Kyrgyzstan's presidential election on Oct. 15 bolstered the country's democratic transition in Central Asia where constitutional autocracies under all-powerful, life-long rulers have become a form of statehood and governance during the 26 years of post-Soviet independence. No doubt, the vote indicated the first peaceful power transition from one popularly elected head of state to another in the region since the fall of the former Soviet Union.
The Kyrgyz constitutional referendum in 2010 diminished the executive powers of the president to foreign and security policies and empowered parliament over the country's undulant politics by limiting a presidential term to a single six-year period. In this respect, the election results suggest that this post-Soviet Turkic republic is now eligible to make a smooth transition to parliamentary democracy after years of socio-political unrests and upheavals since the Tulip Revolution of 2005. Thus, the Kyrgyz example constitutes a model par excellence in Central Asia where the concept of democracy is elusive and frivolous given that no other country in the region has had such a remarkable post-communist transition.
Beyond this liberal interpretation of the regional polity, the presidential election in Kyrgyzstan will have some domestic and regional impacts in years to come as the country's fragile political, economic, social and security problems await urgent solutions. Now, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the candidate of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won the election and is preparing to face all these problems after incumbent President Almazbek Atambayev hands over the presidency to him on Dec. 1. According to the Kyrgyz news agency Aki Press, Jeenbekov, a 58-year-old former prime minister, received nearly 55 percent of the vote from approximately 1.6 million people out of more than 3 million registered voters.
Jeenbekov's main contender and the candidate of the Respublika Atayurt Party, Omurbek Babanov, received 34 percent of the vote from among 11 candidates, among whom Adakhan Madumarov and Temir Sariyev came in third and fourth, respectively.
Kyrgyzstan's tense relations with neighbors
Needless to say, Kyrgyzstan's neighbors in Central Asia have cautiously monitored the election process and outcomes, which will directly influence their ties with Bishkek. Kazakhstan is one of those neighbors to the north since the two countries waged a war of words against each other during the pre-election campaigns. When Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev met with presidential hopeful Omurbek Babanov last month, the Kyrgyz leadership immediately warned Astana through diplomatic means since Kyrgyz President Atambayev nominated Jeenbekov as his successor. Atambayev accused Kazakhstan of intervening in Kyrgyzstan's domestic affairs and wanted the Kazakh leadership to respect the Kyrgyz people's democratic will. Following the political row, Kazakhstan tightened its border security, particularly customs and check points, on the road connecting Bishkek with Almaty, causing long line at the border.
The Jeenbekov presidency will need to mend relations swiftly with Kazakhstan, one of Kyrgyzstan's top trade partners and the richest country in Central Asia. Both states are members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). But the Babanov affair has already opened some chasms in the mutual relations of the countries. An oil tycoon in Kyrgyzstan, Babanov's financial and business ties with Kazakhstan came to the fore after the diplomatic spat emerged with Astana. Kyrgyz authorities are very vigilant concerning possible political protests following the election results, which might be organized by Babanov and his opposition circles from the north of the country. One week ahead of the election, Kyrgyz police detained Babanov's notorious supporter and lawmaker Kanat Isaev on suspicion of fomenting violence in case of an unfavorable election result, as Atambayev warned the opposition beforehand about street demonstrations. As is well known, the country's two former presidents, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, were ousted through popular protests that turned into revolutionary upheavals in 2005 and 2010, respectively.
Kyrgyzstan is economically divided between north and south among factional clans, and a struggle between those vying parties is very definitive over the country's tumultuous politics. However, the main socio-political challenge inside the country is ethnic tensions, which also put pressure on the country's foreign relations with Uzbekistan. Located on Kyrgyzstan's southwest border with Uzbekistan, the country's second largest city of Osh is the focal point of these tensions since it is divided between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks. Inter-ethnic clashes during the 2010 protests caused the deaths of more than 420 people, most of them Uzbeks, in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad.
The situation calmed during the interim presidency of Roza Otumbayeva, as she declared a state of emergency in the area. Since then, Kyrgyz authorities have been on a knife edge regarding the Uzbek case, which is undeniably a source of political distrust between Bishkek and Tashkent. The ethnic tension no doubt poses one of the main prospective challenges that Jeenbeekov needs to cope with for the sake of the country's domestic and national securities in the years to come.
However, ethnic tension is not the only problem that has made the countries hostile to each other. Water resources in Central Asia have also become a source of discontent and distrust between the region's post-Soviet states. Kyrgyzstan has the largest water resources, which are carried by the two main rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – the Oxus and Jaxartes of antiquity – which flow downstream from the mountains of Inner Asia such as Pamir, Hindu Kush and Tengri Tagh and reach the Aral Sea in the northwest by traversing Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Relations between the coterminous countries have gradually soured as water management irritated one another. All parties have been seeking more water to fill their giant dams to produce more electricity, such as Toktogul in Kyrgyzstan and Rogun in Tajikistan. The need for irrigation for more fertile agricultural production, most particularly in Uzbekistan's portion of the Fergana Valley where the country's monoculture based on cotton cultivation, the white gold of Central Asia, is an obvious reason for the water conflicts. The Fergana Valley is split between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and is seen as a source of instability and insecurity between these countries, which share more than 1,100 kilometers of borders. Hence, the water issue exacerbates border security since the Syr Darya's headwaters flow through Kyrgyzstan.
The likelihood of conflict regarding the region's fragile military, economic, energy and environmental securities is high at a time when water resources are shrinking, most concretely seen in the case of the Aral Sea, due to poor water management and irrigation policies. Uzbekistan's newly elected president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, paid a state visit to Bishkek last month after 17 years of low-level diplomatic relations during late President Islam Karimov, who died a year ago. Mirziyoyev has raised expectations for broader economic cooperation between the neighboring Turkic countries as he drew a prospect of his country's potential involvement in Kyrgyzstan's planned hydropower projects.
On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan's outgoing president, Atambayev, also visited Tashkent earlier this month to show the Kyrgyz leadership's welcoming attitude, which is expected to be resumed by Jeenbekov, as he pledged to continue on the same track that Atambayev left as his legacy.
Ethnic and water issues are the two urgent problems open to exploitation between Bishkek and Tashkent. Under these circumstances, Kyrgyz politics seems very vulnerable when it comes to debates on the status of the ethnic Uzbek minority, which constitutes approximately 15 percent of the 6 million people living in Kyrgyzstan. Both countries have elected new presidents who will now have huge responsibilities to resolve those problems that pose undeniable threats for the whole regional security complex.
Bishkek in midst of great power politics in Central Asia
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia where great power politics is predominantly based on geopolitics, security and energy supply. While the region's conventional hegemon Russia still maintains its political and military presence, China's economic expansion westward in the last decade rendered Kyrgyzstan very dependent on Beijing in terms of commercial transactions and foreign direct investments. Throughout his presidency, Atambayev had good relations with both Russia and China, but the closure of the Manas Air Base to the U.S. military in 2014 reduced U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan, which also cancelled a 1993 cooperation treaty with Washington in 2015. Kyrgyzstan's fragile security requires Moscow's contribution in and around the Fergana Valley, which is a hotbed of insurgency, militancy and terrorism in the region.
Russia already has an air base in the country and is negotiating for a second one with Bishkek, which is uneasy because of the growing threats of radicalism and militancy, notably posed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Fergana. Beijing also shares the same security concerns since al-Qaida-affiliated Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) militants have been launching attacks on Chinese targets elsewhere in Central Asia and mainland China.By all means, Russia will continue to play a great role in the security and economy of Kyrgyzstan in the future, although the countries do not share territorial borders anymore. Bishkek is a member of the aforementioned Russian-led organizations and hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz nationals work in Russia. The Kyrgyz economy receives plenty of Russian financial aid as well as remittances from those Kyrgyz migrant workers. During a visit to Moscow in June, Atambayev agreed to further strengthen the strategic partnership with Russia as President Vladimir Putin forgave $240 million of Kyrgyz debt.
Aside from its security concerns, Kyrgyzstan is also a reliable economic partner for China, whose leadership has already put a commercial blueprint, known as the new Silk Road project, dubbed One Belt, One Road (OBOR) in Eurasia. From the Chinese perspective, Kyrgyzstan's proven gold, coal and iron reserves are very attractive to invest into the Kyrgyz market, while on the other hand, Beijing's desire to reach further energy markets in the west, such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, necessitates indispensable cooperation with Bishkek for the success of the OBOR project. Beijing has proposed a 500-kilometer railway that would connect the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In recent years, Kyrgyzstan has warmly welcomed China's logistical, energy and infrastructure investments since it sees these financial contributions very vital for the country's moribund economy, especially when Western capital enterprises shun it mostly due to the lack of genuine free market conditions in Kyrgyzstan.
As for relations with Turkey, the election results mean a fresh start between Bishkek and Ankara since bilateral relations went awry after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet on the Syrian border in November 2015. The Turkish public negatively reacted to Kyrgyzstan when Atambayev positioned himself with Moscow during the crisis. But, the main discontent from Ankara emerged after Bishkek openly rejected Ankara's call to shutdown 21 Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ)-linked schools, including a university, following last year's July 15 coup attempt, which was unequivocally organized by cadres loyal to Fetullah Gülen, a U.S.-based, cult leader and businessman, in both military and civil bureaucracies inside the Turkish state. In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are still the two countries where the remnants of FETÖ still actively operate through these schools and whose graduates have wielded a lot of power as high-ranking bureaucrats.
Kazakhstan already placated Ankara when President Nazarbayev vowed to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not to allow activities against Turkey in Kazakhstan. Following Ankara's request from Astana, the Kazakh government closed 27 schools out of 30 so far since last year. However, Kyrgyzstan has been very adamant since then despite Ankara's warnings about possible coup plots against the Kyrgyz government by members of the same organization deep inside the state. Seemingly, the issue will remain a diplomatic headache with Ankara as far as Bishkek resists terminating FETÖ activities in the country. Turkey can use its flourishing relations with Russia as political leverage to convince Kyrgyzstan on this issue. A similar example comes to mind in the case of Uzbekistan, the first country in the region that closed down those schools as Russian intelligence advised Karimov to do so at the beginning of the 2000s.
* Eurasia analyst and journalist for TRT World