Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s only democratic country, remains mired in political turmoil a week after allegations of electoral interference triggered violent protests.
As condemnation grew after last Sunday’s contested parliamentary election, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov announced he was ready to resign after an interim government was formed. The latest voters’ discontent led to the takeover of the President’s main office building and the resignation of the Cabinet causing a leadership void that rival political parties and factions are vying to fill.
Leadership competitions aren’t new in Kyrgyzstan, a country of 6 million wedged between Russia and China. This is the third time the country’s citizens have forced their president to flee from office amid allegations of voting violations and corruption.
The nation’s first two presidents post-independence in 1991 were forced to flee the country amid public protests over vote fraud and corruption.
Askar Akayev, who served from 1991 to 2005, is in Moscow, Russia, and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, ended up in Minsk, Belarus.
Former Presidents Roza Otunbayeva and Almazbek Atambayev are in the capital Bishkek, but the latter spent more than a year in jail following a fierce standoff between him and Jeenbekov.
The main reason behind the past week’s dramatic turn of events is allegations of widespread voting violations.
Sunday’s parliamentary vote handed a resounding victory to two pro-presidential parties after a campaign backed by vast financial and administrative resources.
The two parties won seats previously held by three major rivals, pushing those rivals below the 7% threshold needed to remain in Parliament.
Members of these parties, and others that did not secure enough votes, called it «the dirtiest» election since the country’s 1991 independence.
Kyrgyzstan’s history of holding competitive and contested elections is unique in post-Soviet Central Asia, where leaders usually rule for decades and where the right to elect Parliament and presidents is largely symbolic. Vibrant civil society and active independent media have always made Kyrgyzstan a lone stronghold of democracy even if it does not hold up fully to democratic standards of Western countries.
Kyrgyzstan was an important ally of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan by hosting a key US military base from 2001 to 2014. Its presence had always been under geopolitical pressure due to Kyrgyzstan’s close economic and political ties to Russia and common borders with China.
Current events in this Central Asian republic demonstrate that it is important for Kyrgyzstan’s Western partners, such as the European Union, the United States and Canada, to boost their support for the country’s democratic development.
Alleged vote buying and voter intimidation that are believed to have contributed to the victory of the two pro-presidential parties stem from chronic economic failures by the country’s leaders.
Poor economic development has also undermined efforts to strengthen government institutions that have generally lacked the capacity to deliver services such as proper health care, fair judiciary and quality education.
It is extremely important for our Western partners to keep a close eye on Kyrgyzstan and support its democratic development as my country serves an important example of a Central Asian (former Soviet) republic whose people have strong democratic aspirations and have made serious efforts to hold their leaders accountable.
Bordering China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and having Russia as its most important strategic partner, Kyrgyzstan still follows its own unique democratic path in the region.
The latest protests that sent the President fleeing his main office building and forced the cancellation of the election results are a clear sign of Kyrgyz voters’ demands for free and fair elections.
Prospects of political stability in the immediate future are unknown as political leaders struggle to find common ground amid Jeenbekov’s desperate efforts to restore his authority. He unexpectedly imposed the state of emergency in the capital Bishkek Friday night and brought in military servicemen and machinery to enforce it.
Over the past 10 years, Kyrgyzstan has dramatically improved voting procedures and the competitiveness of its national and local elections. None of its Central Asian neighbors have followed its lead as there’s no real political competition in any of them.
The introduction of electronic ballot boxes and biometric data verification ensured orderly voting procedures, but that did not prevent vote buying and voter intimidation before the most recent election day.
The drastic improvement in voting facilities was due to support from democratic partners such as the European Union, Switzerland and South Korea. But considerable economic assistance and cooperation are also needed to strengthen Kyrgyzstan’s relations with the European Union and other Western countries.
It is important for Kyrgyzstan to be able to balance its relations with China, which holds a significant part of the Central Asian nation’s debt, and Russia, its most important strategic ally in economy and security.
Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens work and live in Russia, easing pressure on Kyrgyzstan to create new jobs.
Western democracies should ensure that Kyrgyzstan is given the resources and opportunity to reduce its reliance on Russia and China, given how greatly different the two powers’ democratic trajectories are compared to Kyrgyzstan.
The struggle of the people of Kyrgyzstan for freedoms and rights and aspirations to live in a democratic republic should not be in vain.
Investment in education, the empowerment of women, strengthening of the rule of law, and economic development would be a great boost for Kyrgyzstan’s democratic journey.
The Kyrgyz people’s contribution to democracy in Central Asia and beyond cannot be underestimated.
Kadyr Toktogulov is a former Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to the US and Canada, who also worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.