An Island of Democracy in a Region of Autocracies

3 mins read

By Emelie Wendesten

For more than a thousand years, the southern part of Central Asia was referred to as the silk road by Europeans. Through the silk road, goods and scientific findings found their way to Europe from China and India. Later, the area was ruled by various regional powers before coming under Russian and eventually Soviet rule.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Central Asia was divided into five new sovereign states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. These states do not coincide with their historical predecessors and their formations were not without complications. Uzbekistan forcibly displaced its Tajik people, as did Turkmenistan with its Uzbek population. Further, oligarchs arose during the regimes’ transitions to market economies, resulting in massive economic inequality. Kyrgyzstan lacks the oil and gas wealth of some of its neighbours and is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Due to widespread unemployment, over a million of its six million population work in Russia or Kazakhstan. 

While the Central Asian countries are historically intertwined, Kyrgyzstan has distinguished itself from its authoritarian neighbours since its formation. Kyrgyzstan became the first democracy in Central Asia and remains the only. The landlocked country has often been described as an island of democracy in a region of autocracies. Kyrgyzstan’s elections of 2011, 2015, and 2017 were all described as ‘lively’ and ‘competitive’ by the OSCE, clearly contrasting the one-party states with fixed elections that surround the country. Kyrgyzstan ranks at 83rd place in the World Press Freedom Index and while that ranking might not seem particularly impressive, it is miles ahead its Central Asian runner-up, Uzbekistan, at 156th place. However, the democratic development of Kyrgyzstan has been stalled by a number of issues, such as political instability, ethnic tensions, poor economy, Covid-19 and anti-democratic pressures. Further, there is a popular demand for tangible progress on tackling the vast and deep-rooted problem of corruption. 

The Kyrgyz parliamentary elections on October 4th came with widespread reports of voter bribery. Peaceful protesters amassed in the capital, Bishkek, to demand new democratic elections. Instead, they were met by police violence. In retaliation, mobs broke into the headquarters of president Sooronbay Jeenbekov and demanded his resignation. Jeenbekov did resign and thus paved the way to power for the convicted criminal and former MR Sadyr Japarov. 

Japarov’s rise to political power was sudden, almost meteoric. In early October, he was serving a 10-year prison sentence for kidnapping, a conviction he claims was politically motivated. He was released in connection to the protests and a few days later the Kyrgyz parliament elected Japarov to lead the government. Japarov has gained strong popular support and on January 10th, he emerged the clear winner in the country’s presidential election. Japarov received 79% of the vote, however on a turnout of less than 40%. Many call him a unifying force, others a dangerous manipulator and dictator-in-waiting. As of now, his political legacy remains to be written. 

The events this October marked Kyrgyzstan’s third attempt since its independence to remove a sitting president in order to establish a more inclusive political system. In 2005 and 2010 people gathered in Bishkek to demand political change. In both cases, the people managed to depose the incumbent, however, the transitions of power failed to result in a stable political system. Instead, Kyrgyzstan has been titillating between growing authoritarianism and a bottom-up push for better political representation. Civilians are, naturally, growing increasingly exhausted by the persistent political upheavals and their negative effects on the economy. 

However, underneath Kyrgyzstan’s continuous political turmoil lies a strong social resilience among its citizens. People’s distrust of the government has resulted in them largely relying on themselves and their communities, rather than on state services. Remarkably, after each instance of government dysfunction and political turmoil, civic networks appear stronger and the public more united. 

A self-organised ad hoc force of community patrols, druzhinniki, was formed in 2005 to protect Bishkek from looters. It mobilised once more in 2010, and yet again last October. As post-election protests turned to riots, the druzhinniki guarded government buildings, banks, and retail centres. Restaurants and civilians supplied the druzhinniki with food and water. Across Bishkek, the number of people who rallied to protect their communities outnumbered the police.

It remains to be seen whether newly-elected Japarov will earn the people’s trust and if Kyrgyzstan will find political stability at last. What is certain is that civil society has emerged as Kyrgyzstan’s healthiest democratic institution. Yet again, it has demonstrated that it forms the backbone of its democracy. The feat of Kyrgyzstan being an island of democracy truly belongs to its people. In times marked by worldwide democratic transgression, Kyrgyzstan reminds us not to overlook the power of the people.

Emelie Wendesten studies an MSc in human rights at Uppsala university. Emelie has a great interest in the post-Soviet sphere and has previously lived in Russia and Georgia. On her free time, she enjoys reading about military strategy, watching Keeping up with the Kardashians, and eating tapas with friends.

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