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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
09 January 2006

KYRGYZSTAN: Year in Review 2005 -Test for democracy in the region

ANKARA, 9 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - Politics dominated 2005 in Kyrgyzstan with parliamentary polls held in the spring and a presidential election in the autumn.

But analysts downplayed the possibility of another ‘tulip’ style revolution in the former Soviet republic, like the mass public protests that had brought the pro-democracy opposition to power in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.

However, the parliamentary elections in February-March brought reports of electoral irregularities which in turn resulted in protests among the electorate. At the same time, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in late February that the polls fell short of international standards.

"These elections were more competitive than previous ones, but sadly they were undermined by vote buying, de-registration of candidates, interference with the media and a worryingly low confidence in judicial and electoral institutions on the part of voters and candidates," Kimmo Kiljunen, head of the OSCE parliamentary assembly delegation and coordinator of the OSCE observers, said, presenting the preliminary findings of the first round of the polls.

The second round was marred with more violations and protests grew, particularly in the economically deprived south of the country, soon making their way to the capital, Bishkek. On 24 March, thousands of opposition-led protesters toppled former president Askar Akayev’s regime, forcing Akayev to flee the country, while his government resigned. Looting and civil disobedience was widespread as security forces were demoralised with the power vacuum taking place.

Such a ‘people’s revolution’ was the first of its kind in Central Asia and had a galvanising impact on opposition movements and civil society activists throughout the region, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in December in its report entitled ‘Kyrgyzstan: A Faltering State’.

Following Akayev’s flight to Moscow, opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was appointed acting prime minister and thus acting president as well. Akayev officially resigned in April and presidential polls were announced for July.

But the transition period from March to July saw various challenges for the interim government, formed by opposition leaders who had brought Akayev down.

The two most prominent and popular post-Akayev leaders, Bakiev and Feliks Kulov, in May formed an election alliance in which Bakiev pledged that he would nominate Kulov as prime minister if he won the presidential run.

Bakiev, as many analysts predicted, won the race easily and was sworn in as president in August, while in September he nominated Kulov to the post of prime minister.

Yet it took longer than usual to form the government given underlying political tensions and disputes among various groupings in power with conflicting interests, which created more uncertainty for the already faltering economy.

“The whole year [2005] we were occupied with elections and politics, protests, etc. The economy was almost forgotten and nobody worked on that front,” a local businessman said in December. “On top of that, the redistribution of property and economic resources previously controlled by the Akayev family and their entourage scared many international and local investors,” the businessman maintained.

Ulan Sarbanov, head of Kyrgzystan’s National Bank, said that according to their estimates the economy failed to grow at all in 2005, with industrial output falling by some 11 percent.

Kyrgyzstan is among the world’s poorest states, with around 40 percent of its some 5.1 million residents living below the national poverty line, while the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita is only US $400, according to the World Bank.

Aggravating poverty is the endemic corruption in the country and many observers say that the new leadership had yet to show any real political will to tackle it.

“During the previous regime, the rules of the game were clear. Everyone knew how much to pay who in bribes to get the job done. For example, if the rate was $100, you knew you would get it. Now we have to pay $100 and another $100 to be sure that it is going to happen,” one local businessman in Bishkek who did not want to be identified said.

While expectations following Akayev’s ouster were high, many started to realise that the overall system had yet to undergo thorough change and reform.

“Nothing has really changed except for the leaders. All the problems are still there. After Akayev’s regime fell, everyone hoped that things would change for the better and expectations were very high,” Asanbek Torobaev, a former government official in the southern city of Osh said. “But now I see that in order to see a real change, there needs to be a steady and ongoing reform in the whole system of governance along with real action in fighting corruption,” he added.

Echoing that view, ICG said the months following the revolution had been marked by uncertainty and paralysis, making the country particularly fragile.

“If Kyrgyzstan becomes a failed state, it will reinforce the views of neighbouring authoritarian regimes that dictatorship is safer than democracy,” warned Michael Hall, director of ICG’s Central Asia project. “The revolution that removed Akayev from power was the first of its kind in Central Asia and the new Kyrgyz state is a test for democracy in the region”.

However, some observers note that the people now felt confident that they could decide about their future and can change the regimes and leaders they are not happy with.

“People are different now. After 24 March they understood that they could get rid of leaders they didn’t want in power any more. So, if the new authorities do not deliver in a year or two, there might be another revolution,” a Bishkek resident warned.

Indeed, Freedom House, an NGO that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, in its latest report, raised Kyrgyzstan’s ranking from ‘not free’ to ‘partly free’, making that threat a reality.

“The people won’t to give us 15 years the way they did Akayev,” a senior government official was quoted by ICG as saying. “We have a year to show that things have changed – maximum.”

The Year Ahead

As for the year head, although many observers say the worst is over in terms of power change, they do not rule out continuing political intrigues between those groups vying for power in the political establishment.

The redistribution of economic resources and property may continue in the year ahead, with some criminal groups trying to influence the power mechanisms in the country, observers said.

Bakiev’s government announced that there would be a referendum in 2006 on the governance system, with the voters expected to choose the political system they think best suits them in an effort to stave off authoritarianism.

The Kyrgyz people would be asked whether they want a presidential, a parliamentary, or a presidential-parliamentary system of government, Bakiev reportedly said.

In a televised address on 31 December 2005, Bakiev attempted to focus public attention on the future. "Let hardships and sorrows go with the outgoing year and let the New Year bring harmony and prosperity," he said.

The government has set an 8 percent economic growth target for 2006, but this will depend highly on achieving stability and the rule of law in the country, which is yet to happen, analysts noted.



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