The Political Sources Of Kyrgyzstan's Recent Unrest Featured

By Johan Engvall

Recent protests in Issyk-Kul and Jalal-Abad regions demanding the nationalization of Kumtor gold mine and the release of jailed members of parliament have demonstrated the limited ability of Kyrgyzstan’s central government to enforce law and order throughout the country. There are political sources of this social and economic instability, notably, Kyrgyzstan’s transformation to a semi-parliamentary system of government in 2010 has rooted out corrupt one-family rule but instituted a system of coalition-based corruption, where the country’s major economic, political and territorial assets are divided among political parties with a detrimental impact on their ability to govern the country.


BACKGROUND: The recent wave of protests in Kyrgyzstan has once again demonstrated the delicate nature of the country’s post-2010 democracy. On May 28, protestors demanding the nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine, the nation’s largest industrial facility, cut off the power to the gold mining facility, leaving it idle for several days. As Kumtor, which is operated by the Canadian company Centerra Gold Inc., was held hostage by local horsemen in the highlands of the Issyk-Kul region, clashes between demonstrators and police broke out, forcing President Almazbek Atambaev to declare a state of emergency in the Dzheti-Oguz district surrounding the mine. After a visit by Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev and some promises to renegotiate the Kumtor contract to the benefit of the Kyrgyz side, the mine resumed its operations on June 1.


> Map of Kyrgyzstan


Just as the protest around Kumtor was mitigated, unrest erupted in the southern Jalal-Abad region. Protestors captured the regional administration, burned a likeness of President Atambaev, appointed a local potentate, Meder Usenov, as the people’s governor and demanded the release of three jailed members of parliament, most notably Ata Zhurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, sentenced to jail earlier this year for allegedly attempting a violent overthrow of government in October last year. While a semblance of order was eventually reestablished also in Jalal-Abad, the situation remains volatile. Moreover, it was hardly by chance that on June 17, the Bishkek city court dropped all charges against the three members of parliament previously convicted for attempting to overthrow the government. It remains to be seen whether the released politicians will seek revenge or whether some pacifying agreement has been reached with the authorities.


The challenges to central government authority posed by local mobs in Issyk-Kul and Jalal-Abad are far from exceptional cases. In the northern Talas region, several gold mines licensed to foreign investors have for long stayed idle due to the mobilization of local citizens interrupting their work. The government’s announcement of a new tender for the right to operate the country’s second largest gold deposit, Jerui in Talas, recently failed as not a single investor dared to bid. In another northern region, Naryn, a government decision to appoint a new police chief spectacularly failed when the new chief was chased out, and has yet to return. The remote southern Batken region has also become an increasingly volatile spot, with clashes between Kyrgyz and Tajiks around Tajik exclaves inside Kyrgyzstan turning ever more frequent. Finally, in the largest southern region of Osh, which still suffers from the horrendous violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in June 2010, the controversial mayor of Osh city, Melis Myrzakmatov, has carved out his own fiefdom.


In fact, Osh currently stands out as the sole case of a local government enjoying some support among the citizens, partly because of genuine popularity, partly out of fear. This is largely owing to Myrzakmatov’s image as a guarantor of stability. Currently, he is probably the nation’s most popular politician, and although he may harbor intentions of reaching the central power in Bishkek, for now he seems content with being the local strongman. Other regional and local administrations, however, are devoid of public trust, the trend being one of provinces de facto increasingly slipping away from Bishkek’s control.


IMPLICATIONS: What does the combination of a toothless national government, poor and ineffective local governance and the power of mob rule tell us about the state of Kyrgyzstan’s semi-parliamentary system, which was rightly hailed as a bold step towards democratic development when introduced after the fall of the Bakiev regime in 2010?


Under Bakiev, almost all the state’s political, economic and territorial assets were controlled and divided within the presidential family network, particularly among the president’s brothers and sons. One brother controlled the law enforcement agencies, another supervised the Jalal-Abad oblast, a third oversaw Kyrgyz-China relations, while a fourth held sway over the judiciary. His oldest son had the security and customs systems as designated area, while the youngest wielded enormous influence over the country’s banking, financial and economic institutions.


The whole rationale for the new semi-parliamentary form of government was to avoid one extended family, region or group capturing the government at the expense of other powerful interests, and thus secure a degree of balance among competing elites. While a commendable idea, the new system has yet to produce the desired effect in terms of relieving the strained relations between center and periphery, or urban and rural areas, nor has it been able to moderate intra-elite relations. Indeed, fierce rivalries and subversive activities are as strong as ever.


In contrast to the corrupt one-family rule of the past, the divided executive-legislative power sharing constitution means that the powers of the parliament have increased substantially. Since 2010, three different coalition governments were created, and all five parties represented in the parliament have at some point been part of the ruling coalition, which currently consists of three parties – SDPK, Ar-Namys and Ata-Meken. The parties have divided among themselves all national ministries and agencies as well as regional administrations on the level of provinces, districts and cities. The same division also exists regarding some lucrative business enterprises. This practice has weakened the legitimacy of the central government, rendered local governance ineffective and spurred conflicts between residents of various regions and their administrations as trustees of different parties, with limited authority, are set to administer different parts of the country based on a kind of quota system. Constant reshuffling of staff, following the breakdown of one coalition and the creation of another, leaves the country without continuity regarding decision-making policies.  


This has fostered a new type of corrupt system of government, which local observers have labeled coalition-based corruption. The president’s powers are more limited than previously as he is now one potentate among others, albeit a very powerful one. That said, current President Atambaev certainly has real powers in his hands, especially after successfully subordinating the Prime Minister. Moreover, important power instruments, such as security structures and foreign policy, are under presidential control. It should also be noted that the president has been careful in showing restraint and keeping a distance from the abundance of corrupt schemes and collaboration with criminals that was the order of the day during previous administrations. He has at the same time been hesitant regarding his appointments, preferring to rely on an old guard of top officials with a very limited interest or energy in taking on the tough questions of structural reforms. Thus, young, energetic professionals who could potentially make a difference remain sidelined in the state’s governance.


In this new institutional setting, the most pressing governance problem is no longer that of limiting presidential power, but how to restrain a roving parliament where the 120 deputies are mainly concerned with their own interests, not ideology, political reform programs, or effectively enacting legislation. Beneath this political system of aggressive division of spoils among parties, an unreformed state apparatus lingers on. Judicial reform which was singled out as a priority after 2010 has been disappointing. Businesses are still feeding state inspectors through bribery. And the law enforcement system, in particular the police, is weak, demoralized and ineffective in handling protest mobs, with some policemen simply being paid off by protestors. It does not require much in this situation for one policeman to lose control and open deadly fire at protestors. If that happens, the outcome is anyone’s guess.  


CONCLUSIONS: The current situation has a number of implications for developments in Kyrgyzstan. The rule of mobs and the inability of the government to enforce the law have scared off potential and much needed investors. The instability further reduces government efforts toward permanent crisis management, as the political goals are limited to staying on top and maintaining power, while urgently needed reforms in the political, economic and social spheres are left to the future. As long as a weak central power, roving political party interests and the rule of the mob continue to co-exist, the current knife-edge balance is poised to continue. 


AUTHOR’S BIO: Johan Engvall is a Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and a post-doctoral researcher at the Uppsala Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University.


The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst