By Ulf Mauder and Stefan Korshak –
Central Asia’s sole democracy, Kyrgzstan, now has a fighting chance of staying that way, but it will be a battle, political observers said after the once-turbulent country held peaceful elections for a new president.
Nearly two-thirds of voters gave their support to Almazbek Atambayev, the current prime minister who has a reputation for pragmatism and who stood up to the rule brought down in 2010.
The vote surprised not only his 15 rivals but many observers who had predicted Kyrgyzstan would fail to choose a clear victor in Sunday’s poll — and would descend into political turmoil.
Atambayev, 55, was the highest-profile politician in the country after interim President Roza Otunbayeva. With her he has pushed through constitutional changes reducing the power of the country’s executive branch, so as to prevent a return of authoritarian government.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) indicated Atambayev’s victory had been generally in keeping with democratic principles. But they also totted up a disconcerting crop of violations, including poorly maintained electoral rolls, ballot-box stuffing, and voters’ receiving and casting multiple ballots.
Criticism like this from Western vote monitors is common in Central Asia, but the response in Bishkek was anything but typical for the region. “Well if they (the OSCE) gave us that rating, then that’s pretty much the way we worked,” said Kyrgyzstan Central Election Commission chairman Gulnar Dzhurbaev.
“We will work on fixing the problems,” he said, in comments to Aki-Press. Political observers were predicting Atambayev would take the same workmanlike approach to the many problems facing Kyrgyzstan, which is strategically placed on transportation routes between China and Russia.
But success would not come easily, they said. “All 16 presidential candidates were positively disposed towards Russia,” said Andrei Grozin, Director of the Central Asia section of the Commonwealth of Independent States political research institute.
“But from Atambayev, besides rhetoric, there are already practical results,” he said in reference to the incoming president’s pro-Russian credentials.
In comments to the Interfax news agency, Grozin pointed to the steady increase in trade with Russia since Atambayev became prime minister in 2010, and said his policy of economic engagement with Moscow was one of the strongest selling points he had with voters.
In comments to the BBC after the election, Atambayev gave a broad hint of which way regional geopolitical winds were blowing, saying Manas Air Base — a section of Bishkek airport rented by Washington to supply its military operations in nearby Afghanistan — must shut down in 2014 when its lease runs out.
But even if Atambayev manages to jump-start Kyrgyzstan’s weak economy — close to half of the country’s citizens still depend on subsistence farming — and to kick out the United States as well, regional power groupings remain to stymie his leadership.
Among them are local powerbrokers like the Ata Shura (Fatherland) political party, and the country’s Uzbek minority, who live in the historically turbulent Ferghana valley.
In June last year, Kyrgyzstan was rocked by severe ethnic unrest between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, with an estimated 2,000 people dying in the cities Osh and Jalalabad.
Beyond thorny domestic politics and potentially explosive ethnic tensions, Kyrgyzstan’s culture of strong family and clan ties, which tend to promote nepotism and widespread corruption, were perhaps the greatest impediments to Kyrgyzstan’s development, said Kyrgyzstan political scientist Valentin Bogatyrev in comments to dpa.
Atambayev will take office in December. In one of his first post-election comments, he spelled out his administration’s goal. “My goal is to unite the country. That is what we must do first.”
By Ulf Mauder and Stefan Korshak –