Democracy in Kyrgyzstan:For better or for worse?

October 18, 2010

On 10th October the Kyrgyz people voted to elect a new parliament.  These elections were  widely hailed to be the fairest in the recent history of Central Asia. It seems that democracy has finally found a foothold in Central Asia. Soon , one by one, the oppressive regimes of Central Asia, led by dynastic rulers would be gone only to be replaced by enlightened democratically elected governments working tirelessly for the betterment of their pathetically poor countries.  Democracy is winning and we , as the world’s biggest democracy, should be delighted.

Eh No .   The time is not ripe for parliamentary democracy in Central Asia and it is in India’s interest to leverage all its influence to ensure that stability and not the spread of democracy remains our top priority.  But before I state my reasons, let us have a look at Kyrgyzstan.

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Although many Indians would not have even heard of the country and would be hard placed to name its capital , Bishkek ,  Kyrgyzstan is of vital strategic importance in Central Asia.  Kyrgyzstan is  a member of Shanghai  Cooperation Organization and figures prominently in both Chinese and Russian geo-strategic plans.   Kyrgyzstan is also home to  large US and Russian military bases. The US military base at Manas,  in Kyrgyzstan is a primary logistics base for USAF to ship supplies into Afghanistan and has become increasingly important in view of the continued attacks on routes through Pakistan.

Kyrgyzstan also sits astride the fertile Ferghana Valley , an explosive tinder box in the heart of Central Asia and a fertile breeding ground for Islamic terrorist which range from there to as far as Xinjiang in the east and Kashmir in the south.  It has been of vital interest for India that Kyrgyzstan, and other central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which control this restive region , are governed by stable and moderate governments which don’t let these fundamentalist organizations take hold .

And that is why , the recent Kyrgyz elections are  bad news. Since the April ouster of Kurmanbek Bakiyev , there has been a continued flux in Kyrgyz politics. And the results of the October election are unlikely to bring stability to the country.

The elections ( background information could be found here )have resulted in a split verdict . According to Kyrgyz law, only those parties which win more than 5% of the total national vote are eligible to enter the parliament. In Sundays election , only 5 parties made the cut .  These parties divided into Nationalist, pro-US and pro-Russian camps would have to cobble up  some sort of coalition .But any such coalition would be fragile and inherently unstable due to their contradictory policies.

These parties have very little common ground between themselves and differ on a host of factors.  Whether it is the question of foreign bases on Kyrgyz territory, the nature of the government, or the direction of foreign policy their country should adopt , they have little in common.  And none of these have got more than 9 % of the public vote, which severely limits their individual legitimacy. But more worryingly , these elections have exposed ethnic divides. In a country with sizeable Russian and Uzbek minorities, and which has suffered from inter-ethnic violence recently, these elections have served to harden ethnic fault lines.

This is bad news . Continued instability(Already, there are allegations of foul play by smaller parties which have forced a recount ) in the country would only embolden the dormant Islamic terrorist organizations there. These organizations, desperately in search of a safe haven , might use this opportunity to establish themselves in Kyrgyzstan. With its wild , mountainous terrain , Kyrgyzstan could provide them with an ideal launching ground . To prevent all this , we must ensure stability above all else, even democracy.

It is my view that blind promotion of  democracy has been one of the biggest strategic mistakes made by the western world. We must remember that democracy is by itself is not a panacea to all the problems. It is in fact a culmination of the society’s economic, social and educational progress. Top down effects to bring democracy to countries with ill developed social and cultural institutions usually result in disaster.  .  And this is particularly true in Central Asia.

With its artificial boundaries cutting across ethnic lines, desperately poor populations ,  over dependence on natural resources for revenue , Central Asia simply does not have the basic mechanism to ensure the smooth adoption of  democracy .  Decades of Soviet rule , followed by oppressive dictators have left the country bereft of social institutions which are so necessary for the normal functioning of democracy.

It  is simply not the correct time to push for democracy in these countries.  What  is needed now is a strong central authority which brings stability and thus enables investment in the social and economic infrastructure of the countries by foreign powers. This will eventually enable a  shift to more democratic form of government.

This blog as always held that realism , as opposed to misty eyed idealism should be the corner-stone of our foreign policy.  It is in the interest of India and other major powers  to work towards stability in Kyrgyzstan. Democracy can wait for a few more years .

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