Kyrgyzstan, and all its problems, comes into the international spotlight again with presidential elections on Sunday.
Despite elections, little is expected to change given the country’s inability to tackle systemic corruption and critical human rights issues since a coup toppled the government last year.
A September poll showed front-runner, Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, winning 65 percent of voters’ support compared to his rivals who have less than 30 percent support.
Although Kyrgyzstan remains more democratic than its authoritarian Central Asian neighbors, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the nation faces critical problems including a weak government and ineffective state institutions, says Marek Matusiak, an expert with the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies.The country is perceived as one of the most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perception Index.
Even if Atambayev wins the presidency, he is expected to be an ineffective leader due to his reliance on a fragile governing system in the impoverished country of 5 million people.
Matusiak said the status quo will likely continue after the election. He does not believe Atambayev will be able to strengthen the government.
“If he assumes the president’s office, I don’t think there will be many changes. He has not shown himself so far and I don’t believe that he will be able to do that as president,” said Matusiak.
Reasons for Weakness
The weakness of the central government manifests in having limited control in parts of the country, particularly in the southern region, which had violent ethnic clashes last year between the Uzbeks, a minority concentrated in the south, and the Kyrgyz. Weakness also shows in the country’s inability to carry out fair trials in numerous cases related to those conflicts and widespread torture in detention centers.
Kyrgyzstan’s political power is also undermined by a “battle between personalities,” according to a report by Johan Engvall, an expert with the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.
Engvall argues that since Kyrgyzstan broke from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has been governed by leaders who represent family or specific community interests with little to no political competitionbased ideological interests. Former overthrown Presidents Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakyev also fit this bill, he contends.
“Given the absence of a common national interest, the Kyrgyz political elite is susceptible to manipulation by outside forces,” he said in the report.
As evidence, he points to the many visits Kyrgyz party leaders paid to Moscow for consultations after winning seats in Parliament in 2010 October elections. Leaders of the opposition to deposed President Bakyev did the same prior to the coup in April 2010.
Atambayev is widely believed to lean toward Russian interests after making many visits to Moscow over the last year. He is also a northerner and does not have as much support in the south. Atambayev told the United States he will close access to the Manas air base in 2014 and he has shown strong support for joining the Kremlin-led Custom Union, which includes Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Despite strong divisions in political power, there are also some concerns that the next president could concentrate power into his own hands and undermine Parliament in practice and perhaps in law, said Svante Cornell, an expert with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program.
“The problems in the country’s south have not been addressed; quite to the contrary, the nationalistic and anti-Uzbek stance of most Kyrgyz political actors also do not bode well for the country’s future, and especially its ability to develop,” Cornell said in an e-mail interview.
Since the coup last year and transition to a parliamentary republic, Kyrgyz interim authorities have mishandled dozens of the trials dealing with the ethnic conflicts and have been heavily criticized by human rights organizations.
Use of torture is widely used to gain confessions in custody in the cases of accused ethnic Uzbek people, groups allege. The case of Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek and human rights defender from the southern town of Bazar-Korgon, is one example of the government’s failure.
Askarov was detained on June 15, 2010, in his hometown when a policeman was killed during the ethnic clashes. He was put into the same police station where the killed police officer had served and Askarov was subsequently tortured. He gave detailed public testimonies of his torture and provided evidence andpictures to support his claims.
However, authorities have been unable to prosecute those responsible. “This case raises particular doubts about the will and the ability of the government to address the brutal torture,” said Maria Lisitsyna, an expert with New-York-based Open Society Foundations.
“The ability of the authorities to ensure individual prosecutions in torture cases would be the first indicators that the country is serious about its human rights obligations,” she points out.