On Sunday, October 4, the Central Asian former-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan held national elections to its 120-member parliament. The main incumbent party, the reforming Social Democrats (SDPK) were returned to power, and the ruling president, Almazbek Atambayev, who is their leader, gained a second term. But the previous administration was replaced, and the polling was certified and praised enthusiastically by international observers.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections in many such countries, reported that the “lively and competitive elections were unique in this region.” The Financial Times noted that Kyrgyzstan had held “possibly the most competitive elections in the history of post-Soviet Central Asia.” The winning Social Democrats were credited with 27.4 percent of the vote, and 38 seats, while their leading rival, the Ata Jurt or Fatherland party, received 20 percent and 28 deputies. Twelve other parties competed with them. The Kyrgyz constitution forbids any party from electing more than 65 representatives.
Kyrgyzstan has 5.6 million people, 70 percent of them ethnically Kyrgyz. They are Sunni Muslims, as are about 20 percent more drawn from surrounding Central Asian Muslim communities. The rest are Russian. Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, and Russian, are the official languages, reflecting the heritage of tsarist and Soviet rule. Kyrgyzstan was conquered by the tsarist empire in 1876. Like other ex-Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan has a significant Jewish community and maintains good relations with Israel.
Kyrgyzstan is the most remote from Moscow, Berlin, and Washington of the former Soviet republics, but several factors make its political future important.
First, it is close to Afghanistan, with its capital, Bishkek, separated from Kabul by about 650 miles, across the territory of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. From 2001 to 2014, the U.S. military operated Manas Air Force Base, later retitled the Manas Transit Center, in Kyrgyzstan, as a hub for Afghan operations against the Taliban.
Radical Islam is weak in Kyrgyzstan, where local Turkic cultural traditions dominate. In the surrounding region, however, Islamist extremists have been recruited in Uzbekistan, and are said to be active in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Tajikistan, which is Persian-speaking but Sunni rather than Shia, is an under-the-radar satellite of Iran. On the eastern border of Kyrgyzstan sits China, with a restive minority of Turkic Uighur Muslims, some of them drawn into jihadism.
Further, Kyrgyzstan has an energetic civic culture, as was seen in the Tulip Revolution of 2005, when the former Communist Askar Akayev, who had led the country after the fall of the Soviet empire, was overthrown. In 2010, his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was cast out of power in the “second Tulip Revolution,” which also saw ethnic conflict between Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, other Muslims, and Russians. A new constitution was adopted by referendum, strengthening the role of the parliament, and the present incumbent, Atambayev, was elected in 2011.
Kyrgyzstan was the first post-Soviet state to be admitted to the World Trade Organization, in 1998. Its political journey has indeed made Kyrgyzstan unique in Central Asia. China is run by a traditional Communist party-state, Russia suffers under Putin’s de facto dictatorship, and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are controlled by undisguised autocrats, most of them in position since the end of communism. Mongolia is democratic, but is ignored, and has steered clear of a new Russian or Chinese embrace.
The most significant aspect of the situation in Kyrgyzstan involves its, and President Atambayev’s, relations with Vladimir Putin. Last year, an Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) was formed by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan invited to join. Kyrgyzstan’s membership was confirmed on August 6. While it is presented as a common trade zone comparable to the European Union, the EEU also provides ominously for mutual defense commitments.