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Are the central Asian nation's neighbors rooting for its democracy to fail?
KIEV, Ukraine — Two weeks after voters went to the polls in critical parliamentary elections, Kyrgyzstan’s future is still unclear. And regional analysts warn that the outcome of the country’s recent political experiment could echo far beyond the borders of the tiny central Asian state.
Kyrygyzstan remains in limbo. The country’s Central Election Committee has yet to release the final tabulations for the Oct. 10 contest. So far, five parties have crossed a 5 percent threshold to qualify them for the legislature.
But supporters of Butun Kyrgyzstan, a party with a strong ethnic Kyrgyz following, have been protesting regularly, demanding that they should also be allowed into parliament. The committee is at the moment recounting results from a number of polling stations, which may in the end reconfigure the allocation of seats.
Meanwhile a small but emotional group of demonstrators (reports say they numbered in the hundreds) from Ata Jurt, another nationalist party, gathered in Bishkek over the weekend. Ata Jurt came in first in the vote and at this moment should receive 28 places in the 120-member parliament. Ata Jurt’s leader, Kamchibek Tashiyev, said that Keneshbek Duishebayev, the country’s security chief, sent gunmen to assassinate him, in order introduce a state of emergency and overturn the election results.
“They broke in like bandits,” said Tashiyev, who claimed the gunmen battled with his body guards at his house outside the capital. Duishebayev for his part rejected the charges and promised a full investigation.
The events underline the extreme political fragility of Kyrgyzstan, an ex-Soviet state next to China that hosts both American and Russian airbases. In April this year, throngs battled government forces and forced the country’s autocratic leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to flee. Then in June, clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left untold numbers dead and thousands of buildings destroyed.
In a stab at stabilizing her fractious nation, interim President Roza Otunbayeva has opted for something almost unheard of in former communist central Asia: She is making Kyrgyzstan more democratic, not less.
Central Asia is a place where most public problems are solved with a decisive authoritarian fist. Otunbayeva has eschewed this option. Instead she introduced a new constitution this summer that opens the country up politically and establishes a parliamentary democracy.
If she fails, then Kyrgyzstan’s chaos could intensify, and the shockwaves of volatility that the country generates could fan out across region.
But here’s the rub: If she succeeds, then Kyrgyzstan’s example of representative democracy also could make the neighboring authoritarian governments wobble.
“There is no doubt that the regional stakes are very high,” Alexander Cooley, an associate professor in Barnard College’s department of international relations and foreign policy, said by telephone. “If Kyrgyzstan is shown to be a working democracy, then it re-opens the question of political liberalization in central Asia.”
In other words, Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors hope to see its representative democracy fail — or at least be replaced by a more authoritarian form of government. Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov would like nothing better than to boast of their political structures’ superiority.
And it’s not just the so-called “Stans”: Russia as well seems to be hoping that the Kyrgyz experiment does not succeed completely. Dmitry Medvedev last month said that for Kyrgyzstan, as well as for Russia, “parliamentary democracy is a disaster.” Immediately after the elections, four of the leaders of parties to enter parliament rushed to Moscow for consultations.
“The people I talked [in Kyrgyzstan] say that they are getting a lot of pressure from Russia, saying that ‘this is not right for Central Asia,'” said Cooley. “And there’s a lot of push-back from the Kazakhs — they’re terrified.”
But at the same time, none of the neighbors wants Kyrgyzstan to fail to such an extent that it becomes a regional black hole, or a petri dish for political and religious extremism. Unfortunately, this will still be a possibility for some time in the small mountainous state.
“The problem is that Kyrgyzstan is just barely hanging together,” said Cooley. “As much as I want Kyrgyzstan to succeed, the deck is so stacked against it.”