The ink of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 parliamentary election had yet to dry when elsewhere ink was being dedicated to the propositions that Central Asia is perhaps not ready for democracy, and that in fact democracy might only make matters worse. Well, yes, it might, and not only in Kyrgyzstan. On the list of countries at this moment on the precipice — Sudan is another —, Kyrgyzstan is nonetheless representative of a widespread democratic phenomenon: the fragmented electorate which gives rise to the necessity of coalition government.
This is ordinarily where one notes the calm reception of the vote and laments the recent and terrible ethnic violence. Terrible indeed, but less often noted are the considerable thought and efforts that went into ensuring ethno-tribal conflict throughout Central Asia. The principal behind this work is Joseph Stalin, who at the behest of Lenin redrew the map of Turkestan, in October 1924. Stalin’s chief talent was manipulation, the art of setting rivals one against another, and one might say that Central Asia is in this regard his enduring masterpiece.
The divide and conquer method of map making is evident throughout the region. One discerns it in the bizarre division of the Ferghana Valley, in the facts that the Tajik cities of Samarkand and Bukhara are in Uzbekistan, the Tajik-dominated Sukh enclave of Uzbekistan is surrounded by Kyrgyzstan (as the Tajik Vorukh enclave is also within Kyrgyzstan but belonging to Tajikistan), and Osh is an Uzbek city in Kyrgyzstan. In short, national borders have been established in a way that isolates ethnic groups and inhibits travel, while fostering internal conflict. The mess we see today is in large measure a manufactured mess, a product of meddling empire. Do have that in mind whenever you hear the smug throwaway, Is Kyrgyzstan ready for democracy?
None of the above can either dismiss or diminish the rot. Central Asia never ceased to be under the thumbs of former Soviet bosses. Kyrgyzstan under Askar Akayev has to date been the only occasion of a Central Asian country (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) not under the rule of a former Soviet official, but eventually Kyrgyzstan was assimilated into the regional norm of autocracy. For much of the post-Soviet era its economy has been the property of warlords and crime families, a fact which stubbornly persists even as governments and constitutions come and go. Kyrgyzstan’s cities, dominated by educated Russian bureaucrats, marginalize both Kyrgyz and Uzbek. As the Russian grip slips, crime and corruption of another sort are at the ready.
The recent vote, favouring slightly the pro-Bakiyev Ata-Zhurt, constitutes a rejection of pro-Western politicians and prospects. Nonetheless, it is a mixed result in which no one has clearly come out a winner. With power likely to shift in the direction of the Kyrgyzstan Parliament, corruption and autocracy within that institution ought to be an even greater matter of concern. Kyrgyzstan is a place where not only a vote, but a candidacy itself, may be bought and sold. Some believe that the June violence was orchestrated from the top, as a blackmail tactic to force desperate support of an otherwise insupportable constitution. If this is true, and it could well be, then the assignment of power within Kyrgyzstan has likely been decided already.