Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev casts his ballot during a referendum on the constitution in Bishkek on December 11, 2016
Due to the political developments in recent years, it is probably not far-fetched to hear news about changes to the constitution in the countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Constitutional amendments in the Republic of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan are recent examples of these developments which resulted in changes to the boundaries of power of Presidents or Prime Ministers, on the one hand, and/or the adjustment in terms of the shift in power, on the other hand, by the positive popular vote in referendums. There seems little doubt that the common denominator of most of these changes is to provide the ground for the continuity of power in the hands of established leaders and/or their families. In terms of Kyrgyzstan and the recent referendum held in this country, some more or less similar speculation have also been raised that should be evaluated and scrutinized as a unique theme within the realities of the country and regardless of previous generalizations.
Kyrgyzstan, with a population of over 6 million and an area of nearly 200 square meters, is located in neighboring countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China, and includes some part of the Fergana Valley as well. This country is known because of her different course of political life in the post-Soviet period in comparison with other countries of Central Asia. For example, the fact that Askar Akayev came to power as the only non-nomenklatura leader in this region, the country’s especial relationship with the West, her relatively open political climate and the effort for implementing economic sweeping reforms can be mentioned here. Kyrgyzstan has experienced the greatest shift in political power among Central Asian countries. The socio-political climate of this country is also the arena of struggle for the ethnic and local groups such as Narin group (the birthplace of the old Kyrgyz leader, Turdakon yusuf Aliyev and the area that Akayev’s supporters live in), Talas group (the region of the ousted Communist Party leader, Absamat Masaliyev who was ousted following the “Osh” riots in June and July 1990) and the Osh group (claimed to be supported by the party organizations of Uzbekistan).
However, there are some important point regarding the political life of Kyrgyzstan that briefly reviewing them will prove useful. Following the developments under Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s, Askar Akayev, as a dissatisfied academic (the friend of Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident physicist) and out of circle of the Soviet Party system (nomenklatura) came to power on October 12, 1990 as a result of the election by winning 95.9 of votes. Akayev’s term of office is one of the most remarkable experiences of governance in Central Asia. He, intending to present a democratic face and certain tendencies to Western systems, was thought that was following a procedure different from those of other leaders in the region, and would open a horizon with more free climate and economic-political reforms to the Kyrgyz, in fact adopted a policy of suppression and elimination of opponents, and, in his later political life, he even contended with the country’s Parliament to secure a greater share of power, and prolong his term in office.
Despite the relatively open political climate and economic reforms in Kyrgyzstan which attracted the attention of many regional and international circles as the “island of democracy” in Central Asia in the early 1990s, and the estimate of a clear future following Western development patterns, the country gradually lost this trend and could not resist the “return of tyranny” waves, and was drowned in the “Central Asian authoritarian ocean”. While some analyst assume that the procedure for a more closed climate in Kyrgyzstan began in 1993 and/or [the change to] the constitution in 1996, it seems that 1998 amendments to the constitution followed by the increasing far-reaching powers of the President and the decreasing powers of Parliament, were considered as the definite time for the mentioned “return”. However, in the political literature of Central Asia, the year 2000 is known as a turning point in which Kyrgyzstan lost its reputation as the “paradise of democracy”, and became a host of “authoritarian presidential regime”.
Thus, the first and only experience as Westernization in post-Soviet Central Asia not only did not lead to the leap development, but also provided the ground for the social unrest and political instability. Though, these policies could create an opportunity for leaders in Bishkek in order to go through the transition from deep economic crises following the collapse of the Soviet in terms of attracting foreign investment, the results of these investments, after more than two decades, show that what in fact happened is the unequal allocation of resources and the uneven growth among different geographical and tribal areas of the country. Akayev was in power until 2005 and in this year due to the outbreak of unrest (March 24), he was removed from the power.
March 2005 unrest, known as a color revolution (Tulip Revolution) in Kyrgyzstan, happened following the opposition groups and parties’ protests to the results of the parliamentary election through which the pro-government groups won the majority of seats - the results were highly suspicious of fraud. Felix Kulov, Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Roza Otunbayeva are the most recognized leaders of these protests. Apparently, the unrest was carried out with the guidance and support of different Western institutions. As a result of these developments that led to Akayev’s escape to Russia, Bakiyev came to power. He, first served as the head of the interim government and then as the acting President, established his power with 88.9 percent of votes in July 10, 2005 presidential election. His period was also accompanied with changes to the constitution and the increased power of the President. But his term of office was not as long as that of Akayev, and his power declined after the outbreak of protests against the results of presidential elections in 2009 where he was re-elected as the President. In 2010, Bakiyev’s opponents led by Roza Otunbayeva asked for Bakiyev’s resignation by occupying government institutions and offices. These bloody developments led to the deepened ethnic and regional cleavages of (North-South) Kyrgyzstan.
Following the dismissal of Bakiyev, Roza Otunbayeva took power. Although her term of office was very short (less than 20 months), the fundamental changes to the distribution of power through the referendum on the constitution and even the change in the structure of government in Kyrgyzstan (from the presidency to parliament) in this short period cannot be disregarded. During this period, unlike the general increasing course of Presidents’ increased power against the Parliament which started in the early 1990s, the role of Parliament in the policy of Uzbekistan was much highlighted, so that for the first time in Central Asia, a parliamentary system was created in Kyrgyzstan. But ultimately and as the result of 2011 presidential election, Almazbek Atambayev came to power, and holds the presidency of Kyrgyzstan since the beginning of December of the same year so far.
President Atambayev’s period, compared with the previous periods, is evaluated to be a peaceful and stable political atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan. The President, influenced by the parliamentary system of the country, has more acted as the coordinator of powers at the domestic level and the Kyrgyz government representative at the international level. Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy is shown as a moderate policy focused on the country’s geopolitical requirements. Atambayev has paid special attention to the relations with Turkey, and has strengthened the relationship with Russia more than the past. During these years, the presence of Kyrgyzstan in the Russian-oriented regional initiatives and Eurasian mechanisms has been strengthened.
No need to mention that the political developments in Kyrgyzstan during the time of independence have gone through a not very similar experience as those of other Central Asian countries. Atambayev is the country’s fourth President, while all previous three Presidents are still alive - something unprecedented in Central Asia and even in many CIS countries. This feature shows the different dynamics in the society and politics of Kyrgyzstan. However, perhaps the common characteristic of the Kyrgyz with other Eurasian counterparts is that the Kyrgyz political leaders try to remain in power (regardless of their success rate), and resort to the means of referendum and the change to the constitution. But it seems that even in this case the Kyrgyz have also acted more delicately. Akayev, at the height of his totalitarian policies, at times tried to adjust the distribution of power between the President and Parliament, but by doing so he did not aim at implementing democratic policies, rather he hoped that when his daughter, Bermat, would assume the position of the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament, it would guarantee the continuity of political power in the Akayev’s family. Recently (December 11, 2016), the last referendum was held to change the constitution of the country where 20 items were adopted by a positive vote of 80 percent of the participants.
New changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution have increased the executive powers of the Prime Minister against those of the President, and have greatly expanded the Prime Minister’s scope of powers. One of the most important results of these changes is that the Prime Minister can, from now, appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers without asking for the permission of the President or Parliament. Also according to the new constitution, the Prime Minister is given more authority over the state budget. Another point in the recent referendum is that participants could not agree only to one case of change, and disagree with other cases, and they should have voted for the whole series of changes with “yes” or “no”. But why is this referendum so important, and what is the relationship between its results and the political situation in Kyrgyzstan and the transfer of power in this country?
Atambayev has been in power since 2011. On the one hand, his presidency ends in the coming months, and, on the other hand, it seems that 2017 will be considered the end of Atambayev’s term of office according to his unwillingness expressed to participate in the upcoming presidential election. But regarding the Kyrgyz experience in the field of transmission or distribution of power, observers and the audience have still more to reflect upon. Thus, it is not far-fetched to try to explain the links between future political developments and the recent changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution.
As shown in the media, despite the friendly pleasantries of regional leaders like Putin and Nazarbayev expressed for Atambayev’s re-nomination, he has not expressed a desire to assume the presidency again. In addition, as mentioned, as a result of the recent referendum, the Prime Minister’s scope of powers and his executive power have increased more than ever. At first glance, it seems that this development can be interpreted in the context of Atambayev’s efforts to reduce his (presidential) power. But the interesting point is that Atambayev is also attributed to the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan. However, the party, with 37 seats out of 120 parliamentary seats, has played its role in the form of parliamentary coalition, it seems that it is the most effective and most decisive party in the political climate in Kyrgyzstan.
The most common assessment for the possible motives behind the recent changes to the constitution is Atambayev’s attempt to return to power within the parliamentary elections as the Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan who is now more powerful than ever, and enjoys an incomparable executive power. This is the claim raised by the Kyrgyz and international analysts, but, each time, Atambayev has refused to accept it. But, regardless of the raised claims and doubts, the ongoing process is directed toward a loss of existing balance in power relations in this country, and it seems that this can cause possible future tensions in the political climate in Kyrgyzstan.
The most important feature of the parliamentary system in Kyrgyzstan is the effort to break the monopoly of political power in this country which is established as a result of the turmoil following the totalitarianism of the Presidents and the fear to have the turmoil repeated. Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary system has emerged as a mechanism to curb the growing desire of the executive leaders of the country for the political rigidity and totalitarianism, and now, once again, the allocation of too much executive power to the Prime Minister has itself presented this mechanism as the underlying basis for the totalitarianism and political rigidity. According to the background of political developments in Kyrgyzstan, this process each time has not only led to disorder and political tensions, but also even paved the way for the fall of leaders and a change in the power structure.
So, aside from the names - the “parliamentary” and “presidential” - given to systems in Kyrgyzstan, the concentrated executive power in a part of the political structure of the country and the loss of the internal balance of power can cast doubt on the only parliamentary system in the vast Central Asia, and lead to the unwanted developments in the Kyrgyz political life.
Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD student in Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at University of Tehran, is the managing editor at IRAS.
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