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Will Kyrgyzstan's election reinforce democracy?

Or will it lead to further conflict in the pivotal, and unstable, central Asian nation?

Osh Kyrgyzstan Election Ethnic Tension
A woman carries a national bread as she passes by pre-election posters in Osh, Kyrgyzstan on Oct. 8, 2010. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The good news is that Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections on Sunday may be a major step for the fractious central Asian state on the road to stability. The bad news is that the vote could in fact spell more bloodshed, if not the country’s outright disintegration.

Journalistic cliches are from time to time accurate: Kyrgyzstan is truly at a crossroads. This weekend’s vote is a decisive moment in what so far has been a horrific, blood-saturated year for the small, but strategically-located, ex-Soviet republic.

After an April revolution in Bishkek that left more than 80 dead, and ethnic pogroms in the south in June that left hundreds — maybe even thousands — dead, Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, is gambling that an authentic parliamentary democracy is the country’s path out of its present turmoil.

It's a highly risky move, to say the least — one almost unheard of in the former Soviet sphere. Among the former republics, soft authoritarianism or outright dictatorship are considered the most stable, durable and productive political systems. Otunbayeva might get high points then for at least keeping the democratic faith and maintaining a vision for her country that has not been rotted out by cynicism and greed. (As well as giving up power voluntarily — also an all-too-rare occurrence in the former Soviet Union.)

And she may be right in her optimism. Kyrgyzstan has been dogged this year by a steady rhythm of stories and reports predicting its imminent collapse. (I’ve written a couple as well.) So far this has not happened.

The summer’s constitutional referendum was an unquestionable (and surprising) success. Many analysts, and Otunbayeva’s own allies, said it was insanity to hold a major vote just weeks after the worst ethnic bloodletting and refugee crisis the country had ever seen.

The new system that the referendum established — placing the center of power with the legislature and prime minister, and not the president — may in fact help balance out Kyrgyzstan’s numerous political factions and ethnic groups. The number of parliamentary seats has been increased from 90 to 120, and no party can have more than 65 deputies. Minority parties will be represented by a deputy speaker of parliament, and will control major committees like budget, security and law enforcement.

Everyone will now have a stake in preserving the status quo, as the logic goes. Indeed the election campaign has been marked by a high level of participation, news reports say. Twenty-nine parties are taking part, though only six are expected to pass a 5-percent barrier to qualify for seats.

Kyrgyzstan also benefits from the disproportionate interest of two big brothers: Russia and the United States. Both rent military bases there, making Kyrgyzstan the only country in the world to play host to both powers. In the end, they may not want the central Asia state to implode, and have at times worked together to avoid this.

Moscow sees Kyrgyzstan as lying within its sphere of interest, its “near abroad,” and maintains strong cultural, economic and political ties to the impoverished, landlocked nation. Washington on the other hand views the country as a potential beacon of democracy for the region. Moreover, the Manas Transit Center just outside the capital is a critical hub for supplying U.S. troops in nearby Afghanistan — and will provide an equally vital conduit out, when forces begin to withdraw.

These are the arguments for Kyrgyzstan pulling through its present time of troubles, perhaps even flourishing in the future. The arguments against are unfortunately just as strong — if not stronger.