Kyrgyzstan: North-South Split Poses Political Risk - Poll
Fresh polling data released just days before Kyrgyzstan’s October 10 parliamentary vote suggests that profound sectional differences pose a risk to the country’s post-election stabilization prospects.
The poll indicated that northerners and southerners have starkly different viewpoints on major recent events in Kyrgyzstan, namely the April collapse of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s regime, and the June violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. The survey results were released on October 8 by SIAR Research and Consulting, a respected Bishkek-based polling agency.
“Politicians fuel north-south tensions, particularly with populist rhetoric, and exacerbate people’s subjective perceptions of the differences [between the regions],” SIAR’s director, Ainoura Sagynbaeva, told EurasiaNet.org. “Not enough is done to analyze the situation or try to stabilize it. There is too little scholarship and too much politics.”
During his five-year tenure in power, Bakiyev relied heavily on regional politicking in his support base in the south. This appears to have influenced perceptions reflected in the polling data. For example, two-thirds of northerners attributed Bakiyev’s fall to “a spontaneous uprising by a population driven to desperation.” In the south, only 15 percent subscribed to this view. A plurality of southerners – 47 percent – said the cause of April’s turmoil was “targeted actions by the opposition,” a reference to Kyrgyzstan’s provisional leadership, acting “together with other countries.” The “targeted action” view was shared by only 16 percent of northern respondents.
Opinions on June’s interethnic clashes in the southern regions of Osh and Jalalabad, which left more than 400 dead and tens of thousands displaced, were similarly split along regional lines. Among northerners, 65 percent of those surveyed blamed Bakiyev and his supporters for stirring up the trouble, but only 4 percent of those in the south held this view. The plurality of southern respondents – 40 percent – said the clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks were caused by “the activities of the interim government,” a view held by only 1 percent in the north. The provisional government is led by political factions that have their power bases in the north.
The survey, which offered multiple-choice answers, found that 34 percent of those in the south and 16 percent in the North believed that “interethnic conflict” had been the main cause of June’s violence.
Kyrgyzstan’s two halves – called north and south, but in reality the northeast and southwest – are physically split by the snow-capped peaks of the Fergana spur of the Tien Shan Mountains. Traveling between the two by car is difficult, while flying, by local standards, is expensive. The socioeconomic differences between the regions include more industrial development and higher levels of education in the north, albeit with pockets of deep poverty and economic disparity. The south features an agricultural economy and greater social conservatism. Culturally, over the past hundred or so years, northerners interacted more closely with Slavs, while southerners had more contact with neighboring Tajiks and Uzbeks. Ethnic Kyrgyz on opposite sides of the mountains didn’t mix much.
Currently, several parties projected to make it into parliament can be classified as regional parties. Two such parties, according unpublished polling data collected in late September, are Ata-Meken, which is backed mostly by northerners, and Ata-Jurt, whose stronghold is in the south.
During the parliamentary election campaign, it appears that regional parties and their leaders have toned down their rhetoric. Political scientist Murat Suyunbayev attributed candidates’ caution largely to election rules that require political parties to obtain at least a half a percentage point of the vote in all nine of the country’s electoral districts in order to qualify for representation in parliament.
Regional distinctions did not prove contentious during the Soviet era, when the Communist-run planned economy provided for a relatively even standard of living, Suyunbayev told EurasiaNet.org. It was the demise of the Soviet Union that set off a scramble to control scarce resources, thus bringing sectional differences into focus.
“‘I’m a northerner, you’re a southerner’ became as good a reason as any,” Suyunbayev said. “This is called tribalism.”