In November 2011 I visited Kyrgyzstan during the final stages of campaigning for the presidential election. While the 16 candidates smiled and spoke hopefully of the bright future they offered their country, I struggled to find old friends and acquaintances. Many had left the country or had migrated to the capital city to escape grinding poverty, lack of opportunity, instability and ethnic discrimination.
The following month, Almaz Atambaev was sworn in as the new president. Remarkably, this was the first time that any of the Central Asian republics had witnessed a peaceful and constitutional handover of power since their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But if Atambaev is going to address some of the country’s most serious problems, he is going to need a lot more than the good will of international donors that his election victory has bought him.
Kyrgyzstan was among the poorest of the former Soviet republics. Its predominantly agricultural economy was decimated by the loss of the Soviet centrally planned market. Its first president, Askar Akaev, was alone in the region in taking the neoliberal and democratic development path. This exacerbated the basic problem of poverty, and when he backtracked on democratic commitments and tried to pursue an unconstitutional third term of office, he was overthrown by largely peaceful protests in 2005.
Kyrgyzstanis who hoped that the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, would check the rampant growth of corruption were sorely disappointed. Under his nepotistic rule, freedoms were curtailed and his family and supporters shamelessly enriched themselves. The growing power of organized crime contributed to an alarming rise in political violence. As he came, so he went – overthrown by protests in 2010. Unlike Akaev, he did not go quietly, his special forces shooting dead almost 90 people.
He was replaced by a temporary government headed by interim president Roza Otunbaeva. The new government lacked the ability to make its writ run throughout the country, and was unable to control the criminal gangs and armed defence units that mushroomed in the power vacuum.
Most worrying was the rise in interethnic tensions, as poverty and the erosion of the rule of law exacerbated recent conflict between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority. In June 2010, the city of Osh was engulfed in days of violence. It is impossible to be sure of the precise cause, but thousands of people were injured and nearly 500 were killed. Uzbeks suffered the greatest losses, including most of the 2,000 houses that were burned down.
Whether Kyrgyzstan’s weak and ill-disciplined police and armed forces were overwhelmed by or were complicit in the violence is a moot point, but the aftermath has been disturbing. Uzbeks have been routinely abducted for ransom and their property and businesses seized with impunity. The law provides no recourse: on the contrary, many Uzbeks have been arbitrarily arrested, intimidated and tortured by police in order to extort large sums of money.
Addressing police corruption and providing minorities with the security they need to unite them in the state project must be near the top of Atambaev’s agenda. But he also sorely needs to alleviate poverty and the corruption that so exacerbates it. Forbes recently ranked Kyrgyzstan as the country with the seventh worst economy in the world, and Transparency International ranks the country as the 14th most corrupt of the 178 surveyed. The collapse of Soviet-era universal welfare provision has hit the poor hard, while élites have enriched themselves through appropriating foreign aid and stripping state assets.
In his inaugural speech, Atambaev promised to unite the country, address poverty, and tackle corruption. He is going to have his hands full.
|Leader||President Almaz Atambaev.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $880 (Russia $9,912, United States $47,140).|
|Main exports||Cotton, wool, meat, tobacco.|
|People||5.3 million. Annual population growth rate 1.3%. Peopleper sq km 26 (Britain 253).|
|Health||Infant mortality rate 33 per 1,000 live births (Russia 9, US 7). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 450 (US 1 in 2,100). HIV prevalence rate 0.3%.|
|Environment||Pollution of drinking water by waste from gold mining operations remains a perennial concern. The major biodiversity issue is that of the endangered snow leopard: numbers have dwindled to an estimated 150-200, mainly due to poaching by economically marginalized rural populations. With international assistance, the country has made good efforts in managing the ecology of the world’s largest free-growth walnut forests.|
|Culture||Kyrgyz 65%, Uzbek 14%, Russian 12%, others 9%.|
|Religion||75% Sunni Muslim, 20% Russian Orthodox, others 5%.|
|Language||Kyrgyz and Russian (official) plus minority languages, including Uzbek and Ukrainian.|
|Human Development Index||0.615 (Russia 0.755, US 0.910).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Elites that ripped off state assets after the Soviet Union collapsed have continued to enrich themselves.|
|Literacy||Adult literacy 99%. Education is compulsory and universal. There has been a significant growth in higher education since independence, but it is largely restricted to those who can afford it. In 2010 the provision of higher education to ethnic Uzbeks was substantially curtailed.|
|Life expectancy||67 years (Russia 69, US 78)|
|Freedom||A relatively free press has managed to survive, although it is often beholden to sponsors with clear personal agendas. De facto ethnic Uzbek minority rights have been severely curtailed.|
|Position of women||From June 2010 to December 2011 interim President Roza Otunbaeva served as the region’s first female head of state, and raised awareness of women’s issues. These included the practice of ‘bride kidnapping’ – the abduction of women by complete strangers, a crime that is rarely reported.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality has been legal for men since 1998 and for women since 2004. The age of consent is the same for gays and straights but there is no anti-discrimination legislation.|
|New Internationalist assessment||Kyrgyzstan has undergone a tumultuous half-decade. A new constitution in 2010 introduced the region’s first parliamentary democracy, and after two revolutions Kyrgyzstan has at last witnessed a constitutional transfer of presidential power. After promising starts, the country’s first two presidents eventually slid into corruption and political repression. That being so, in relation to the new Atambaev administration, most people are saying, ‘wait and see’.|