Kyrgyzstan’s recent history of springtime revolts, which in 2005 and again in 2010 led to presidents being ousted from office, created some trepidation about possible unrest this year. But a series of anti-government protests since early March have not escalated into a real threat to stability.
Demonstrations have been staged by the Ata Jurt party, which came first in the 2010 parliamentary election but is now in opposition after leaving the governing coalition, by its political ally Butun Kyrgyzstan, and by another opposition party Ar Namys.
In an IWPR interview, Zaidinin Kurmanov, director of the Institute for Parliamentarism and Democracy in Kyrgyzstan, said that even if the opposition is incapable of mustering forces for another revolt, central government remains chronically weak, and is threatened by its own underperformance, declining living standards, and a loss of control at local level.
IWPR: The opposition rallies have come to a halt, and Ata Jurt leader Kamchybek Tashiev has said recently that he will cease his attacks on Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov after leading protests demanding his resignation. What has happened?
Zaidinin Kurmanov: There could be several reasons for this. First, the attempt to stage protests across the country has failed. There was support for the opposition only in the south [stronghold of Ata Jurt]. Opposition forces have yet to build up adequate support in the north.
Second, the protests were designed to force those in power to sit down at the negotiating table and start horse-trading on political positions. They’ve delivered their message – the question is whether it will be heard and what kind of response it will get.
Third, maybe this was a trial-run designed to gauge what the opposition is capable of – a kind of dress rehearsal for events yet to come. Government has been very weak in recent years, which gives its opponents the potential to win. Its performance has been inert and ill-conceived, and few of its electoral promises have been delivered. That’s worrying now and for the future.
Recent opinion polls suggest that the local council elections held in March 2012 have made people somewhat less fearful of a civil war, although some 43 per cent still believe this is likely.
IWPR: Might these anti-government protests be repeated, and if so, when?
Kurmanov: Probably this autumn, when the country will be facing a budget deficit.
IWPR: How can one can explain the lack of nationwide backing for the opposition?
Kurmanov: It is obvious that in its current form, the opposition doesn’t have a great deal of potential, and that its chances of success are limited. The current leaders can only make the running in the south of Kyrgyzstan. In order to change its image and expand its support-base, the opposition needs to overhaul its membership and rid itself of careerists, and instead attract intelligent, authoritative figures of unblemished character.
IWPR: If the authorities face another wave of unrest, will they be able to stay in control?
Kurmanov: The coup d’etat seems to have become the standard, simplest way to come to power. You get 10,000 or 20,000 of your followers to come to Bishkek’s central square on some pretext, and the White House [former presidents’ office] surrenders. You don’t need to do the humdrum tasks of organising and campaigning, you don’t need to think, explain your point of view or publish articles.
In both uprisings [2005 and 2010], marginalised sections of society and immature young people were the prime movers. Now they are thirsting for another revolution, or to be more precise, for another opportunity to do a bit of looting.
Kyrgyzstan’s law-enforcement agencies are demoralised, and will not defend the authorities, particularly given the ongoing trials of policemen who are charged with shooting demonstrators in April 2010.
Political party leaders no longer trust the police to uphold the law, so they are setting up their own armed units, disguised as volunteer forces.
IWPR: What do you think it would take to swing the popular mood towards the opposition in the north as well as the south?
Kurmanov: A decline in living standards. If that happens, nothing can save the authorities. The shortage of investment is forcing them to take unpopular measures, which could trigger a social explosion. There could be another cause as well – if relations worsen with another state, or if the opposition gets support from major external outside players.
IWPR: Why isn’t the opposition properly integrated into the political mainstream?
Kurmanov: The opposition is represented in parliament – it holds the post of deputy speaker as well as chairing two parliamentary committees. But that isn’t enough to harness it to the common cause. It should be more integrated into government, as well. At the moment, there is no one from the opposition in the executive, with the one exception of Culture Minister Ibrahim Junusov. But that appointment didn’t come out of negotiations; it was more of a goodwill gesture by the prime minister or the president.
Hence, Ata Jurt feels itself at liberty to express its unhappiness out in the open, and that is what is happening.
IWPR: Ideologically and intellectually, there seems little to choose between the political groups that are in opposition and in power.
Kurmanov: The parties are built around their leaders, and consist of followers who serve the interests of their leader and his immediate circle. There isn’t much in the way of ideology or values, and party programmes don’t count for much. Voters choose the individual, not the programme.
None of the parties has a strong membership. For example, the candidate list of the Social Democratic Party at the last election consisted of its leaders’ friends, relatives, wives, sons and daughters.
In Kyrgyzstan, competition is not about ideas, it’s about power, position, assets and influence. That explains why there’s little substance to parliament’s activities, and why the government has no priorities or values. So there’s a sense that the country is constantly swaying from side to side, in its foreign policy as well as in its domestic politics.
There’s no fundamental difference between those who are in power and the opposition. It’s difficult for ordinary people to make conscious and effective choices. So voters go for personalities, clan or region – even though that brings them no real personal benefit.
IWPR: How would you describe the current state of the government?
Kurmanov: It has little authority, nor is it in a position to coerce others. Its only option is to shape a consensus among various forces, but there’s limited capacity to negotiate solutions and to stick to them. No one feels that’s necessary. So it’s difficult for the government, president and parliament to do anything.
After the March 4 local elections in which mayors [of Osh, Karakol and Tokmok] were also selected, it became apparent that real power on the ground lies not with the parliamentary parties, but with other political forces. In other words, there’s a disconnect between the centre and the local level.
More local elections are on their way [in October], and it’s hard to predict who will win. The gulf between central and local levels is likely to widen, so that the local councils, of which there around 500, slip away from the control of the state.
Interview conducted by Timur Toktonaliev, an IWPR journalist in Bishkek.
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