Passing the Baton of Democracy in Kyrgyzstan

Democracy in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz family

by Kori Udovički

24 October 2011 - Presidential elections will be held on 30 October in the Kyrgyz Republic—a poor, landlocked country in post-Soviet Central Asia. This vote will be Central Asia’s first presidential election in which the incumbent faithfully respected a fundamentally democratic constitution.  

Kyrgyz family

In a region where both elites and societies often associate electoral competition with instability and disorder, Kyrgyzstan’s elections show that—as in the Arab Spring countries—accountability to society is essential to good governance.

Kyrgyzstan’s democratic transition has been hard won.

It began with a popular uprising in April 2010 that unseated then President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, widely perceived to have compromised Kyrgyzstan’s first democracy-building effort.

Some 90 protesters were killed and 1,700 wounded in the violence that led to Bakiyev’s flight.

This was followed by an outbreak of ethnic violence in June 2010, in which 400,000 Uzbeks were driven from their homes and millions of dollars of damage was inflicted on southern Kyrgyzstan’s trade, transport, and housing infrastructure.

Since the June 2010 events, Kyrgyzstan’s democrats have moved to prevent a relapse into tragedy.

A new constitution limiting presidential powers and forcing government to work on the basis of parliamentary coalitions has been approved by popular referendum.

With support from the international community, including the United Nations, much of the infrastructure in the south has been repaired. Anti-corruption civil society watchdogs have been installed in central ministries, and measures to clean up the judiciary have been introduced.

From the beginning of the transition, UNDP, with other United Nations agencies and international partners, has been securing expert input and broad participation in drafting the new Constitution, providing electoral assistance, and supporting ethnic reconciliation and the government’s capacity to reconstruct the south and negotiate in parliament. It has also helped to create more than 4,000 jobs in public services, trained more than 2,000 young people in vocational and business skills and supported 3,000 business start-ups.

The changes seem to be working: GDP growth through August was seven percent, and state budget revenues are running ahead of expectations. The Government has introduced many of the recommendations made by the numerous domestic and international reports on the ethnic violence. Measures taken to prepare for the presidential election leave international observers hopeful that the balloting will be free and fair.

The Government’s recent signature of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its work to implement recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Kyrgyzstan currently holds the vice presidency, are further proof of the country’s democratic aspirations.

Kyrgyzstan’s democratic transition has been very real, but 15 months after the conflict in the south, it remains quite fragile.

Many consider progress to have been slow, and the human rights record is still quite uneven.

Observers are concerned that the new democracy will be challenged without the principled and trust-promoting leadership of President Roza Otunbayeva who committed not to run for office when she agreed to stand as President during the 18-month transitional period.

The international community should support the constructive and the genuine, not forgetting that it takes time—repeated experience in the value of compromise, and the costs of zero-sum-politics—for democracy to become effective and secure.

In this last stretch before Kyrgyzstan’s first transition from one democratically elected government to another, the message ought to be one of strong support for the forces willing to give a chance to the rules of democratic give-and-take.

Kyrgyzstan’s people and its leaders should see that, difficult as the democratic reforms may be, they offer the best prospect for maintaining the stability the country so desperately needs.

Equally, the people should be reassured that a government that moves steadily to strengthen the protection of human rights, promote ethnic reconciliation, and put real teeth into anti-corruption initiatives, will be supported, even if the results may sometimes be less than desired.  

As much as possible, donors should project signals of support, disburse pending tranches of assistance and send positive messages.

In addition to securing sources of employment-generating growth, the country needs to be able to respond more effectively to natural disasters, clean up dozens of Soviet-era radioactive waste dumps, and reduce corruption and drug trafficking.

Much remains to be done in setting Kyrgyzstan on a secure, long-term development path. The UN, and the international community more generally, needs to offer a steady hand. But let us not allow perfection to be the enemy of gradual, and real, improvement.