An International Crisis Group report on Kyrgyzstan published on September 30, only days ahead of parliamentary elections, paints a grim portrait of the political situation and warns that the entire region could suffer from failure to adopt urgently needed reforms.
ICG identifies persisting ethnic tensions, corruption, unchecked nationalism and the surge of political Islam, fuelled by disaffection at self-interested party clans, as key and pressing problems facing Kyrgyzstan.
Despite those potential looming threats, ICG sees little likelihood of an imminent change in direction.
“Parliament and the presidency seem unwilling and institutionally incapable of addressing these issues,” the report said. “Few expect the 4 October parliamentary elections to deliver a reformist government.”
Kyrgyzstan bucks the overall trend in the region with its often rowdily competitive political system. Billboards up and down the country testify to the abundance of choice being offered to voters as they head to the polling stations to pick the 120 deputies that will represent them in parliament.
For all that political diversity, the picture on the ground appears bleak, ICG said in its report.
The ethnic Uzbek community, which accounts for 14.5 percent of the population, has been thoroughly marginalized on the political scene and remains subject to harassment from an almost homogenously ethnic Kyrgyz police force.
That trend has been coupled with the ascendancy of virulently nationalist and conservative groups.
“Some of these groups have already demonstrated disregard for the rule of law and the rights of others and have elicited no more than a limp response from the police,” ICG said in its report. “In the event of tensions around the parliamentary elections, their leaders may not be able to control supporters.”
ICG argues that political Islam stands to flourish in the current climate and its report cites senior officials in Kyrgyzstan as saying they expect it to consolidate by 2020.
“If prevented from entering politics, these groups could become a focal point for protest,” ICG said.
ICG characterizes government policy on the mingling of Islam and politics as “muddled” and attitudes to demonstrative religiousness selective on the basis of ethnicity.
“The issue is framed as a security matter when it concerns Uzbeks but tolerated when it forms part of a ‘patriotic’ ethnic Kyrgyz narrative,” the report said.
ICG supports its argument by pointing to the example of ethnic Uzbek imam Rashot Kamalov, who is currently facing trial on charges of inciting racial hatred.
“Meanwhile, fading ethnic Kyrgyz politicians such as Nurlan Motuev are free to hold press conferences declaring their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) without any public follow-up from law enforcement,” the report said.
ICG said stability and ethnic harmony can only be achieved if the government and political parties – with assistance from the European Union, the United States, Russia and China – take urgent measures to address these and other problems. The consequences otherwise could be calamitous not just for Kyrgyzstan, but for the region as a whole, the ICG report argued.
“Violent unrest, which would become a real risk, could quickly have an impact on both immediate neighbours and wider international partners, particularly Russia, which could be called on to intervene,” the report noted in its conclusion.