By Arslan Sabyrbekov (11/11/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan has expressed her concern over the country’s ability to maintain and follow the democratic trajectory in light of increasing ties with the Kremlin.

“Kyrgyzstan’s growing cooperation with Russia is a challenge to our efforts to support Kyrgyzstan’s democracy,” Ambassador Pamela Spratlen wrote in an article published on the website of the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this week. “Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership would welcome a partnership with the United States, but places a priority on its relationship with Russia, which often comes at our expense. It remains an unanswered question how Kyrgyzstan can maintain its democratic trajectory while pursuing this partnership,” Spratlen wrote. The Ambassador did not elaborate on how exactly Kyrgyzstan’s democracy was under threat, but she did note that, as a result of pressure from the Kremlin, Bishkek was forced to evict the U.S. Military airbase at Manas, is set to join the Russia-led Customs Union and has largely accepted the Russian narrative of what is happening in Ukraine due to the massive presence of Russian media sources in the country.

The statement of Washington’s envoy drew heated discussions in the local political and expert circles. According to Kyrgyzstan’s former General Prosecutor Kubatbek Baibolov, the Ambassador’s concerns are not groundless. “It is not a secret that over the course of only one year, Kyrgyzstan has taken a big step back in its democratic development and reforms. Look at how law enforcement bodies are now treating peaceful protesters and civil society groups protesting the decision of the authorities to enter the Russia-led Customs Union,” noted Baibolov.

Indeed, signs abound that Central Asia’s only democracy is increasingly unable or unwilling to maintain its democratic trajectory. The country has recently adopted initiatives that speak against the fundamental principles of democracy. Last month, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament outlawed the promotion of positive attitudes towards non-traditional sexual relations. Many observers detect the hand of the Kremlin, which passed a similar law banning “gay propaganda” last year. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek issued a statement condemning the legislation, saying that it violates fundamental human rights principles, Kyrgyzstan’s democratic gains and constitutional guarantees. The parliament’s press office shot back, stating that the U.S. was interfering in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs.

In addition to this law, discussions are ongoing regarding the adoption of a law similar to that in Russia, requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents.” The law presents a real threat to Kyrgyzstan’s relatively vibrant civil society and aims to limit their activities. These initiatives are not coincidental and indicate Moscow’s efforts to impose undemocratic views on its allies. As New York Times columnist Masha Gessen put it, “the promotion of Russian style legislation and ideology is a stealthy expansionist project.”

As ambassador Spratlen also noted, all these worrying developments seem to demonstrate that Kyrgyzstan’s increasing cooperation with Moscow might be coming at the expense of the country’s democratic achievements. A common view among local political analysts is that due to the country’s heavy economic dependency on Moscow, Bishkek has no other option but to join the Kremlin’s integration projects. According to the ex-speaker of the Kyrgyz Parliament Zainidin Kurmanov, from the economic standpoint, neither the European Union, nor the U.S. have much to offer Central Asia’s only democracy, facing serious socio-economic challenges and risks. In his words, “further cooperation with the EU and the U.S. can take place in the framework of the democratic governance agenda.”

During her recent visit to Bishkek, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Fatema Sumar reiterated Washington’s readiness to further support democracy in Kyrgyzstan and called on the country to stay open and strengthen its relatively active civil society. Commenting on ambassador Spratlen’s article, Sumar replied that it contained nothing that the State Department hadn’t stated before.

In the meantime, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved Spratlen’s nomination as U.S. Ambassador to neighboring Uzbekistan. If confirmed for the post by the full Senate, it will be Spratlen’s second ambassadorial post, in a country that is far less democratic and is considered by many to be reemerging as Washington’s main regional partner.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 10:11

Kyrgyzstan Debates Constitutional Change

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (10/29/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst) 

Initiatives to amend Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, adopted in the aftermath of the April 2010 events and transforming the country into the first semi-parliamentarian state in Central Asia, are again on the rise. In the past month, a number of prominent politicians have made statements ranging from proposing additional amendments to completely changing the constitution. During last week’s meeting of the Council on Judicial Reform, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev also supported the idea of changing certain articles in the constitution, “if they are necessary to carry out full-fledged reform of the judicial sector.”

This fall, two members of parliament have expressed their desire to launch constitutional amendments. The first initiative group led by MP Felix Kulov, leader of the Ar-Namys party, proposed removing the suffix “stan” and adding an “el” in the country’s name through a nationwide referendum. According to him, the resulting “Kyrgyz El Republic” would make use of the Turkic-origin “el,” that means “nation” in Kyrgyz. Kulov’s proposal received varying judgments, ranging from the party leader’s desire to attract public attention ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections to his attempt of drawing support from the so-called “national-patriotic groups.”

According to Atyr Abdrahmatova, leader of the civic union For Reforms and Results, Kulov’s proposal has little to do with changing the name of the country. Instead, Abdrahmatova claims that the suggestion was simply a pretext for probing how the Kyrgyz public would react to the idea of amending the constitution through yet another referendum. If the public agrees to such a proposal, the country’s political forces could then add additional questions to the agenda of the referendum, such as for example a different power redistribution between the President, Government and Parliament. This would indeed bring Kyrgyzstan back to the times of the first two ousted Presidents, when the country’s constitution was changed numerous times in favor of one office, turning it into a constant subject of political bargaining between the stakeholders.

Kyrgyzstan’s current constitution, adopted in June 2010, contains a special clause banning any constitutional changes until 2020. This provision was introduced in order to ensure some measure of stability to the country’s semi-parliamentarian form of government that the new constitution introduced. But last month, MP Karganbek Samakov, who has recently left the Ata Meken faction, issued a draft law repealing the ban. In his words, the “constitution is a living and moving body and it needs to be changed when necessary. Especially now, some of its rules are often violated, are not always enforced and are contradictory in their content.” These initiatives of parliamentarians and the President’s readiness to discuss constitutional amendments are obviously not coincidental and prepare the ground for the next possible modification of the country’s constitution.

Local experts skeptically perceive the president’s apparent willingness to change the constitution as a means for conducting judiciary reform and instead suspect that he maneuvers to remain in office beyond his current term. According to political scientist Uran Botobekov, the President might be preparing to run for reelection in 2017, which is not possible under the current constitution. However, in his address to the Council on Judicial Reform last week, President Atambayev clearly stated that he has no intention to change the country’s constitution in his favor as his predecessors did and will not become an authoritarian leader. Time will show if words will be kept.

Indeed, it is questionable whether adding a presidium to the Supreme Court by launching a nationwide referendum will result in any effective reforms of the judicial branch, which remains dependent on the will of political actors. The recent release of former politicians accused of heavy corruption deals speak in favor of this judgment. The country’s political elite commonly blames the constitution for their inability or lack of political will to conduct meaningful reforms. This constitution adopted only four years ago is unlikely to pose an exception. After more than two decades of independence, Kyrgyzstan is still engaged in a debate over choosing the most suitable system of governance.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (15/10/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Recent news about the unexpected union of Respublika and Ata-Jurt parties, both represented in parliament, has generated a wide range of speculations and has given a starting point for the parliamentary election campaign of 2015.

Last week, the official representative of Ata-Jurt, Nurlan Shakiev, confirmed that talks are ongoing between the two parties regarding their unification. In his words, “leaders of the parties have agreed to unite, prior to the upcoming parliamentary elections and all the procedures will be completed by the end of October.” The representative refrained from commenting on the form of the new union, but taking into account the ambitions of the two leaders, Kyrgyzstan’s political scene might witness the emergence of a completely new political party, capable of mounting a challenge to the current power holders. Both party leaders, Kamchybek Tashiev and Omurbek Babanov, refrain from commenting the issue.

Local political analysts cite the negative developments surrounding both parties over the past four years as a driving force behind the decision to unite. Ata-Jurt’s position was heavily weakened by the October 2012 arrest of its three main leaders on charges of attempting to violently overthrow the government. As a result of the court decision, all three served short sentences, lost their parliamentary mandates and according to the legislation, can no longer compete for an elected office. Furthermore, experts refer to the arrest of Akhmatbek Keldibekov, former Speaker of Parliament, as the most significant loss for the party. Due to his worsening medical condition, the Bishkek court has temporarily released him to get the needed medical treatment abroad and according to local experts, he is not likely to come back.

Unlike the endless criminal cases facing Tashiev’s Ata-Jurt party, Babanov’s Respublika party has experienced a different problem, namely a serious internal crisis with prominent members leaving and forming their own groups in parliament. All these factors in combination do indicate a need to unite, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2015.

According to the Bishkek-based political commentator Mars Sariev, this unexpected union of two political forces is not driven by ideological commonalities but rather by short term goals, i.e. parliamentary mandates. Babanov’s financial resources and his image as a young, ambitious, liberal reformer among some parts of the public, and Tashiev’s support in the south of the country, provide strong chances for the new union to succeed in the next elections.

Indeed, the elections of 2010 clearly demonstrated that in the Kyrgyz political context, the parties’ financial resources play a more essential role than their ideologies, programs and history. Respublika party, created only months prior to the elections, was able to secure 23 seats out of 120, performing better than one of Kyrgyzstan’s oldest political parties, Ata Meken, which according to official figures allocated few financial resources to the campaign and was barely able to pass the threshold. In addition, the current government’s inability to adequately address the socio-economic problems and the ongoing crisis in the energy sector will benefit the new union’s effort to build a platform in their upcoming election campaign.

Commenting on the new union between the two parties, the United Opposition Movement’s leader Ravshan Jeenbekov does not rule out the possibility of it becoming another “White House” project aimed at creating a false opposition. In his opinion, the current coalition government has shown a complete inability to carry out any efficient public sector reforms. The situation in the southern regions of the country is escalating, with its residents facing gas and energy shortages on a daily basis. Therefore, to restore the trust of the southern electorate prior to elections, the state is rehabilitating influential politicians from the south and will use them for their own benefit.

Nevertheless, the latest parliamentary elections with 29 parties rallying for 120 seats demonstrated the essential importance for different and mainly smaller political forces to unite. Kyrgyzstan’s current political landscape suggests that this process is becoming inevitable. So far, Ata Jurt and Respublika are the first parties to declare their plans to unite, but they are surely not the last.

The author writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the organization for which he works.

Published in Field Reports

By Dmitry Shlapentokh (09/17/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Bishkek has long considered whether to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union. Yet recent events relating to the resumed hostility with Uzbekistan, border disputes with Tajikistan, and Russia’s move against Ukraine could play a decisive role in Bishkek’s decision to accommodate Moscow’s geopolitical project. An additional factor is the worsening situation in the Middle East, where the rise of Islamic extremism and the clear inability of the U.S. and its allies to deal with the problem is clearly taken into consideration by Kyrgyzstan’s leadership and likely provides an incentive for reinforcing its alliance with Moscow. 

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Published in Analytical Articles

By Oleg Salimov (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan reported significant progress in consultations on border demarcation and delimitation during their recent meeting in Bishkek. They also announced that an agreement was reached on economic, social, and other forms of cooperation intended to stimulate neighborly and mutually beneficial relationships. At the same time, people living in the border regions of both countries continue to engage in violent clashes and shootouts. A peaceful resolution of the conflict over long-disputed territory will test the political maturity of these Central Asian republics. The outcome of this conflict can predetermine the future development and stability of the region.   

The last week of August was marked by multiple meetings between various committees, delegations, and officials from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek. The topics of discussion revolved around border issues, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural exchange and assistance. The border dispute delegations met on August 26, the Tajik – Kyrgyz intergovernmental committee had its session on August 27-28, and Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Joomart Otorbayev met Tajikistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Azim Ibrohim on August 28.

The sides discussed the border problem and numerous proposals for increasing bilateral cooperation. As reported by the Kyrgyz government, the border dispute delegations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan reached an agreement on the simultaneous construction of a road and two bridges, which will connect the Tajik enclave Vorukh on Kyrgyz territory with Tajikistan. The agreement includes provisions on relocating border patrol stations and establishing favorable conditions for timely construction. The delegations endorsed a proposal from the joint investigative committee for impartial examination of all border-related incidents taking place since January 2014 in the disputed territory. The sides exchanged maps with layouts of the border and agreed to intensify the process of delimitation and demarcation.

The session of the Tajik – Kyrgyz intergovernmental committee proved to be the most productive among these meetings. The committee devoted a significant amount of time to discussing issues relating to electric energy. Thus, agreements were reached on mutual assistance in emergency situations in the countries’ electric systems, possible transit of Tajik electricity to Kazakhstan through Kyrgyzstan in 2015, and continued efforts to realize the “CASA – 1000” project. This project foresees the expansion of electric energy trade in Central Asia and South Asia with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan exporting up to 1000 megawatt of electric energy to Pakistan and Afghanistan for up to 15 years. However, as of June 2013, the project’s main investor, the Asian Development Bank, withdrew from the project that must be completed in 2017, citing political instability in Afghanistan. While Russia, the World Bank, and the Islamic Development Bank expressed their interest, the prospects of the project remain unclear. The other resolutions of the committee included water allocation, facilitation of transit impediments, educational exchange, and cooperation in healthcare, culture, and art.

Finally, the meeting between Otorbayev and Ibrohim was mainly dedicated to the problem of demarcation and delimitation of the border between the two countries. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan organized an intergovernmental committee on resolving border disputes in 2001. Out of 971 kilometers of the border, around 500 are disputed. The lack of compromise is compounded by the differences in interpretation of Soviet era maps and Soviet officials’ motivations during Central Asia territorial delimitation in 1924. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also have simultaneous border disputes with Uzbekistan. All three have enclaves populated by ethnic minorities in the Fergana Valley where their borders connect and interlock. Two Tajik enclaves, Vorukh and Chorku, and two Uzbek enclaves, Sokh and Shakhimardan, are located in Kyrgyzstan, whereas Uzbekistan has the Kyrgyz enclave Barak and the Tajik enclave Sarvak. Besides recent tensions in the Vorukh, Kyrgyzstan experiences frequent conflicts in the Uzbek Sokh enclave. The most recent took place in spring 2013 when a Kyrgyz border patrol was taken hostage by Sokh residents.    

While Tajik and Kyrgyz officials were meeting in Bishkek, the situation on the border remained highly volatile. On August 25, right before the Tajik delegation arrived in Kyrgyzstan, five Tajiks were wounded when confronting Kyrgyz authorities on the border of Tajikistan’s Sughd province, increasing the casualties in the territorial dispute. Still, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are ought to find a compromise and overcome the existing disagreements on borderlines. The observed, during the last official meetings, employment of such factors as mutual economic dependency, membership in the same regional organizations such as SCO and CSTO, and common cultural and historic heritage indicate the willingness of both players to prioritize long-term benefits of peaceful coexistence over questionable short-term territorial gains.

Published in Field Reports

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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