Kyrgyz elections stoke regional tensions

Kyrgyz elections stoke regional tensions

The Kyrgyz presidential elections are a positive sign for democracy in the Central Asian region. However, they also stoked the flames of Kyrgyz-Kazakh discord. President-elect Jeenbekov now faces some crucial decisions.

The presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan held on 15 October were remarkable in many respects. In a region that is mostly associated with autocrats, Kyrgyzstan made history by holding its most competitive election to date – and first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another. Sooronbay Jeenbekov, incumbent president Almazbek Atambayev’s personal pick, unexpectedly gathered 54% of the vote, avoiding a runoff with businessman Omurbek Babanov in a second round.

Free and fair?

The elections were largely assessed as free – mainly due to a modern voting system based on biometric registration – but the OSCE did highlight the burdensome nomination process for candidates, and reported minor violations such as vote-buying on election day.

Moreover, as the competition heated up between the two front-runners, the campaigns had descended into dirt-digging. 

Babanov was a particularly easy target, having started his business career in Kazakhstan, and once holding a Kazakh passport. His loyalty to the Kyrgyz state was put in question, especially when reports of his  clandestine meeting with Kazakh and Russian oligarchs in early September were leaked to the public. After holding a rally in the southern city of Osh on 28 September during which he addressed the Uzbek minority, Babanov was even accused of inciting ethnic hatred, a sensitive issue after the 2010 riots which resulted in hundreds of casualties.

But the main blow for Babanov was probably his meeting with Kazakh President Nazarbayev in Astana on 20 September. Outgoing President Atambayev publicly deplored the alleged Kazakh meddling in Kyrgyz internal affairs, pointing to the Kazakh government’s corruption.

Kazakh-Kyrgyz dispute

What might have been intended as a pre-election gambit to discredit Babanov has developed into a fully-fledged international dispute between two member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

After Atambayev’s remarks, Kazakhstan on 10 October reintroduced border controls and customs checks to Kyrgyzstan and partially suspended the import of dairy products. As Kyrgyzstan reciprocated, Southern Kazakh and Northern Kyrgyz regions faced cargo disruption and delivery shortfalls. Labour migrants’ movement on both sides of the border is restricted.

Kazakhstan, being less dependent on Kyrgyzstan economically, has nearly unlimited escalation range to put pressure on its southern neighbour. However, Bishkek announced that it could consider tapping the Kirov water reservoir located in northern Kyrgyzstan, which would deprive bordering Kazakh regions of their water supply. Kyrgyzstan has also alerted the WTO Dispute Settlement Body to Kazakhstan’s commitment violations.

Cracks in the Eurasian Economic Union

Temporary flare-ups of regional tensions are nothing new in Central Asia, and tend to fizzle out once the respective sides have made their political posturing clear.

What the latest spat does highlight, however, is the weakness of the Russian- and Kazakh-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

When Kazakhstan threatened to re-impose sanitary and phytosanitary controls as well as checks of Kyrgyz national residence permits, Atambayev questioned his country’s membership in the EEU Customs Union. Atambayev reminded his partners that “we have other neighbours as well”.

The Kyrgyz government promptly renounced a USD 100 million technical aid package from Kazakhstan. This had been granted in December 2016, to assist harmonisation with Customs Union standards – a sweetener after Kyrgyzstan had initially refused to sign the new EEU Customs Code Treaty.

Realistically, the probability of Kyrgyzstan leaving the EEU in the short term is minimal. One of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world (30% of the GDP in 2016, estimated at 37.1% for 2017), Kyrgyzstan relies heavily on its EEU membership. It’s also firmly under Russia’s influence – for now. Jeenbekov appears to be a convenient president in Moscow’s view.

But Kazakhstan’s harsh reaction and Kyrgyzstan’s rebellious stance reflect the rising challenge that Uzbekistan poses to Kazakhstan’s regional dominance and the EEU’s ambitions. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have experienced a rapprochement of sorts under Uzbek President Mirziyoyev. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan continues to resist joining the EEU.

Domestic challenges

A government now has to be formed by 1 December. Continuity with the previous presidency is at least assured, as Jeenbekov asserted that he would pursue Atambayev’s policies.

However, the new president will struggle to find broad support among the population after a divisive election campaign and a comparably thin mandate. With a turnout of 56%, only about three in ten Kyrgyz voted for him. With his major opponent Babanov backed by a third of the electorate, Jeenbekov is walking a tightrope. 

Moreover, perceived as Atambayev’s puppet, Jeenbekov does not enjoy the full trust of his party.

Indeed, Atambayev’s conspicuous favoritism has fuelled rumours he might want to stay in the government, as prime minister or faction leader of his social-democratic party. The competencies of prime minister and parliament were widened after a constitutional referendum last December.

Other potential candidates for prime minister are incumbent Sapar Isakov and even Babanov, who served in the same role in 2012. This latter scenario would improve the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. But it would require serious compromise from Jeenbekov, who blustered that he would imprison Babanov after the election owing to his alleged corrupt business activities.

Jeenbekov will need to assert his authority quickly as incoming president. Negotiating behind the scenes to avoid Atambayev taking on pivotal executive positions would be one way of achieving this – as will a swift resolution to the dispute with Kazakhstan. Otherwise, Jeenbekov risks failing to wield enough political capital to balance elite interests as effectively as Atambayev.

About Author

Tobias Vollmer

Tobias Vollmer focuses on Russian and post-Soviet politics as well as EU external relations. He has worked for the European Department of the German Ministry of Finance, in the Political Department of the German Embassy Moscow and is scholar of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. At the moment, he is completing a double MA programme in International Economic Relations and Security Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics Moscow, and is working for a London based political risk management company.