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.