Democracy in Kyrgyzstan
Reforms, Rhetorics and Realities

Christian Boehm

Paper presented at the conference "Postkommunismens Antropologi", 12-14 April 1996, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

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Harsh economic realities
The transition from the Second to the Third World
Following the "Western Path"
Kyrgyzstan - a showpiece of the West
The modern crusade
The democratic future?

Today, four years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan, located in former Soviet Central Asia between Kasachstan, China, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan, is known as one of the most democratic minded states within the CIS (Community of Independent States). Almost every political party or movement, the government included, claims to be democratic and to push forward a rapid democratization of Kyrgyz society.

But how comes that a country like Kyrgyzstan is so eager to introduce democratic reforms, seen against a quite non-democratic history and tradition? What interest does the Western world have in this remote country? And how do future perspectives for democracy in Kyrgyzstan look like?


Kyrgyzstan, a small and mountainous state, bordering up to the Western China, was not one of the countries making headlines in the world press during the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Like the other four Central Asian republics, the country suddenly found itself free and independent, without having struggled for it. Until the summer of 1990 Kyrgyzstan was governed by the corrupt-conservative communist regime of party secretary Masaliev . However, after the bloody riots of Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan during the summer of 1990, he was moved from power and replaced by a new government under the leadership of the rewarded physician Askar Akaev. Very soon this new government embarked upon a new policy of economic and political reforms, including, especially in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a rapid democratization.

With the assistance of foreign experts, a mayor part of the legislative foundation for a democratic state has been built and in 1994, after long and intense debates on the issues of citizenship and landownership, a new, Western-style constitution was finally passed. Elections were held over the last two years on regional, parliamentary and presidential level. A certain number of parties and movements have been founded in order to take part in political life. Also careful attempts to decentralize the country have been made, but at present decentralization faces serious resistance among parts of the central authorities.

Though Kyrgyz officials in public settings are sometimes claiming that their nomadic past makes the Kyrgyz a democratic nation by nature, this is hardly the case seen from a Western point of view. Political culture in Kyrgyzstan is based on power and patronage on a personal and clan-basis. Regionalistic, clan-like and tribalistic patterns of political loyalty are still very strong, even among higher educated people (Akiner 1994). Due to the rapid and unexpected dissolution of the Soviet Union, the population hasn't have the time to develop a political culture of participating nature.

In the first part of this article, I will examine the results of the democratic policy of the new government with regard to the mobilization of foreign support. I will argue that Kyrgyzstan has received special attention among Western governments and international donors primarily as a result of its reform-minded politics.

Harsh Economic Realities

Kyrgyzstan was thrown out into independency (and severe poverty) without really wanting it. During the Soviet era the country was developed to be a producer of raw materials, mainly wool and cotton. The whole economy and infrastructure was geared to fulfil targets set by central planners in Moscow. Since the country was supposed to be part of a larger economic and political system, and not to be an independent state, the disintegration of the Soviet Union left Kyrgyzstan as a extremely vulnerable state, totally dependent on trade with other countries. After independence, foreign trade with the other former Soviet Republics has been further burdened by the introduction of national currencies in most of the newly independent states, Kyrgyzstan included. Domestic production has fallen by approximately 15 -20 % each year since 1991 ("The Economist", October 29th 1994) and still hasn't shown any signs of recovery. The IMF concluded correctly in its report from 1992 that "the macroeconomic situation is grave, that there is an outlook for mayor contractions in output and a sharply rising unemployment rate" (International Monetary Fund 1992:13). This economic collapse has to be explained by the breakdown of the macroeconomic system Kyrgyzstan used to be part of. Furthermore we have to take into consideration that Kyrgyzstan during Soviet times received large parts of its GNP from Moscow. The Soviet republic Kyrgyzstan had been developed as a socialist state "from the ground" (after having been a nomadic society) with all its social institutions, kindergartens, hospitals and production facilities. Because Soviet subsidies have vanished after 1991, Kyrgyzstan is left with a huge hole in its state budget. Currently this hole is partly filled by large credits from the IMF and the World Bank.

As most factories are closed or only partly working, the rate of unemployment is approaching 40 - 50 %. Left without the financial means to cope with the situation, life for a mayor part of the population of Kyrgyzstan is reduced to bare survival and hardship. Besides foreign aid in its various forms, the only thing that keeps the country going at present is different kinds of formal and informal trade and business. Bazaars and stores in Kyrgyzstan are filled with cheap goods from China, Iran and Turkey. Everybody without work is doing some kind of business - be it buying a BMW in Germany and drive it 7000 km in order to sell it to the "noveaux riche" in Bishkek or Almaty, or buying one packet of cigarettes and selling them by piece with a minimal profit at the next street corner again to somebody who wants to smoke, but cannot afford to buy a whole packet. This kind of economic activity cannot be registered at present and is therefore by foreign economic experts called "shadow-economy". Trade helps the population to survive the transition, but whether it will lead to a well-functioning market-economy is much to early to say.

Concerning the economic future and perspectives for development in Kyrgyzstan, one leading IMF specialist explained to me that "they've already gone a tremendous way in putting together a marked economy, but you're looking at a basically poor country. It's landlocked, remote and has few raw materials. It will be a poor country. The only way to generate growth is through a dynamic export marked, but Kasachstan, Uzbekistan and Russia can't generate that export here. Kyrgyzstan is a very disadvantaged country!"

Kyrgyzstan is currently facing a very serious economic crisis and for that reason foreign experts are becoming more and more numerous in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. Every friday night they gather in the bar of the only hotel of international standard, in order to have a drink and to discuss the future of the country under informal circumstances. Very often Kyrgyzstan is compared with it's neighbouring countries in a quite stereotype facon - but with a core of truth: "Kasachstan has oil, Uzbekistan has cotton, Turkmenistan has gas, and Kyrgyzstan has... it's democracy!"

The Transition from the Second to the Third World

Kyrgyzstan went out of Moscow's orbit and is about becoming part of what the West considers as it's underdeveloped periphery. It is, like the other countries of the former socialist bloc, in a state of "transition". The difference to Eastern Europe is that here the transition takes place in a development context. Kyrgyzstan is both "poor" and "post-socialist" (Skak 1992), which turns it into a real challenge for Western economic specialists, who want to export their economic models and social systems. Even a remote place like the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek is today filled up with young, mostly American, economists, working 60 hours a week for USAID's subcontractors like "Price-Waterhouse" or "Overseas Strategic Consulting" in order to push forward their own career and the transition in Kyrgyzstan.

The question why Kyrgyzstan should be called a "development country" or a "low-income country" is not so much a matter of economic and social figures like GNP, efficiency percentages, infant mortality or family size. Of course the country has been relatively poor (but with a very reasonable social system) already before the collapse of the USSR. What matters is that the world order has changed fundamentally as seen from the Kyrgyz point of view. And I will argue that in order to make democracy function as a resource, Kyrgyzstan is dependent on being defined as a development country that needs and deserves help by the West.

Mette Skak (1992) stresses that since the Soviet Union was an empire built on colonial principles, we should understand it's disintegration as kind of decolonization. As in several African states the Soviet collapse left Kyrgyzstan in an economic and ideological vacuum. Moscow stopped being the absolute center, after having dictated political and economic life for 70 years.

Today, four years after independence, Moscow is still of great importance concerning the economic development of the country, because the whole infrastructure of transport and communication was built to serve the center.

But meanwhile other centers have emerged which are equally significant. These are, for example, Beijing, Istanbul, Washington and Bruessels. In 1992 Kyrgyzstan became a member of the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other international organizations. Since these organizations consider the denationalization of the economy as the most important step towards an economic recovery, the most rapid programme of privatization was put into effect and, for the first time in more than 70 years, thousands of apartments became the property of their inhabitants. President Akaev was not embarrassed to call upon foreigners to help him and he allowed the IMF virtually to draft the economic programme of the country, which consists of privatization, lower government expenditures and the creation of fiscal structures and a banking system.

Today it is frequently read in the Kyrgyz press that the president has sold the country to the IMF and other foreign organizations. But criticism on the part of the Kyrgyz officials of the Western involvement and it's results in Kyrgyzstan is still difficult to spot. Very often I was told by donor representatives that the Kyrgyz government just says "yes - thank you" to programmes planned in Bruessels or Washington, without reflecting on whether Kyrgyzstan actually needs these kinds of programmes or not.

In a time of ideological vacuum, the president and his ministers looked around the world to find "models" for the development of Kyrgyzstan. For instance the government tried to promote a so-called "Swiss-model", which is supposed to indicate a mountainous state, built on marked economy and democracy (Halbach 1993). At another circumstance Turkey was called the "morning star" of Kyrgyzstan, because Turkey showed great interest in the linguistically related Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government received loans and agreements on cooperation from Turkish president Demirel, while Turkey, as an islamic, secular and democratic state, was described as a "model for development".

Following the "Western Path"

Today the president and his politicians know exactly what to say, when foreign politicians, businessmen, journalists or development experts come to the capital Bishkek. They always talk about democracy, the need for rapid reforms, the danger of nationalism, and that Kyrgyzstan is working hard on the transition. Thus the small country in the Tien-Shan mountains has got a very positive image in Western media and among the Western donor community. This young state has successfully proved that it is moving into the right direction - towards marked economy and democracy.

There is no doubt that the Akaev government has managed to mobilize heavy support from Western governments and the donor-community with the help of repeated proclamations of democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

Surely this young democracy is not without problems and it is definitely not functioning like liberal democracies in the West. This is no surprise, the Soviet- and pre-Soviet-history and traditions of the country taken into account. A critical examination of Kyrgyzstan's democratic situation cannot be an issue of this article, but I would like to point out that frequent violations of the constitution during the last year don't go unheard among the donors. Everyday practice of democracy is tightly followed by Western representatives in Bishkek and the Kyrgyz government constantly has to prove that it is willing to follow the "Western path". For instance the announcement by president Akaev to hold presidential elections on dec. 24th was heavily criticised by some donors, because they (not surprisingly) saw it as an attempt by the government to get rid of Western election observers. Of course, aid won't be cut down from one day to the other. There is great comprehension for certain practical problems during the transition towards democracy and everybody knows that Kyrgyzstan cannot become democratic from one day to the other. But examples from Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya) have shown that in case of frequent violations of democratic principles and large-scale abuse of development money (not unknown in Kyrgyzstan), the Western donor community is ready to cut aid down. This means that democracy, also in the future, is a neseccary condition for development aid.

But how comes that the West is so interested in "helping" Kyrgyzstan? Or put another way: Why is the West present in the East?

Kyrgyzstan - a Showpiece of the West?

A closer examination of the various development programmes in Kyrgyzstan and a comparison with neighbouring countries shows that this country receives larger amounts of money per capita than any of the other Central Asian countries. Furthermore, many of the minor donors are only represented in Kyrgyzstan and not in for example Uzbekistan. The American governmental development organization USAID, for instance, uses six times the amount of money in Kyrgyzstan, than it uses in Kasachstan. USAID`s programme consists mainly of "technical assistance" within the sectors of economical restructuring and democratization. All donors have democratization perspectives in their programmes - very often in form of cooperation with local NGOs. The issues of "civil-society, people first, NGOs, participation, empowerment, democracy and decentralization" are today of uttermost importance in the Western development discourse. This discourse is the ideological point of departure for the actual planning and implementation of real projects.

According to the representatives of most development organizations in Kyrgyzstan, they came there to "assist a country, which needs help and has chosen the Western path" and because this country is reform-minded and democratic. Aid to the former Soviet Union is still in it's initial phase, despite the assurances of many donors that this is only "transitional assistance". They are aware of the danger of "producing" a new group of dependent countries, as happened in Africa. In some Western countries (for example Denmark) aid to the former USSR is difficult to justify, because aid should be poverty oriented, and therefore mainly be directed to Africa. This is the reason, why some of the donors have limited their presence to a certain time-span. However, many of the experts are beginning to realize that it doesn't make sense to engage in the restructuring of administrative systems, grown within the last 70 years, and then to withdraw again after 3 years of transitional assistance.

I believe that Western aid has come to Kyrgyzstan to stay. But because aid to the former USSR is a very recent phenomenon and because it is rather discussed among donors in the West, there is an urgent need for successes. Clearly, a small country of a manageable size like Kyrgyzstan with only 4 mio. inhabitants gives better chances for positive results than for instance Russia would give. The World Bank and the IMF entered Kyrgyzstan very soon after it's independence with large transfers of money, to make sure that Kyrgyzstan wouldn't collapse or become fundamentalistic . This would give a very poor example for the rest of the CIS. Most of the donors, as I was told by an American expert, tend to follow each other and "The Bank" in it's politics and priorities. A view on the "development map" of Kyrgyzstan reveals that donors tend to concentrate on certain sectors and certain geographic areas, because preparations are easier and because the risk of failure is less.

It looks as if the Akaev-government, together with the big multilateral donors, have started a process which, more or less conscious, aims to create a "showpiece of the West" (like a small-scale Marshall-plan). Perhaps the West wants to show which fantastic results free enterprise combined with liberal democracy can produce in the former USSR.

However, most likely there won't be any miracles like the growth-rates we have seen in South-East Asia. While in some regions and sectors projects are overlapping each other, others are still poorly covered. Furthermore, none of the donors are ready to use economic means to an extent which would make the showpiece 100% successful. Kyrgyzstan has no economic significance for any Western country and it's political and strategic significance as a country bordering up to the coming superpower China is not reason enough to pump enormous sums into the country. This means that we can talk about a showpiece only to a very limited extent.

The Modern Crusade

However, besides the function as a "showpiece", the former Soviet Union is, as pointed out by Gerner & Hedlund (1994), a vast experimental laboratory, where the before mentioned young specialists and advisors can develop plans of action, "that they would never even dare to contemplate in their own societies" (ibid:25). Gerner & Hedlund are accusing the West of sending "crusaders" instead of scholars, "who are ready and able to reflect on the totality of things that make societies function" (ibid:9). And they conclude by asking: "Why is it that only Russians have to be subjected, time and time again to vast social experiments, bringing in it's wake vast sufferings?" (ibid:26)

These statements might as well be true in Kyrgyzstan, where privatization and the introduction of user-charges have resulted in unemployment and social misery. Now that we are entering the so-called "post-privatization era", we have to realize that few people have benefited from the change of ownership in Kyrgyzstan, while most people simply lost their job. Only in very few places did private ownership enhance the efficiency of the company.

The next plan of the "crusaders" in Kyrgyzstan, working with the economic restructuring of the country, consists in bringing in an army of new "crusaders" - USAID plans to invite retired executers (through the International Executer Service Corps) from the U.S. to work with and advise newly privatized companies in Kyrgyzstan.

Similar examples, though less clear-cut, could be given within the field of democratization, where Western advisors are working on central and local level, in order to streamline democratic decision-taking processes. This, however, is a particular difficult task. To design a new system of decision-taking, these people have to know how decisions were taken in the old system. Getting to know who was deciding what in which manner in local administrative structures in the former Soviet Union is an extremely difficult task for somebody with a Western background.

Perhaps talking about the future of democracy in Kyrgyzstan should be left over to journalists. Despite of that I will conclude this by commenting on the short-term future of the present political situation.

The Democratic Future?

I have argued that democracy can be a resource like oil or gas, when it is proclaimed in the right discourse and practised in the right manner. I don't think that donors in Kyrgyzstan have many "hidden political agendas", though this is what a large part of the Kyrgyz and Russian population thinks. It can't be denied that Kyrgyzstan needs help very urgently and the fact that the country tries hard to be democratic makes it easier for Western donors to fulfil it's "moral duties". Nobody want's to let the country collapse, which is certainly what will happen, if Kyrgyzstan is not helped during this difficult period. The economic crisis, with it's lack of jobs and resources, has already pitted the different ethnic groups against each other. During my stay in Kyrgyzstan I experienced very angry nationalistic emotions right beneath the surface. Almost every non-Kyrgyz citizen in Kyrgyzstan (nearly 50 %) complains bitterly about discrimination by the Kyrgyz who have taken over most key positions in society.

It can still be discussed wether Kyrgyzstan can be called "democratic" today or wether democracy is the right political system for the country at all. But as long as Kyrgyzstan will maintain democratic institutions and conduct free and independent elections, there will be a certain amount of foreign aid flowing into the country. The question whether development money and programmes help to legitimize the president and his government and whether democracy and marked economy is compatible at all is a complex one. Many Kyrgyzstanis and influential Western advisors told me that president Akaev isn't the one taking decisions in the White House any more. He is, I was told, merely a puppet of the World Bank, the IMF and certain powerful mafia groups. And often people added cynically: "The Kyrgyz are always doing what other people tell us to do - before it was the Russians and now we have to listen to the Americans."

The widespread social misery and the poor living conditions taken into account, it is not surprising that the population does not support the reforms any more and that most people think very bad about democracy. Jokes like: "We didn't have any democracy since Gorbachev!" are very common among the Kyrgyz. Democracy, marked economy and all the foreign money pouring into Kyrgyzstan, have up to the present point only been of benefit to people who are already on the top. "Privatizing means ripping 99% of the people", I was told by a disillusioned American, working on advertisement for privatization in Kyrgyzstan.

Since the president is heavily supporting the reform-line within the government, we should expect that he is not popular any more and that he stood for loosing the presidential election, which might have meant the end of democracy in Kyrgyzstan. But as polls, the election on dec. 24th (which he won clearly) and my own interviews revealed, this is certainly not the case. Akaev is still the president and a popular man in Kyrgyzstan. How can this be explained? Perhaps the answer has to be sought in the lack of alternatives to the present leaders. But another important factor are the specific features of Central Asian political culture. As mentioned before, Kyrgyz politics is very person oriented. A Kyrgyz social scientist explained to me that it is impossible to become president in Kyrgyzstan without being a member of a powerful clan. President Akaev belongs to the powerful "Sar Bagysh" clan, like 70 - 80 % of all members of parliament, and his clan-fellows are likely to support him also in the future.

Democracy in Kyrgyzstan is not particularly stable and "undemocratic" practices by the authorities are frequent. But I believe that as long as Akaev continues to be the president in Kyrgyzstan, the government will adhere to democratic principles. However, since Akaev has started his last presidential period, it is impossible to predict what will happen when he leaves the White House in Bishkek.