness and the people’s involvement in the changes going on in the country. This gives rise to legal nihilism, and ordinary citizens activate their will in other ways detrimental to the state and society. For example, the so-called “Asky syndrome” has recently become widespread, whereby the relatives of ordinary criminals hold pseudo-political meetings, thus trying to influence the judicial bodies that make decisions.
Second, the state administration apparatus should be a genuine conductor of reform. Our republic, just as the CIS as a whole, is still looking for an optimal model of state administration capable not only of meeting the long-term interests of the supreme political elite, but also of working efficiently with society. The existing practice of recruiting a significant percentage of the administrative elite from political clans close to power and not based on their professional qualities is having a destructive effect on all the state structures. This inevitably leads to state interests being replaced by small group interests, which is fraught with the repetition of an internal-power conflict like the one in 2002. Only consistent elimination of this negative phenomenon based on resolute political will can achieve positive changes in the state administration system.
Third, cooperation must be developed between government and nongovernmental power institutions as the basis for strengthening democracy in the republic. The most important task of the “third” sector, including political parties and movements, is drawing up mechanisms to curb the authorities’ desire for absolute power, which naturally arises from the very nature of power. In this case, we are talking about reaching a rational compromise in their joint actions aimed at overcoming the population’s socially significant problems during the transition period.
Fourth, special attention should be focused on integrating society by reinforcing the idea of humanism, social partnership, and economic reform. Under the conditions of the so-called “wild market” characteristic of most post-Soviet countries and the inevitable degradation of social institutions, the state would do well to restore the prestige of socially significant professions. Only with their help will it be possible to reproduce and introduce universal human spiritual values into society, which we have in common with the whole world.
Fifth, we must develop an ideology of reform based on the spiritual values of our multinational nation and present it to society. This ideology should become one of the fundamental tools for overcoming traditional ways. All developed countries of the world have made a difficult and long journey, but each of them achieved success in their own way, which excludes the possibility of blindly copying their experience. This experience can only be used in keeping with the strategic tasks of Kyrgyzstan’s contemporary development and its ethnic and cultural specifics.
National ideology and the national ideas nurturing it are called upon to become a force capable of creating the potential needed to successfully implement reform. But due to the growing socioeconomic difficulties experienced by most citizens, this reform is associated with the dark side of life and is giving rise to a feeling of helplessness and uncertainty in the future. In order to stop this, the state should encourage a sense of justice in its citizens and raise the value of the principles of a rationally structured legal society. Without this, it is impossible to build a state in which each citizen can manifest his personal initiative and at the same time see rational sense in the leadership’s policy.
I think that if the country’s leadership chooses the model I have proposed (or one similar to it) for implementing its authority, this will enhance its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, while helping to create efficient mechanisms of a civil society based on generally accepted democratic standards.
1 See: N.M. Omarov, Gumanitarnye aspekty bezopasnosti Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki v XXI veke: vyzovy i otvety, Bishkek, 2001, pp. 64-66.
2 See: Slovo Kyrgyzstana, 24 September, 2002.
3 See: Razmyshlenia o perekhodnom periode (Thoughts on the Transition Period). (Re: publication of Islam Karimov’s book Uzbekistan—sobstvennaia model’ perekhoda na rynochnye otnosheniia.) Conversation between Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akaev and D.Sc. (Law) Professor L. Levitin, Bishkek, 1994, p. 92.
4 See: V. Khanin, “Kyrgyzstan: Ethnic Pluralism and Political Conflicts,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 3, 2000, p. 124.
5 See: Ibid., p. 125.
6 See: Kyrgyz Republic. Parliamentary Elections. 20 February & 12 March, 2000. Final Report of the OSCE. Warsaw, 10 April, 2000, p. 21.
7 See: V. Khanin, op. cit., pp. 126-127.
8 Razmyshlenia o perekhodnom periode… p. 80.
9 It was originally planned for the Constitutional Assembly to complete its work on 23 September. Later, the deadline was extended to 27 September, but its work was not completed by this date either.—Author’s note.