When mass protests erupted across the Middle East this year the West watched in amazement. It was easy to forget that the same thing had happened in Kyrgyzstan a year earlier. In April 2010 the people of Kyrgyzstan ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in a bloody uprising which left at least 90 people dead, and provoked violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups in the south of the country. More than 400 people were killed in the resulting conflict. This was undoubtedly a nation in a crisis.
After the 30th October election eighteen months later, former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev was named President. The former Soviet state has indisputably come a long way from the violence that ravaged the country last year. The international community has expressed tentative hopes that a viable democracy will emerge from this process. These hopes are fuelled by the successes the people have achieved in exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, both considered fundamental tenets of democracy. Indeed, the interim President Roza Otunbayeva commented on this attitude, trusting that: “People will choose the route of freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly”.
This level of effective political engagement distinguishes Kyrgyzstan from a number of other Central Asian countries whose leaders have ruled unchallenged since the Soviet era. Public protest is virtually unheard of in states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where the press endure extremely repressive censorship, intimidation and violence. In June this year, two Uzbek journalists, Malohat Eshonqulova and Saodat Onomova, were imprisoned and fined 2.94 million soms (around £1000) for holding an unauthorised demonstration. Thus, it is unsurprising that the Uzbek people are deterred from taking such action.
This is not to suggest that Kyrgyzstan is faultless in this respect – indeed the reality is far from it. In August this year, the reporter Shokrukh Saipov was gravely injured after being attacked whilst attending a media seminar. His older brother, Alisher Saipov, was a prominent journalist until he was killed with impunity in 2007. As the Editor of the news website Uz Press, Shokrukh Saipov’s case is particularly significant.
Such websites were targeted during the run up to October’s election, and were banned from disseminating information about the political developments taking place. The official reason provided by Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Committee (CEC) was that “the Kyrgyz law on mass media does not regard web-based news agencies as media news outlets; that is why they cannot generate revenue from the promotion of candidates.”
Such reasoning may seem rather suspect, and could be perceived as an excuse for restricting citizens’ access to information. Although traditional media outlets were allowed to broadcast details of the campaign, it is far easier for the government to restrict these channels through political and financial pressure. Equally, more information can be spread with increased speed to a wider audience through online news sites. This presents a tangible threat to those who would shroud the proceedings in uncertainty. In a country which is ostensibly trying to rebuild a democracy and restore public confidence, such an approach is especially sinister.
Indeed, there are reports which suggest that the election was not carried out fairly, and at one stage the winning candidate’s opponents openly accused him of fraud. One of the opposing nationalist politicians, Adakhan Madumarov, expressed his shock at the “mayhem and disorder” and “unprecedented violations”. With Madumarov potentially alleging misconduct to challenge the electoral outcome, it is difficult to establish the truth when there are such obvious vested interests.
If the official figures are to believed, 60% of Kyrgyzstan’s electorate voted to give Mr Atambayev a majority of at least 63%. If this has been won legitimately, then Kyrgyzstan could well be on the road to effective democracy, but there remain substantial improvements to be made and difficult questions to be answered.
Originally published on Athena’s Forum on 7 November 2011: http://athenasforum.com/2011/11/07/engagement-and-endurance-kyrgyzstans-election-2011/