Kyrgyzstan’s democracy on a bumpy landing strip/I – the past and the run-up

On October 10 this year, Kyrgyzstan almost literally celebrated its first general elections for a parliament that is set to carry the power of hiring and firing governments, an authority taken away from the head of state by a June referendum resulting in a fundamental amendment in the country’s constitution in the wake of the overthrow by force of the regime headed by President Bakiyev and consorts. Closely watched by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which happens to be chaired by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan’s “IIIrd Republic” should carry hope for a better life, which its post-Soviet predecessor failed to bring, for a nation which finds it hard to fight for freedom on an empty stomach. It has taken till this week for the results to be made officially known – with five parties having overcome the 5 per cent threshold and now challenged with the necessity to negotiate a coalition.

by Charles van der Leeuw, KZW senior contributor

Kyrgyzstan’s democracy on a bumpy landing strip/I - the past and the run-up“From the Kyrgyzstan perspective, Kazakhstan lived up to its responsibility as OSCE chair in crisis management. From the outset, Kazakhstan orchestrated  immediate measures alongside the UN and EU to defuse the political tensions. The Kazakhs’ kinship and close relations with the Kyrgyz people made a big and positive difference. Their solidarity and determination showed visibly. A smaller EU nation, for example, as Chair would have found it much more difficult to grasp the chemistry of the situation, not to mention the linguistic nuances.” The words come from the ambassador of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Bishkek, Andrew Tesoriere, in the aftermath of not just parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan but the very materialisation of a new trend in Central Asia: away from enlightened despotism towards a much more laborious system but all the more illustrious for it: citizens’ rule. As in Europe in the period between Charlemagne’s consolidation policy and feudal rebellions against it, usurping classes in Kyrgyzstan are now divided on which side to take in the current antagonism: join them or beat them? Andrew Tesoriere does not hesitate to admit it: “Kyrgyzstan is not yet out of the woods. With recent parliamentary elections yet to result in the formation of a government, much lies ahead in terms of Kyrgyzstan achieving economic recovery, inter-ethnic harmony and political stability. […] People have burgeoning expectations. International institutional structures tend to be amorphous and unintelligible to the ordinary citizen.”

It takes about two to three hours from Bishkek by car to get a taste of peoples “burgeoning expectations” and the realities that frustrate them. The bazaar of Karasu, to the west of the town of Osh, looks like an ants’ hill – or rather a pair of them, separated by the river Sharikhansay which also forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. On both sides, access roads are congested with lorries, trucks, vans and any other engine-driven vehicle carrying loads of the most colourful variety of merchandise one can imagine. They are surrounded by coolies of both genders and all age groups carrying goods on chariots, hand wagons or just using their bare hands from and to the labyrinth of containers, shanty stalls, tents and other improvised accommodation where sellers, buyers, meddlers and peddlers mingle. Police, though present, seem to have little impact here – though officers pretend to check licenses, tax documents and other paperwork on occasions. The truth of the matter is that the law as represented by the official authorities has little to say in this place – which does not mean that there is no law. Here, laws are unwritten and those representing them need no justification other than “adherence” checking loyalties from those whom they control. For the main difference between societies as a rule and this kind of community is that the laws of Rome have made place for those of Byzantium. Here, all basic principles of the rule of law are being overruled by loyalties. Here, the core of Kyrgyzstan’s, and to large extents Central Asia’s, problem becomes very visible indeed: clout rather than principles determine what is right and what is wrong.

Still, clout is not all, and sometimes it gets overruled by principles in cases abuse grows to proportions found inacceptable by the crowds – which in the case of Karasu it clearly did, thereby exposing the limits of clan power in Kyrgyzstan. “In 2000, the company Kyrgyz sooda birimdigi (Kyrgyz Trade Association), of which Erkinbayev’s sister was the director, purchased a share of the Karasu bazaar from the Consumer Union24 of Osh province,” a study by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group published in December 2005 reads. “This became one of the family’s most lucrative business holdings. The purchase was reportedly challenged by a business rival, Abdalim Junusov, but was approved by a local court. Following the 2005 revolution, however, dissatisfaction with Erkinbayev’s management of the bazaar grew. Traders complained of high rent for stalls, and on 9 June some 200-300 took to the streets, demanding that Erkinbayev give up control of the market.”

From there on, things just got terribly out of hand with the authorities apparently unable, unwilling or both, to intervene appropriately. “The following day young men (said to be allies of Junusov) beat up Erkinbayev’s security guards, and by the end of the day had driven his people from the bazaar. Junusov apparently then set himself up as de facto owner of the market,” the report continues. “On 13 June, a large crowd, some carrying sticks, advanced on the Alay Hotel in Osh, also owned by Erkinbayev. Security guards opened fire from within, wounding a dozen. Shortly afterwards, authorities arrested two men, Aybek Chomoyev and Saparaly Akanov (Erkinbayev’s nephew), suspected of instigating the shootings. They were briefly detained, then released on their own recognizance while the investigation continued. The situation in Karasu remained tense, with supporters of Erkinbayev and Junusov clashing in the streets. On 7 July, some 100 local traders, largely women, gathered outside bazaar headquarters, demanding that the market be taken away from Junusov and given to the traders. A second group of traders soon arrived, and a street brawl developed.29 Early in the morning of 5 September, shortly before court hearings in the dispute were to begin, Junusov and his driver were shot dead at his home in Karasu.”

The feud over the market place was to end – for the moment, that is – in a Sicily-style vendetta. “On the evening of 21 September, Erkinbayev was shot outside his Bishkek apartment and later died in hospital,” the ICG’s report relates. “A few days before, his bodyguards had been detained and their car impounded as part of the investigation into Junusov’s murder – an action which in effect had left him defenceless. According to Parliament Speaker Omurbek Tekebayev, Erkinbayev had feared for his life and appealed to him for protection. Tekebayev said his appeals to the MIA and the NSS went unanswered.” This amply illustrated the fact that life in Karasu today reflects, in a way, one of the core of historic and contemporary characteristics of the Kyrgyz national structure: there never was, and is no hierarchic structure that goes straight to the top of individual chiefdom. National leadership in Kyrgyzstan, as recent events once more demonstrate, is a mere instrument for one tribal clan or in the best case a haphazard coalition of clans, to exercise control over rival groups.

A notable source about conditions in which the Kyrgyz used to live in the run-up to their incorporation into the Russian empire and beyond, comes from a report supposedly written in 1582 by a Turkish explorer known as Sayfi. Nothing about his personality and origins is known. But the report as quoted by Russia’s late-XIXth Century historian (of German origin) Vasiliy Barthold, who claims that the original document was in the possession of the University of Leyden, The Netherlands, offers a true eye-opener on social and cultural conditions the Kyrgyz used to live under in those times.

“The Qirghiz are related to the Mongols,” the report reads. “They have no king, but only begs whom they call qashqa. They are neither infidels, nor Muslims. They live along steep mountains in which there are steep passes. If some king leads an army against them, they send all their families into the heart of the mountains and then occupy the passes to let no one through. By using the yada stone, they make snow fall on the attacking army and produce such cold that the warriors can move neither arms, nor legs. Then they launch their attack and defeat their enemies. They do not bury their dead, but place their bodies in coffins on tall trees. There the bones remain until they rot and fall apart.” Though fragmentary and highly anecdotic, the report could be considered to hit the point where the bottom line of Kyrgyz view on society is concerned.

Traditionally, the Kyrgyz nation’s structure is reported to have consisted of three main social layers: the ondzh kanat dubbed “right wing” though literally probably meaning “ten (on) leaders”, the sol kanat dubbed “left wing” and the ichkilik literally meaning as much as “in the middle”. Whereas the ondzh kanat is thought to have held control over political affairs both internally and regarding relations with the outside world, executive power, including control over the armed forces and keeping subdued other tribes and nations under their thumb, was in the hands of the sol kanat. The ichkilik by and large consisted of common folk, meaning cattle breeders, merchants and settlers who kept the overall economy going.

The ondz kanat is believed to consist mainly of migrated tribes from the Yenisei homeland and up to this day remains predominant in the north of Kyrgyzstan. It is dominated by three Kyrgyz tribal federations, the Tagay, the Adigyn and the Mungush. The Tagay included thirteen tribes known in Russian as plemiuy (sing. plemya) bearing names such as Sayak, Sarybagysh, Bugu, Solto, Sayek, Chekir Sayek, Azik and Bagysh. he most influential tribe is reported to have been the Sayak – less because of their numbers but mainly because they occupied the two most strategic areas of the country: the norther shorelands of Lake Issyk Kul and a large part of the lands that separated Kyrgyzstan’s northern provinces from the Fergana valley in the south. The seven-member Agadyn mainly consisted of tribes of different lines, integrated into the Kyrgyz nation at a later stage, judging by their names such as Kangyrat, Boru, Karabagysh and Sartar, seen as Altay Turks but more remotely related to Kyrgyz proper. The Mungush only consisted of two tribes, the Dhzgaltay and the Koshtamga clans the origin of which remains to be guessed.

In the course of the XVIIIth Century, each of those communities had come to obtain a place under the sun in Kyrgyzstan, even though the lands of some overlapped those of others. The Bugu, part of the Tagai, were predominant in the lands east and south of Lake Issyk Kul whereas their Tagai peers the Sumurun controlled large parts of the land to its west, flanked further to the west by the Solto clan, also Tagai. The Agadyn were predominant in the south, whereas a large Nayman colony had settled down in the south of the Kyrgyz part of the Fergana valley. Many names of Kyrgyz tribes were symbolic rather than referring to ancestors’ names. Thus, Sarybagysh means red elk and Karabagysh black elk. Saruy means yellow venom (possibly referring to sulphur wells on their territory which curiously enough cure many a disease), Azig means food, Sart red dog, Boston grey fur whereas Cherik is a nickname for a Chinese frontier guard.

During the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the course of the XIXth Century, the northern tribes of Kyrgyzstan, dominated by the “right wing” group and the Tagai in particular, preferred to take sides with the Russian conquerors while the southern clans, mainly consisting of “left” and “centre” sections of Kyrgyz society, tended to remain, though ambiguously, loyal to the Kokand khanate – no doubt inspired by generous bribes and even far more generous promises provided by British envoys in the region. This has created a cleft which subsists up to this day, with the “north” keeping closer to Russia where allegiances are concerned while the “south” tries to keep its distance from Big Brother of old – and in search for an alternative which no longer seems to be available but for the Americans and their much-mistrusted proxies seated on their faltering throne downtown Kabul.

So what remains in store for Kyrgyzstan – particularly seen in the view of a regional and global perspective? It has been signaled more than once since the spring events this year that most other former Soviet republics are supposed to be reluctant to admit a fundamental change in state rule within one of their peers. This can be part of the truth at best and it is even more likely not to be true at all. Without much rhetoric, the Russian Federation has transferred a substantial part of the executive power basket from the head of state to the government with the coming of Dmitriy Medvedev and his predecessor Vladimir Putin moving to the post of Prime Minister. New parliamentary elections have yet to be held in the aftermath, but the necessity to involve more than one political fraction in a future government now formally exist and can serve as a probably tough but open way out in case of a power stalemate. As for the USA, it can hardly be considered more opposed to more autocratic forms of government since powers of its houses of representatives remain limited with too much power in the hands of the head of state, while looking back into modern history it can only be sadly concluded that autocrats in Latin America, Africa and Asia were always Washington’s best friends – including the one now squirming in Minsk.