Between Russia and Afghanistan
Kyrgyzstan – fragile democracy in Central Asia

China to the east, Russia to the north, Afghanistan to the south: in this geopolitical environment, Kyrgyzstan, which has been independent since 1991, is attempting to make progress – and is finding the going tough. Marcel Fuerstenau visited the country in Central Asia

By Asian standards, Kyrgyzstan is a small state with an area of 200,000 square kilometres. Its immediate neighbour to the north, Kazakhstan, is already more than ten times larger, while the giant empire of China to the east dwarfs the former Soviet republic. Yet it is a beautiful dwarf, graced with steppes, meadows, snow-covered mountain landscapes and seemingly endless rivers.

The abundance of lush nature contrasts with a poverty that is obvious, at least to Western eyes. All the more so the further one gets from the capital Bishkek in the north of the country. Here, prefabricated buildings from long-gone socialist times and a few luxurious high-rises, there, primitive-looking huts with roofs made of corrugated iron. The World Bank calculated a gross domestic product of 1309 U.S. dollars per capita for Kyrgyzstan in 2019, shortly before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, giving the country a ranking of 188th out of 223 countries surveyed. The average monthly salary is just over 200 US dollars.

The talented seek their fortune elsewhere

Those looking to earn more money or who are unemployed try their luck in Russia or Kazakhstan. According to unofficial estimates, up to 1.5 million Kyrgyz seek their fortune elsewhere as labour migrants – close to a quarter of the population. Young, mobile Kyrgyz in particular are leaving their homeland. Anyone who talks to well-educated students hears the same phrase over and over again: "I want to go abroad".

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is trying to counter this brain drain. Since 2005, its academy in Bishkek has been training leaders for the whole of Central Asia. A drop in the ocean? Hard to say. Anja Mihr, a political scientist from Germany, has been living and teaching in Kyrgyzstan for three years. She is impressed by the eagerness of the young people, but also says: "There is no basic understanding of how government works, let alone democracy."

Shakirat Toktosunova from the NGO International Alert (photo: Marcel Fuerstenau/DW)
"Kyrgyzstan is indeed a democratic country," says Shakirat Toktosunova of the NGO International Alert. But she is worried about developments in Afghanistan. After the Taliban took power, some feared the radical Islamists could inspire religious zealots in Kyrgyzstan. "There are people who fear that there are dormant terrorist cells here." But as real as the danger of increasing radicalisation may seem, Shakirat Toktosunova is confident: "Kyrgyzstan remains a secular state"

Yet Kyrgyzstan is considered the only semi-democratic country in Central Asia, with free presidential and parliamentary elections. However, this is combined with rampant corruption – which no government has been able to get under control since independence in 1991. This is also because the political elite is widely considered corrupt itself. Abuse of power and widespread poverty have triggered revolutions several times. In 2005, they led to the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan's first president, Asker Akayev.

Islam and the proximity of Afghanistan

The next coup in 2010 was preceded by civil war-like unrest between Kyrgyz and the Uzbek minority in the south of the country. Hundreds were killed and tens of thousands fled. The causes and possible masterminds of the unrest remain unclear. Despite such setbacks, Shakirat Toktosunova of the non-governmental organisation International Alert remains confident: "Kyrgyzstan is indeed a democratic country," she emphasises in conversation with a group of visitors from Germany, well aware that her guests from distant Europe might doubt exactly that.

Since 2017, Shakirat Toktosunova has been involved in a project entitled "Constructive Dialogues on Religion and Democracy in Kyrgyzstan". In secular Kyrgyzstan, about 75 percent of the population is Muslim; the largest religious minority is Christian. Conflict between the different faiths does occur, "but this has decreased recently". During the coronavirus lockdown, spiritual leaders played an important role in providing people with important information about the pandemic via the Internet. Digitally, economically weak Kyrgyzstan is comparatively well equipped. Smartphones are everywhere.

Parliamentary elections scheduled for 28 November

Shakirat Toktosunova admits that the glass is half full, not half empty. But she worries about developments further south: "Of course we look to Afghanistan, which is not far from us." After the Taliban took power, some feared the radical Islamists could inspire religious zealots in Kyrgyzstan. "There are people who fear that there are dormant terrorist cells here." Not an unfounded concern – after all, when the terrorist organisation "Islamic State" (IS) established its caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, Kyrgyz fighters were reportedly among them.

But as real as the danger of increasing radicalisation may seem, Shakirat Toktosunova is confident: "Kyrgyzstan remains a secular state." Yet the fact that the democracy, which is still very young at 30 years, is fragile as a whole also gives her pause for thought. The parliamentary election in October 2020 was overshadowed by allegations of manipulation.

Mass protests led to the resignation of the government and the president; the election was finally annulled. Now a new parliament is to be elected on 28 November.

From prison to the presidential palace

"We have been unable to build something permanent," regrets Shamil Ibragimov. As executive director, he heads the Kyrgyz branch of the Open Society Foundation of US billionaire George Soros. But Ibragimov also affirms: "Unlike our neighbours, we have the right conditions to produce a democratic society." How sustainable this foundation is in the long run can only be speculated.

If we take voter turnout as a yardstick, things look rather bad. In the parliamentary election of 2020, which was later declared invalid, it was only 56 percent. This represents the continuation of a long-standing downward trend: in 2010, 61 percent of voters cast their ballots. Interest was even lower in the presidential election in January of this year, when only 39.5 percent voted. The new head of state was Sadyr Zhaparov, who had already been in exile as a politician and ended up in prison on his return.

Shamil Ibragimov of the Open Society Foundation has mixed feelings about the future. The government is afraid of the people and the people have no respect for the government. He cannot see tangible progress anywhere. "We have tried to break the systemic corruption of the judiciary," says Ibragimov. With success? Rather not. In his view, the same is true of the economy: "In terms of scale, I think the black market is equal to the real economy."

Graphic: Map of Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours (source: DW)
Dwarfed between powerful neighbours: China to the east, Russia to the north and conflict-torn Afghanistan to the south. In this geopolitical environment, Kyrgyzstan, independent since 1991, is attempting to make progress. With military bases in Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Tajikistan, Russia is very much militarily present and plays a central role for Kyrgyzstan. According to unofficial estimates, up to 1.5 million Kyrgyz seek their fortune elsewhere as labour migrants – close to a quarter of the population!

Putin's image and Soviet nostalgia

The Soros Foundation, which has been active in Kyrgyzstan since 1993, is used to setbacks and hostility. In general, there is a lot of scepticism towards the many non-governmental organisations in Kyrgyzstan. But what worries people like Shamil Ibragimov even more is Russia's role in the region. This is the country where hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz work and alleviate the economic hardship of their families with their remittances back home. It is hardly surprising that Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin enjoys a positive image in the Central Asian country. Russia also has a military presence, with military bases in Kyrgyzstan itself as well as in neighbouring Tajikistan.  

The most popular TV stations in Kyrgyzstan are Russian, Shamil Ibragimov observes. "Obviously, they are the ones who shape the images in people's minds." This also includes a large portion of Soviet nostalgia, which can be felt in conversations with older Kyrgyz. All that is left to the mostly younger actors in civil society organisations is the principle of hope. And that is closely linked to youth. The Open Society Foundation has set up a media lab for bloggers and podcasters. "It is our task to support them," says Shamil Ibragimov, looking very thoughtful.

Marcel Fuerstenau

© Deutsche Welle 2021

This article was written as part of a one-week study tour by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. The foundation, which is financed by taxpayers' money, has been dedicated to dealing with the communist dictatorships in Germany and other countries since 1998. 


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