24 September, 2010

Focus on the Kyrgyz Elections

by Uddipan Mukherjee

In late February this year, there were elections in the Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan. But there was hardly any coverage by the international media. The reasons were obvious. Nobody expected anyone else to win apart from the party headed by the President Emomali Rahmon. Moreover, media was engrossed in the elections of Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, seven months later when elections are to be held in the neighbouring country of Kyrgyzstan, there is considerable brouhaha. International media seems to have its job cut out with regard to coverage of the event. Paradoxically, anybody hardly noted the elections in the same country in July 2009. Again, the probable reason was that the results were presumably anticipated. As expected, Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his coterie ‘manipulated’ the elections to remain seated in power.

However, demonstrations at Naryn in February 2010 hinted that the political atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan had started to boil. The April upsurge at Talas and then in Bishkek and other areas finally forced Bakiyev to flee to Belarus. By now, these are all well known events.

It is also accepted at large that Kurmanbek Bakiyev was under the influence of alcohol and very much driven by his son Maxim and his brother Janysh. 12 hour power cuts in Kyrgyzstan with alleged reports that it was being sold to neighbours at the behest of Maxim generated enough outrage to finally topple the government. Amusingly, this was the very structure which had entrenched itself after displacing Akayev in the so-called ‘Tulip Revolution’ in March 2005.

The thing that needs to be deciphered though, at this juncture, is the reason behind the ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 which shook the very foundations of the fledgling ‘interim government’ led by Rosa Otunbayeva.

Quite naturally, the interim government squarely blamed Maxim Bakiyev behind the ethnic disturbances. According to them, it was financially funded by the Bakiyevs and physically abetted by Islamist Fundamentalists.

However, the government does not have any cogent proof to corroborate its arguments.

There is no doubt that the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-abad are traditional strongholds of the Bakiyev family. And these were the cities where the ethnic disturbances mostly took place. It is also a fact that Kyrgyzstan shares borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in its southern areas where the biggest post-Soviet Central Asian terrorist group: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is assumed to be active.

Moreover, an apparently peaceful Islamic organisation called Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) reportedly has close links with the IMU. The final aim of both the parties is to overthrow secular governments and establish a caliphate in Central Asia. Interestingly, HuT has more members in south Kyrgyzstan than in the north.

Very recently, Usmon Odil, who replaced the late Tahir Yuldashev as chief of the IMU, has called for jihad against those responsible for killing Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. In a video, Odil said: “This is a blood-soaked tragedy, one of a series of sordid plots against Muslims, organised by a government of heretics. May Allah have Muslims make the right decision and be able to take the path of jihad.”

These words of Usmon are supposed to be more of rhetoric than portraying reality. IMU has been pushed to a sort of operational bankruptcy in Afghanistan. Hence it needs new fertile grounds to rejuvenate its cadres. Presently, it does not pose as an ominous military threat though for an already unbalanced Kyrgyzstan, a minor perturbation may be enough.

Also the above data do not necessarily indicate that the Islamist Fundamentalists were the actual perpetrators of the June disturbances. Rather it shows that unrest generally creates greener pastures for jihadi activism. At the same time, Bakiyev and his group are not to be exonerated from being assumed as masterminds behind the pogrom. There is a straightforward logic substantiating their involvement; i.e. turmoil in the country could have dislodged Otunbayeva’s government and somehow saved the Bakiyevs.

Plainly speaking, a proper and neutral fact finding analysis needs to be carried out to unravel the mystery. With elections round the corner on October 10 and campaigning in full flow, there are high chances that the ongoing investigations into the June disturbances would contain political colour.

In fact, the decision to imprison human rights activist Azimzhan Askarov for life was met with protests both inside as well as outside Kyrgyzstan. A local court in the village of Nooken near Jalal-abad had sentenced him and seven other ethnic Uzbeks guilty of murdering Myktybek Sulaimanov in June during violent clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the village of Bazar-Korgon.

This is definite a pointer that in South Kyrgyzstan, the authority may be skewed against the Uzbeks. In fact, the Mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov appears to be a man with doubtful credentials. Though he was appointed Mayor in January 2009 during the Bakiyev-era, he quickly changed his political colour when the latter was losing ground.

Independent researches have hinted that the mobs during the carnage were well organised and it is quite likely that they were covertly being aided by the authorities, especially in Osh. In fact, the statement passed by the Mayor that he wants to ‘work exclusively for his Kyrgyz nation’ further complicate matters.

Incidentally, the violence in June has created a power vacuum in southern Kyrgyzstan. The position of the interim government is quite fragile there. Melis Myrzakmatov is acting as a power broker. In this scenario, to expect anything meaningful in terms of bringing the actual ‘June criminals’ to book is not logical as people like Myrzakmatov might be wielding enough political clout to camouflage the hooligans.

In sum, the parliamentary elections shall be an ‘acid test’ for Otunbayeva’s government. It did pass the June referendum with honours. But the elections in the next month may pose formidable problems for her government.

A couple of things have to be watched out for. Obviously, it needs to be seen which party comes out victorious. A record 29 political parties are fighting it out for 120 parliamentary seats. Interestingly, despite the April ouster of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a number of parties are being led by his former officials. For instance, “Atazhurt” is led by former emergency minister Kamychbek Tashiyev and “Butun Kyrgyzstan” is being led by former security secretaries Adakham Madumarov and Miroslav Niyazov.

Another thing of importance is to see which political arrangement can provide maximum stability to Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, if the country further descends into chaos, then what shall be the role of multigovernment organisations like OSCE and SCO in general and Russia and America in particular?

The answers to these questions are very crucial to predict the future of Kyrgyzstan. Will it survive the present crisis? The key to this query lies in the success of the ‘new democratic process’ and how the present as well as the future government(s) tackle the ethnic crisis.

published in Diplomatic Courier 

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