High stake referendum for Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan
TRANSLATED BY BENJAMIN SCHOEB AND NAJWA WAHBI
On December 11th 2016, 80 % of Kirghiz voters, from a turnout of 42 %, declared themselves in favor of constitutional changes, granting more power to both the Prime Minister and the President. In a region where both China and Russia have interests, Kirghizstan’s internal stability is crucial.
The 2010 constitution included a clause stating that no changes could be made until 2020. However, Almazbek Atambaev’s government, elected in 2011, found a rather surprising way to by-pass the law. They literally lost the 2010 Constitution original copy.
A disputed referendum
The new Constitution grants more power to the Prime Minister, allowing him to choose his own ministers, except for the Minister of Defense, Public Security services and Internal Affairs. Those ministers will be appointed by the President himself. Besides, given the President’s influence in the judiciary branch of the government, his competences will be enhanced. For example, he will have the authority to appoint or replace judges.
In reality, this new constitution will limit the Parliament’s powers. Some critics say that Mr. Atambaev will try to stay in power after the end of his presidency in 2017 by becoming Prime Minister which was impossible until now due to a single-term limit.
The opposition and activists have reported irregularities during the vote, reporting cases of corruption and intimidation. The Venice Commission stated that these reforms will restrict civil liberties. However, there were no OSCE officials deployed in Kyrgyzstan to monitor the referendum.
Kyrgyzstan, a coveted country
The Asian country’s internal politics have been quite eventful during the past twenty years. The constitution was first adopted in 1993, and was amended six times by referendums, in 1996, 1998, 2003, 2007, 2010 and finally in 2016. During each of these referendums, irregularities have been reported.
Being a major asset in Central Asia’s geopolitical and ethnic patchwork, Kyrgyzstan attracts the attention of major world powers. In 2005, the “Tulip Revolution” or First Kyrgyz Revolution was heavily backed by the United States, which wanted to implement a pro-west government in order to diminish Moscow’s influence over the country. The popular revolt forced the former president Askar Akaiev, whose politics had become more and more authoritarian over the years, into exile in Russia.
Former Prime Minister in Akaiev’s government, Kourmanbek Bakiev, who had crossed over to the opposition, became President. However, after five years in power, it was obvious that Bakiev never intended to conduct any reforms. As a result, Bakiev was ousted from office in 2010 by a popular uprising.
Chinese, Russian and Iranian interests in Kyrgyzstan
In 2011, Almazbek Atambaev was elected and decided to bring the country closer to Russia. Two years later, Kirghizstan signed agreements to become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, an organization led by Moscow. In 2014, the government ordered the closing of the Manas U.S military base, the last one in Central Asia. However, the Russian military base located in Kant remains open to this day.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are of the upmost importance for China, whose influence in the region gets stronger every year. Through this country and Tajikistan, Beijing has access to Central Asia and can access the Caspian Sea, Iran and Caucasus.
This route allows China to avoid the Kashmir area, a region which remains highly unstable because of the border conflicts between India and Pakistan. Kyrgyzstan is also one of the founding members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Furthermore, being an ally of both China and Russia, Iran also seems to be interested by the Central Asian country. On December 22nd 2016, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hassan Rohania travelled to Bichkek. During this official visit, some agreements were signed and could be used as a basis for closer co-operation in the near future. Mr. Atambaev declared that his government will support Iran’s full membership admission in the SCO.
Regional stability at risk
The amendments in the constitution must be seen as a way for Bichkek to maintain/preserve the country’s internal stability, which is no easy task. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan had to deal with several inter-ethnic conflicts and political turmoil which have undermined the country’s economy and political institutions. The government now has to face many internal problems such as corruption, nepotism, social inequalities that plague the country, and pay particular attention to the rise of Islamic radicalization, which is particularly present in the poorest segments of the Kyrgyz society.
Regional stability could be achieved by easing the tension in the Fergana valley, which is the most populated area in Central Asia. The valley gathers people from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Several clashes have occurred between the Uzbek minority and the Kyrgyz majority over the past years in the Ochs and Jalal-Abad provinces, both under Kyrgyz jurisdiction. Several hundred people were killed during the fighting, forcing Uzbeks to flee back to their homeland.
A renewed outbreak of violence could destabilize the three countries, which represents a problem for Beijing, should the violence reach the autonomous region of Xinjiang, mostly populated by an indigenous Uighur ethnic minority. It also represents a problem for Moscow since this could compromise its project to integrate the Central Asian Republics in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
Cover picture: the Kyrgyz Parliament, known as the Zhogorku Kengesh, in Bichkek.
Psychologue et journaliste indépendant, il a travaillé en Italie, France et Arménie, où il était chef de projet pour une fondation humanitaire locale. Il a beaucoup voyagé, au Caucase mais aussi en Turquie, Kurdistan turc, Europe de l’est et Iran. Spécialiste du Caucase et de l’ancien espace soviétique.