Teaser: An outside power will determine Kyrgyzstan's near future, as the country's geographic and ethnic divisions prevent a strong leader from emerging within the country

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Kyrgyzstan's Upcoming Elections and Uncertain Future

An outside power will determine Kyrgyzstan's near future, as the country's geographic and ethnic divisions prevent a strong leader from emerging within the country.


Kyrgyzstan will hold parliamentary elections Oct. 10, just six months after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was ousted in a countrywide uprising. Kyrgyzstan's geographic and ethnic divisions necessitate a strong central leadership able to control the country's political and security organs. However, with less than a week until the elections, no political party has a strong enough following to steer the country in any direction. Therefore an outside power -- likely Russia -- will determine Kyrgyzstan's near future.

Kyrgyzstan will hold parliamentary elections Oct. 10, only six months after a countrywide uprising in April drove then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev out of power and into exile. With no clear frontrunner in the elections and dozens of disparate parties competing, the Oct. 10 vote will serve as yet another challenge to the country's ability to hold itself together. But ultimately, actions taken outside the country -- whether by its neighbors or foreign powers like Russia and the United States -- will determine Kyrgyzstan's fate in the weeks and months ahead.
Kyrgyzstan has seen a great deal of instability and violence since the April uprising (LINK), as the interim government which supplanted Bakiyev -- led by Roza Otunbayeva -- has not bee able to wield the political or security power needed to stabilize the remote Central Asian country. This was clearly demonstrated just two months after the revolution, when ethnic clashes (LINK) between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad resulted in hundreds of deaths. The fighting led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people, primarily Uzbeks, who sought refuge across the border in Uzbekistan. While a referendum held in late June to establish Kyrgyzstan as a parliamentary republic (which was the precedent to establish the upcoming parliamentary elections) passed relatively calmly (LINK), the country has seen regular protests that show public discontent over the deployment of security forces from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as advisers to Kyrgyz security and police, among other issues.

The fundamental reason for Kyrgyzstan's instability lies in the country's geography and demographics. Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely mountainous with a clan-based society that is split by and scattered throughout these mountains. Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is home to substantial minority populations -- particularly in the southern regions within the Fergana Valley (LINK) -- that do not identify well with faraway Bishkek. These characteristics virtually guarantee that Kyrgyzstan needs a strong leadership that has control over the government and security apparatus in order to exist as a functional and unified country. Even Bakiyev, who ruled with an iron fist and consolidated most powers under the presidency personally, was strong only in the capital of Bishkek and his home province of Jalal-Abad and neighboring Osh and maintained a tenuous hold on the country as a whole. The complex Kyrgyz geography and demographics prevented Bakiyev from being a powerful leader, as the swift coup against him demonstrated.

But following the uprising, what control there was under Bakiyev was placed -- however nominally and temporarily -- in the hands of Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister who essentially is a caretaker and technocrat with even less ability than Bakiyev to wield power across the country. Otunbayeva was further weakened when several leading figures from the interim government left their positions to run in the elections. All of these factors complicate the situation in Kyrgyzstan ahead of the upcoming elections, which will truly test the country's ability to transition from an authoritative presidential system to a parliamentary republic.
One symptom of these inherent difficulties is that a week before elections, no political party is clearly in the lead. According to STRATFOR sources in Central Asia, the best organized parties are the Social Democrats under Almazbek Atambayev and the White Falcon party under Temirbek Sariev. These are both northern parties, which is an important distinction, as Bakiyev's support base is in the south and could interfere with any element it sees as a threat to its position within the country. The south mainly supports the Ata Meken party under Omurbek Tekebayev and Ata Zhurt under Kamchibek Tashiev. Two potential wildcards will be the Sodruzhestvo party chief Vladimir Nifadiev, who controls all security related to the Fergana region in Kyrgyzstan, and Melis Myrzakmatov, the country's richest man, who owns significant assets in Osh. (When I was spell-checking his name I came across something that said he is mayor of Osh -- is that true? And if so, shouldn't we mention it?)

But none of these figures appears capable of dominating the Kyrgyz political and security systems following the elections, at least not in the short term. The absence of a single strong indigenous leader leaves a vacuum that some other power will have to fill -- and all signs indicate that Russia (LINK) will be that power. Russia has been working to increase its political and military influence in Kyrgyzstan since the revolution (which had ties to Moscow) through a comprehensive military agreement (LINK) that, when signed, could unite all of Russia's military facilities in Kyrgyzstan under a single base and command structure. Also, according to STRATFOR sources, the Kyrgyz government has agreed that the OSCE security deployment for the upcoming elections primarily will be made up of of Russian officers, mainly concentrated in the security hotspots of Bishkek and Osh.

While Russia is the dominant external power in the country, two of Kyrgyzstan's neighbors could influence the situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan (LINK) saw the ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan in June as a serious threat, with Tashkent referring to the actions as "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" of the Uzbek population within Kyrgyzstan. This prompted the Uzbek military to move its troops to the border and even consider going in to protect the Uzbek population there. Then it became known that Russia sent in paratroopers into Kyrgyzstan, so Uzbekistan halted its plan to go into Kyrgyzstan, but it remains a possibility. Meanwhile, neighboring Tajikistan (LINK) has seen its own rise in instability after high-profile Islamist militants broke out of jail in August. These escapees sought refuge in the Rasht valley, which borders Kyrgyzstan. The potential is there for militant activity to spill over into Kyrgyzstan at this particularly tense time.

There are two other outside powers to consider as well. The United States (LINK) has a military base in northern Kyrgyzstan which raises the possibility of U.S. involvement, whether direct or indirect, in Kyrgyz affairs. But Russia has been seeking to deprive the United States of leverage and increase its own, as can be seen by negotiations with the Kyrgyz government involving Russian state energy firm Gazpromneft as a partner in refueling operations for U.S. aircraft. Another regional power with interests in Kyrgyzstan is China (LINK), but according to STRATFOR sources, Beijing checks with Moscow before taking any action in the region -- something which every Central Asian government knows. China and the United States simply cannot match Russia's influence in Kyrgyzstan, as Moscow has the loyalty of all the major political figures in the country. With its deployment of security forces ahead of the Kyrgyz elections, Moscow is making a statement to Washington and Beijing that Russia alone is in charge of controlling the security (let alone the politics) of the elections.

Ultimately, Kyrgyzstan will remain unstable and vulnerable to major shocks, not so much within the country but primarily from its neighbors and outside players. Russia will have the most influence over Kyrgyzstan, but Russian military power alone does not guarantee that Kyrgyzstan will completely stabilize, and uncertainties like ethnic tensions and possibly even militancy will persist. It is up to Moscow to decide how far it wants to go to tackle these problems, but the underlying tensions that plague Kyrgyzstan will remain to some degree regardless.

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