Is Central Asian democracy an oxymoron? That’s the question posed by Bakyt Abdrisaev and Alexey Semyonov in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. They talk about the deeply rooted authoritarianism in the region, but they also explain that Kyrgyzstan has consistently been the outlier—not because of progressive leadership, but rather because of strong democratic sentiment among the population, which has now shown a tenacious willingness to take a stand against governments that grow too autocratic and corrupt.
The striking thing about this column is, however, its description of the role that Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has been playing. According to the authors, Nazarbayev has pressured the interim government in Bishkek to withdraw their plans to introduce a continental European style parliamentary democracy.
Shortly after the revolution, a number of the movement’s leaders, including Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva and Omurbek Tekebayev, proposed a radical shift from a constitution built around a strong presidency to a parliamentary democracy on the German model. The country already has a vibrant multiparty political environment and it’s unlikely that any one party would achieve outright control over parliament. A parliamentary system would require formation of coalition governments. Critics say this system would be less stabile, which may be so. But its appeal to many Kyrgyz is that it would make it more difficult for another would-be dictator to emerge.
But Kyrgyzstan’s success will also depend on the acquiescence, if not outright support, of its neighbors. To some of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors, parliamentary democracy is viewed as a menacing threat for the message it could send to their own citizens and the outside world as well. Kyrgyz democracy would challenge the myth that Central Asians expect leaders to behave like the authoritarian khans of yore. So the likes of Kazakhstan’s autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev have come out swinging against Kyrgyz democracy. He has made his view clear to Kyrgyzstan’s interim leaders that parliamentary democracy is unacceptable. He has continued to block the flow of goods and services across the frontier, which is Kyrgyzstan’s lifeline. He also denounces the popular uprising as rioting and rowdyism. His criticisms mask a concern that if the beacon of democracy really has been relit in Kyrgyzstan, and if Kyrgyzstan’s example is successful, it could spread across Central Asia.
Nazarbayev is currently the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which exists to promote fundamental values including democracy. It’s telling that the current head of OSCE would use his power and position to attempt to thwart democratic initiatives in a neighbor state.
In the meantime, the Kyrgyz interim government has been rocked by YouTube. A series of compromising telephone conversations involving key officials has been posted to the site, in which they appear to be discussing the sale of patronage positions. First Deputy Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, chief of law reform and enforcement Azimbek Beknazarov, and finance minister Temir Sariyev are apparently caught on the recordings. None of the three officials has yet to deny that the recordings are authentic. Sariyev said that his statements were taken out of context.
Lastly, it’s noteworthy that the United States has decided to rebid the fuel contracts at Manas Airport. This is not quite a recognition that what was done previously was improper, but it is clearly responsive to the criticism that the Kyrgyz interim government has leveled at the United States.