Wednesday, 24 September 2003

KYRGYZSTAN: THE POLITICAL SUCCESSION GAME

Published in Analytical Articles

By Rafis Abazov (9/24/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: In traditional Central Asian societies, the concept of keeping all political power within the extended family has very strong roots. This notion survived 100 years of Russian and later Soviet modernization. It was, therefore, natural for the debate about political succession in Central Asia to switched from procedure to personalities.
BACKGROUND: In traditional Central Asian societies, the concept of keeping all political power within the extended family has very strong roots. This notion survived 100 years of Russian and later Soviet modernization. It was, therefore, natural for the debate about political succession in Central Asia to switched from procedure to personalities. Increasing signs tend to point to political leaders stepping down and transferring power to family members. The Russian colonial administration often accepted the transfer of political or administrative office to the immediate members of families or clans among the native administration, but the Soviet authorities had a very different attitude, attempting to fully eliminate any signs of nepotism. They tried to bring people from different backgrounds to the administrative and party positions in the republic, in order to break tribal alliances and patronage networks. The highest government or party apparatus positions in Kyrgyzstan were regularly rotated, with representatives from the same family or even the same region never inheriting such positions. Yet by the mid-1970s, Kyrgyz clans and patronage networks had been consolidated into two major clans – centered in the north and south of the republic, respectively, and a system of unwritten rules rotating the post of First Secretary between the northern and southern clans was established. Political stability and political balance were achieved through behind-the-scenes bargaining processes tacitly approved by the Kremlin patrons, and through compromises achieved between major representatives of the competing clans. This contributed to the relatively stable political environment in the republic. But at present, there is no mechanism ensuring that a rotation will take place. While succession issues have been deferred in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, President Yeltsin in Russia hand-picked a young and energetic successor, who provided him with guarantees of personal security and financial safety. But although President Putin honored his main promises, he had by 2003 made major assaults on Yeltsin’s family’s financial interests, and especially on Yeltsin’s close associates – the so-called oligarchs. Therefore since mid-2003 and especially in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, there has been much discussion of possible succession solutions. Politicians increasingly talk about the possibility of succession falling to incumbent presidents’ immediate family members; for example, Ilham Aliyev is gradually replacing his father, Heydar Aliyev. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, the president’s wife, Meerim Akayeva, or his sons have been frequently named among potential candidates.

IMPLICATIONS: The absence of a stable succession system has major negative implications for Central Asia and for Kyrgyzstan in particular. Firstly, uncertainty over the issue of political succession undermines the economic environment in Kyrgyzstan, as according to the IMF the republic was the only member of the CIS to experience negative economic growth in 2002. The major issue at stake is redistribution of the economic wealth acquired through the process of privatization in the 1990s. There is anecdotal evidence that many businesses have tended to move to the shadow economy, while those among the current circle of cronies try to rip off as much profit as possible. Secondly, the focus on behind-the-scenes deals between the major clans, and the exclusion of the political opposition from the bargaining process, tends to result in the radicalization of the opposition. Kyrgyzstan’s most experienced politician – former Vice-President Felix Kulov – was imprisoned for seven years on dubious charges following a questionable trial; meanwhile the former opposition leader in the parliament, Daniar Usenov, was prosecuted on unconvincing criminal charges, which constitutionally barred him from standing in parliamentary or presidential elections. Many opposition groups, especially those that were associated with the “Movement for the Resignation of President Akayev” became more radicalized and ready for confrontation, as was demonstrated in the Aksy tragedy of March 2002 (when the police killed six opposition protesters in southern Kyrgyzstan). The political situation may deteriorate even further, and if such deterioration continues unchecked it could lead to a military confrontation with numerous casualties. Thirdly, military and law-enforcement agencies have tended to move into mainstream politics and play increasingly active roles in the political life of the republic. According to a survey study by the Litsa newspaper in summer 2003, military and political leaders with links to the National Security Service and Police represent almost a quarter of the top 20 politicians. These institutions are seen as the only political forces capable of stabilizing the country in an environment of political confrontation where political parties cannot achieve compromise. Former Interior Minister Temirbek Akmataliyev, and General Bolot Januzakov, chairman of the National Security Service, and others have been considered as potential presidential candidates in case of emergency and political instability. The danger is, however, that once the military come to power, there would be no guarantee of them agreeing to share power with civilians, nor that they would go ahead with political liberalization and democratization.

CONCLUSIONS: In order to ensure a smooth succession in Kyrgyzstan, there is a need for a series of institutional and political changes and cooperation between the incumbent president and the opposition. There are no straightforward formulas for ‘exit’ strategies, but at least several steps appear to be quite obvious. The broadening of the bargaining process in order to produce a political compromise is one example. Another element could be political decentralization and some reduction of presidential powers, through the delegation of certain decision-making and bargaining powers to the Jogorku Kenesh (Parliament of Kyrgyzstan). Another important step would be some form of amnesty for past privatization and business activities of the 1990s, plus amnesty for capital returning from overseas accounts. There is not a single public official or opposition figure who could not be brought down by corruption allegations arising from the shady legal environment and wild rush of capitalism of the 1990s. Further steps may be necessary in order to ensure a viable succession mechanism, which in turn would set a positive precedent in the region.

AUTHORS BIO: Rafis Abazov, PhD, is a visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute at the Columbia University in the city of New York. He is an author of The Formation of Post-Soviet International Politics in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (1999), the Freedom House report on Kyrgyzstan (2002 and 2003) and author of the forthcoming Historical Dictionary of Kyrgyzstan (2003).

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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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