Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of an exciting experiment in political institution-building, but one that makes most of its neighbours and many of the country’s closest international friends very nervous. The decision to introduce a parliamentary form of government is a bold but a risky step. It is also a potentially destabilizing one given that nearly one out of every two eligible voters chose not to vote in the 10 October election.1 Unless a government of national unity composed of representatives from all five political parties awarded seats in the legislature, the “majority bloc” that will choose the government will be representing the interests of a minority of Kyrgyzstan’s population.

This creates a potentially dangerous situation in the country, which could be manipulated by political leaders who are not included in the government, or whose parties did not reach the five percent threshold of eligible voters and so failed to gain representation in the parliament. This risk will be amplified if the “majority bloc” includes none of the parties that prefer a presidential system to a parliamentary one. This might lead the “pro-presidential” parties to join with the excluded parties who also favour constitutional change.

Regardless of its makeup, the new government will be under a great deal of pressure from the Kyrgyz population to keep utility prices low (rate hikes being one of the reasons for former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s ouster) while delivering new economic opportunities. While the international community is offering Kyrgyzstan’s government increased developmental aid in addition to humanitarian assistance for the three southern oblasts affected by inter-ethnic violence last June, this will not lead to any short-term economic turnaround.

The government will also need to find ways to stimulate the healing of inter-ethnic tensions, and this will be a growing challenge unless the new government is able to successfully introduce policies of national consolidation. These themes were underdeveloped during the recent election campaign. Efforts by the international community to introduce projects designed to heal local wounds will not be sufficient if the will of local politicians is not there.

The international community will face difficult choices if civil order does not hold in Kyrgyzstan, and may not be as unified as they were in June, when no outside parties were willing to send troops into the country. This time, some countries might be willing to consider such a step, especially if they thought this might facilitate the restoration of a presidential form of government. In the face of such actions international unanimity might be stressed. The OSCE Summit will provide the chance for a thoroughgoing discussion of what happened in Kyrgyzstan in June, and what efforts can be made to prevent its repetition in an inclusive manner that engages Kyrgyzstan’s new government.

Kyrgyzstan and its new government

The ouster of Bakiyev left a political void in the country which the introduction of a parliamentary system of government is intended to help fill. But there is a real risk that the kind of parliamentary system chosen will lead to further fragmentation of political power given the fledgling nature of most of the country’s political parties and the rules under which the election was conducted. Normally, parliamentary systems rely on well-developed political parties with clear platforms that elect disciplined members as parliamentary deputies. All of these factors contribute to the orderly functioning of parliament. While most of their leaders are experienced political figures, none of the political parties that competed in the October election in Kyrgyzstan have any experience in governing, most lack clear political platforms and they generally ran with disparate lists of candidates whose long-term loyalty as parliamentary deputies cannot be assured.

The best-case scenario is that a parliamentary system will lead to a government which has popular confidence. This could most easily be obtained through a government of national consolidation or unity in which all five political parties that were seated in the new parliament co-operate in the naming of a government. Such a government would have the best chance of pursuing potentially unpopular economic policies that offer the greatest opportunity for medium and long-term economic development. It would also be the best guarantor of the integrity of the new constitution, as it would effectively deny those groups who failed to pass the five percent barrier potential allies from parliament.

But there has been little evidence over the last three weeks to suggest that such a government might be in the offing. Instead the division between the political leadership who took power after Bakiyev was ousted and those who prefer a presidential to a parliamentary system appears to have hardened. And President Roza Otunbaeva’s own preference appears to be that the political groups that were in opposition to President Bakiyev should be given the opportunity to form the new government as these were her long-time political allies.

On a positive note, it does seem likely that a coalition will be formed quickly, once the parliament meets on 5 November. This will sharply reduce the risk that another election will need to be held before the presidential election, which is scheduled for October 2011. Given that 29 parties contested in the election, there was good reason to fear that the political fragmentation would be so great that no coalition could be formed.

The most likely political alliance, that of SDPK, Ata Meken and Respublica, will have the advantage of being composed of the two parties (SDPK and Ata Meken) that are considered the heroes of the April 2010 revolution, and that are most committed to the advancement of a parliamentary democracy in Kyrgyzstan. But their partner, Respublica, has no real political ideology, and their deputies may prove more unpredictable, putting the long-term viability of the coalition at risk.

An even worse scenario is that powerful political groups will opt to go into opposition in preparation for the October 2011 presidential election, and will try to obstruct the functioning of the parliament by making the passage of legislation difficult. The likelihood of this scenario is increased if both Ar-Namys and Ata Zhurt are excluded from a governing coalition.

Both parties favour a presidential system over a parliamentary one, but their exclusion from the government could put the new constitutional order at risk. Ar-Namys leader Feliks Kulov has gone on record with his opposition to the current parliamentary system — and to the parliamentary system in general — and has stated his own leadership ambitions. It is also made more likely by the fact that Ata Zhurt got more votes than any other party, and its leadership favours the old political order over the new one. Ata Zhurt has also been tied to strong Kyrgyz nationalist sentiments in southern Kyrgyzstan, suggesting that they could be a dangerous enemy of a new government that would exclude them.

These parties enjoy the support of Butun Kyrgyzstan. Butun Kyrgyzstan, also a critic of the parliamentary system, failed to pass the five percent threshold as a result of the Central Election Commission decision to include all the additions to the voting rolls in the total used to calculate the minimum vote required. They too are strong in the south, and reject the legitimacy of the elections entirely.

These three parties could form a troublesome opposition which would at best try to use any weakness in the governing coalition to their advantage in the presidential election, with an eye to modifying the constitution in its aftermath. At worst, they might seek to use any popular protests that develop into the opportunity for a bloodless coup d’état. Moreover there may be groups within the Russian political establishment, and possibly even in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan, that will root for them to succeed.

The events in Kyrgyzstan have called into question the effectiveness of international and multilateral security agreements as well as bilateral accords

The international community has been keenly interested in diminishing the risk of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, and has been relatively successful in using diplomacy to this end. The Kazakh Chairmanship of the OSCE proved timely in this regard, as it interjected an actor that was generally trusted by almost all of Kyrgyzstan’s political leadership, and the Kazakh interlocutors had good understanding of the Kyrgyz political climate.

The challenge for Kazakhstan, though, has been one of multiple roles, reconciling its obligations as Chair of the OSCE with its need to protect its own national security. The Kazakhs closed the border with Kyrgyzstan to try to meet the latter, but in doing so they angered all sectors of Kyrgyz society and the elite because of the economic consequences in Kyrgyzstan.

This said, the OSCE was able to co-ordinate its diplomatic efforts with those of the UN (through the UN Secretary-General special envoy Ambassador Miroslav Jencˇ a and his office of preventive diplomacy) and with the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, Ambassador Pierre Morel (of France). The co-ordination by all three contributed to the backing away from further violence in the south, but this has not translated into an effective strategy for preventing further confrontations.

In fact, the opposite has been true. The Kyrgyz political elite have made it very difficult for the international community to effectively investigate the causes of the June violence. Because of Kyrgyz opposition, an independent commission under the direction of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative for Central Asia, Kimmo Kiljunen of Finland, was unable to begin its work until after the election campaign ended, even though President Otunbayeva chose Kiljunen for the task. This commission does not have the imprimatur of either the UN or the OSCE. The Kyrgyz government also held up support for a police advisory group of 53 people, which the OSCE participating States voted to send to Kyrgyzstan, after long deliberation. The OSCE was unwilling to consider any sort of larger peace-making presence.

In general international actors have found it challenging to identify potentially successful instruments with which to intervene, save in the area of providing humanitarian and developmental assistance. There was a successful international donor conference held in late July, at which 1.1 billion dollars was pledged, but it is intended simply to spur economic reforms and help Kyrgyzstan deal with larger-than-expected budget deficits. But medium and long-term success will require jumpstarting the Kyrgyz economy and a hitherto absent patience on the part of the Kyrgyz population, and the delivery of assistance will be contingent on the preservation of order in the southern parts of the country.

Good intentions notwithstanding, there has been unwillingness on the part of most major actors to take risks in Kyrgyzstan, be they human, financial and in the case of neighbouring states, that of domestic backlash. And this has helped shape what has in reality been a rather anaemic international response to the June violence.

The events in southern Kyrgyzstan pointed up the weakness of some of the multilateral organizations that declined to intervene. This was particularly true of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led organization that has sometimes pressed for recognition as being on equal footing with NATO. This organization declined to intervene to stop the bloodshed in southern Kyrgyzstan in June, maintaining that the ethnic unrest did not pose an external threat, this despite the fact that interim President Roza Otunbayeva had asked Russian leaders to intervene. Moscow responded that the violence was an internal affair that the that the Kyrgyz leadership had to handle itself.

Russia’s inaction calls into question the reliability of bilateral agreements signed with the Russian Federation, and it also severely diminishes the potential role of the CSTO in providing security guarantees to its participating states. The unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan also pointed up the potential risk of deploying a multinational CSTO force. Part of the reluctance that member states had about deployment was that the presence of troops themselves could create new kinds of inter-ethnic disturbances within the proposed theatre of operations. This certainly could have been the case if Uzbek, Kazakh or Tajik troops had been sent into Kyrgyzstan, and Russia was unwilling to assume the burden of protecting Kyrgyzstan’s citizens on its own. Such a military campaign would likely have been unpopular within Russia. The Kremlin’s refusal to engage also raises questions about the adequacy of Russia’s own forward deployment capacities, and whether in the face of the ongoing security threats in the north Caucasus region Russia is able to engage successfully on other fronts.

The unrest in June also showed the limitations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the area of security. Co-operation to mitigate the shared security risks of member organizations is one of the justifications for the existence of the organization, but its behaviour during Kyrgyzstan’s crisis suggests that the role it will play for the near future at least is that of a discussion forum for top government officials of the member states. While this in itself is worthwhile, the SCO should best be viewed as a source of confidence building, and possibly even conflict prevention, but not as a conflict-mitigating organization.

There was no obvious role that NATO could have been called upon to play during the June unrest, even in the atmosphere of high-level decisions in Washington and in Moscow that the US and Russia would co-operate in trying to mitigate conflict in Kyrgyzstan. To date the spirit of co-operation between the US and Russia on questions of Central Asian policy has yet to be translated into an effective bilateral policy for solving Kyrgyzstan’s short, medium and long-term problems.

This spirit of co-operation is likely to facilitate future bilateral discussions between the US and Kyrgyzstan on the future of the US transit centre at Manas, as it means that Russia will likely not play the role of behind-the-scenes spoiler. But it does not ensure that the new Kyrgyz government won’t itself behave in an obdurate fashion. If Bishkek chooses to act in this way Moscow is unlikely to lobby for a change in behaviour. Moreover the “reset button” in US-Russian relations is unlikely to modify Russian behaviour if the Kremlin perceives that a low-risk (in terms of loss of life) strategy is available to restore presidential rule in Kyrgyzstan.

Russian leaders, and Kazakh and Uzbek ones, believe that a parliamentary system of government is by definition a risk to security, not only in Kyrgyzstan but for the region more generally. They fear that such a system is inherently unstable in countries with weak political parties. However, the notion that they fear that the new Kyrgyz government will serve as a successful model for their own opposition groups seems to be largely a figment of the oppositions’ imagination.

Implications of events in Kyrgyzstan for regional security

In the long run the introduction of a parliamentary system of government may well contribute positively to the security environment in the Central Asian region by convincing leaders of neighbouring states that each country in the region should be free to figure out their own form of government and such experimentation will not have a negative influence on the security of their neighbours.

However, the Kyrgyz government must recognize that the security environment in the region as a whole has been adversely affected by the June violence, rather than by their choice of a parliamentary democracy.

Even small attacks, like we have seen in Tajikistan, can be very destabilizing, and a few hundred new fighters shifts the balance. While the recent fighting in Tajikistan need not be linked to that in Kyrgyzstan, the perception that the international community is fully occupied in Kyrgyzstan will be a motivating factor for opposition groups.

Disaffection on the part of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek population can destabilize the political environment in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley, because talk of secession bandied about by Kyrgyz politicians could encourage even small groups of disaffected elite in Uzbekistan.

Large shifts of Uzbek populations from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan would be destabilizing in the latter. So too might be the departure of small groups of disaffected young Uzbeks who have left for training in jihadist camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When their training is complete they could serve to destabilize the environment not only in Kyrgyzstan but in Tajikistan and in Uzbekistan.

Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations have also become more complicated because of Astana’s institution of tighter border controls, which came at the same time as new trade restrictions were introduced. The latter were the result of the changes in Kazakhstan’s trade regime caused by the country’s entrance into a customs union with Russia and Belarus.

Since April there have been competing narratives developed to describe what happened in Kyrgyzstan, influenced by whether one is for or against the decision to substitute a parliamentary form of government in place of Kyrgyzstan’s earlier presidential system. The distance between the competing narratives grew after the June violence, both between competing Kyrgyz factions, and between how Kyrgyz politicians depict these events and how the outside community views them.

The OSCE Summit should seek to address the discord between the discourse on what occurred within Kyrgyzstan last April and last June inside and outside the country. For Kyrgyzstan’s politicians these events are of internal concern, and they approach them as a state-building challenge. But many of the narratives being used inside Kyrgyzstan could serve to exacerbate inter-ethnic tensions within the country, and these are a legitimate source of OSCE concern.

What happens within Kyrgyzstan has implications for all of the neighbouring states. Kyrgyzstan’s leaders cannot let their preoccupation with their own domestic challenges blind them to their greater international responsibilities. Given the role that the international community is playing to help rebuild Kyrgyzstan, there is no reason why OSCE participating States should be shy about pointing this out, especially now that the election campaign is over.

The upcoming Summit of the OSCE would do well to evaluate the plusses and minuses of the various responses that were made in the wake of the April, and especially the June events in Kyrgyzstan, and hope that a detailed examination of what was and was not done, and why, will contribute to an ability to be more effective should further problems arise in the future.

While not anticipating further unrest in Kyrgyzstan, or elsewhere, the OSCE Summit must offer a realistic assessment of the challenges that may lie ahead, especially as NATO considers winding down in Afghanistan. As an Afghan government begins to try to assert more control over its country, peace and stability in Central Asia needs to become more of a priority. Drug trafficking and criminalization of the economy of Afghanistan have been destabilizing factors in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These problems will not be solved solely through viewing them through the lens of Afghanistan. We need to find ways to engage with these questions more effectively in Central Asia as well, or else withdrawal from Afghanistan will simply mean the beginning of a new, more dangerous phase in Central Asia in general and in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, and could pose great risks for the new and still fragile Kyrgyz system of government.


1 The final election results released on 1 November 2010 by Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission for the five (out of a total 29) parties that passed the 5% threshold to win seats in parliament: Ata Jurt 8.47%, SDPK 7.83%, Ar-Namys 7.57%, Respublica 6.93%, Ata-Meken 5.49%. Voter turnout was 55.31%.