Medet Tiulegenov: Kyrgyzstan in 2016 – Challenges and Forecasts
“Active participation of citizens, many of whom are no longer ordinary spectators but become co-participants in the entire process, is gradually getting more visible. In 2016, an appeal to the citizens will be enhanced, and the chance to become full-fledged citizens will depend on the transition from being an object to being a subject in this process”, said Medet Tiulegenov, head of the department “International and Comparative Politics”, AUCA (Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek), in an article written for CABAR.asia.
The storyline of 2016 for Kyrgyzstan is a continuation of the events of the last year, it is a link up with the expected events of the next year, and, of course, there are a number of events, which will take place this year, but they have no reference to the past or to the future. Among the many challenges of this year, the main ones are related to the management of the growing economic crisis, post- and pre-electoral resolution to the political groups’ compositions, adjusting to the volatile geopolitical situation and the changing social and cultural landscape of the country.
Overcoming the crisis
The economic crisis will at least continue, if not intensify, in 2016. The government is increasingly experiencing difficulties in meeting social obligations, and last year ended with tough consequences for the budget and with a deficit of 25 billion soms. This was added by the fact that transfers of migrant workers decreased by 25-30% compared with the previous year (2.2 billion US dollars in 2014). Keeping inflation under control will not be easy either (in 2015, the dollar rose by almost 25% with respect to Kyrgyz som – from 59 to 76 soms per dollar). This is despite the interventions of the National Bank – 250 million US dollars during 2015. Bank’s borrowers, people who receive salaries in Kyrgyz soms and importers suffer from it most of all.
There are, however, some positive aspects of the previous year: the completion of the tender for the development of Jeruy (the second largest gold project), as well as the completion of tenders for the development of fields of Terek, Terekkan and Perevalnoe in Chatkal region of Jalal-Abad region, and the launch of mines of “Taldy-Bulak Left Bank” and “Bozymchak”. But all of this pales against the background of the problems with the Kumtor mine, the largest in Kyrgyzstan, the negotiations on which failed in 2015. The government is preparing a new version of the restructuring, and Centerra is making equity issue, which reduces the share of the KR and causes new disputes. The largest source of budget income and exports is experiencing problems that are still to be solved in 2016.
The government, on the one hand, is trying to respond to the crisis in the budget, introducing unpopular measures, on the other hand, it is forced to take into account the mood of the population, which is sometimes expressed in the form of protest (for example, the protest rally in Naryn on January 26 to reduce electricity tariffs). In recent months, the government tried to introduce a number of regulations that had a fiscal component, but during the process, they were reconsidering their decision regarding their implementation because of fear of popular discontent – the introduction of compulsory vehicle insurance, the terms of fining of which were postponed, and state guarantees of compensation to residents of high mountain region, on which the bill was sent back by the government for revision. In 2016, the search for budget replenishment sources will stumble on the expectations of growth of social protest.
Election of politicians and election policy
Political challenges are associated with the parliamentary (2015), local (2016) and presidential (2017) elections. While the newly elected parliament deputies are adapting to one another within the walls of the Parliament, the electoral votes mobilization mechanisms are already aimed at the forthcoming local elections. This will happen against the backdrop of the increasing presidential race, and we will know the names of its main participants this year. Although talks on the constitutional reform with the transition to parliamentarism lower the value of this position, so far, these elections will be perceived as the most important in the entire electoral cycle, and the groups, formed around the parliamentary elections, will be somehow involved, too. Today, in order to be a public politician, actually aspiring to the highest office in the country, it is necessary to be a part of the Parliament or of the government.
The expected increased competition for the presidency will exacerbate the controversy around the successes and failures in governance, attributing the latter to the candidates of the current government. Dealing with the growing economic crisis, gains and losses from joining the EEU, participation and non-participation in the reforms and many other things will be used by opponents in the presidential race, the informal part of which will begin this year.
It will be challenging for the current President to nominate and support a successor, because the parliamentary election showed the fragmentation of political resources, and it will be difficult to consolidate them, in order to support the major candidates. It will be necessary to consolidate all possible resources for the support and, at the same time, to be engaged in summing up one’s reign and completing the things which have been started (fight against corruption, judicial reform, administrative-territorial reform?).
However, the question of the presidential election can be closed in the coming year, if the activatable question of constitutional reform will move towards the early introduction of the parliamentary form of government – that is, with the adoption of a new Constitution, there will be no need to organize the popular election of the President in 2017.
The need for constitutional reform have increasingly been discussed in recent years, including by the President himself at a press conference on the results of last year. The reform initiative will largely depend on the President’s position, as he will publicly support the changes formally initiated by someone else, and this is likely to require a referendum and possibly public discussion of reforms in the constitutional meeting format (which had been practiced in many similar cases in the past). These two technical problems somewhat reduce the likelihood of reform, although the logistics problem (this is a larger problem than others) of the referendum can be solved by combining it with the election – most likely presidential in 2017, rather than local election in 2016. Probably, the logistics problem can be solved through a political problem – in the case of choosing the parliamentary form of government, it makes little sense to elect the President in 2017, except that the election of the President will be postponed by the until 2023 according to the new Constitution, i.e. until the end of powers of the new President. In this case, however, it is necessary to process a plurality of temporary regulations, which complicates the task of clarity of the constitutional reform. Or there can be also a scenario of early election to the Jogorku Kenesh, according to the new Constitution, which of course would be contrary to the interests of many of the current parliament deputies.
In any case, the issue of constitutional reform should logically be solved by the mid- year of 2016 – whether it will happen before the presidential election, or will be delayed. The interests of those who seek to become the President are also linked to the interest in the constitutional stability in the short term. As a variant of the presidential form of government, promoted by one of the likely candidates for the election in 2017, is not guaranteed to pass, the key players are interested to leave everything as it is.
Muddy waters of geopolitics
There were two denunciations of agreements last year with countries that are perceived as major competitors (not including China) for influence in the region and in our country. This year, the difficulties with the economy in the major partner countries in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are likely to increase.
Despite Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the EEU, many expectations were not justified. The volume of trade between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan decreased by half in 2015 (for example, Kyrgyz exports fell from $ 340 million US dollars to 150). Trading volumes with Russia also decreased. It is worth noting that the reduction of trade affected not only the member States of the EEU – the volume of trade with China fell by 19%. Kyrgyzstan denounced an agreement with Russia on the construction of Kambarata-1 and Upper-Naryn cascade. This decision certainly does not cancel the existing relationship between the leadership of the two countries, but pushes Kyrgyzstan to diversify its relations with different partners. The epic with the invested $ 37 million will concern not only the internal political squabbles in the country, but will be accompanied by references to the project partners.
The need to maneuver between the Kremlin, common processes within the Union and the expectations in the country will put the Kyrgyz leadership in a rather difficult situation. The situation with the hydropower plants put Russia in an awkward position, and even if only a press-secretary of the Russian President spoke on the topic of denunciation, nevertheless, the clearness of bilateral relations in the framework of the integration project was, to some extent, marred. Probably, due to this, there was a proposal to give two Russian channels (ORT and RTR Planeta) a special status in the territory of Kyrgyzstan, which had been introduced by the Ministry of Culture, Information and Tourism. Recently, there began to unfold a drama of consequences of reporting by Russian TV on the sale of children (according to an employee of the Russian Embassy), as a result of which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the KR sent a note to the Russian embassy. It is not clear whether such cases will influence the prospects of giving special status to Russian television channels, it remains to see the testing of the public opinion on this matter.
The question on the use of the Kyrgyz-Russian fund (250 mln. US dollars were received in 2015) will likely be actualized in the near future. In the autumn of 2015, the fund received 114 applications for a total amount of 940 million US dollars, and by December, there were funded 63 projects for 9.2 million US dollars. According to experts, the design of the foundation’s work is favorable for large, but not for small and medium-sized businesses. And there is a potential risk that Russian business will be more in line with the conditions of the Fund, and the money will mainly return to Russia. In this respect, there is a risk that Kyrgyzstan will play a more peripheral role in the common economic space of the EEU due to the weakening of its business structures.
In general, what will happen in Russia this year will in one way or another touch Kyrgyzstan, and it will be a stress test for the usual bilateral relations which have developed in recent years. The formula of rapprochement between Kyrgyzstan and Russia, including in the framework of the EEU, was caused by the resource support in exchange for loyalty. There will be difficulties with the support of the resources (although, at least, some revitalization of the Kyrgyz-Russian Development Fund will compensate for this), but the boundaries of loyalty remain an open question. Whether a new agreement with the United States, after the old one was denounced, or the attempts to actively use the mechanism of the GSP + in trade relations with Europe, or any other such actions will be perceived as a “stab in the back” depends on the Kyrgyz balanced foreign policy, which should take into account special interests of the main strategic partner.
The upcoming elections actualize many issues, including foreign policy issues. Presidential Decree (end of 2014) to join the EEU contained forecast norms that had not been met, and it may become an object of criticism against the President and a possible candidate for his part. Outgoing Presidents become “lame ducks”, and in the remaining year and a half, the personal view of the President on relations with some countries can gradually cease to be the dominant concept of foreign policy.
The economic crises and political changes are relatively transient, and cultural changes are tectonic in nature – they are slow to change in a certain direction, but can also cause a sudden shock. In 2016, large shocks perhaps, fortunately, are not expected, but the worsening economic situation and using by politicians of everything that can add to their popularity can most clearly stick out some of these changes.
First of all, it is the 100-year anniversary of the events of 1916 that will be celebrated both officially and unofficially. The official policy of forming the historical memory this year will probably not always coincide with the attitude to memory, promoted by various civic groups. The objective of the authorities, building the difficult bilateral relationship with a strategic partner, is formation of national memory, which should contribute to the formation of a healthy civic nationalism. There seem to be no obvious parallels between the life as a part of the empire of the past and the present post-colonial place of Kyrgyzstan, but allusions cannot be fully avoided.
At the same time, there is a gradual cultural shift in the direction of growth of the conservative movement that has ethno-nationalist and radical religious basis (in 2013, a quarter of the respondents the leaders of public organizations responded positively to the question of the Association of centers of civil society on the admissibility of Sharia law in our legislation). So far, the activities of the movement are quite marginal (“Kyrk Choro”, “Kalys”, groups of “patriots” among migrants, etc.), but gradually, it penetrates into the political life of the country (the fight with brochures on sex education, various kinds of activity about the bill on the so-called “gay propaganda”, etc.). This occurs due to both internal reasons and to the trend dictated in the post-Soviet space by Russian legislative process and the Russian federal TV channels.
Most likely, the year of 2016 will not bring anything new in this bright slowly rising process, in addition to the discussion of a final decision on the two draft laws (on “gay propaganda” and “Foreign Agents”), which, at the moment, form the political background for social reconstruction of the country. Political selection during a possible constitutional reform or during the start of the presidential race in 2016 might be felt more acutely than the public choice, one of variants of which is set by these bills. However, this choice that will be made not only by legislators will largely determine the direction of development of society in the near future.
Formats of the scenario 2016
It is unlikely that we can expect dramatic turning of the scenario this year, although the economic crisis, the upcoming elections and many unresolved issues in the reform at the stage of change of elites add sharpness to the usual processes.
What is getting gradually and more clearly evident is the more active participation of citizens, many of whom are no longer ordinary spectators but become co-participants in the process and form its storyline. This co-participation has already been evident in the election in 2015, when the vote-buying was the dominant method for parties to succeed. This participation can be seen in the example of how the government was forced, but still reluctant (for fear of protests), to get close to the unpopular measures of budget replenishment. All of this suggests that citizens are important and integral parts of various types of action. An appeal to citizens will increase in 2016 (for an explanation of why it is impossible to cope with the economic crisis, why it is necessary to choose one or the other party, why no services are provided without biometrics, etc.), and the ability to become productive citizens will depend on the transition from being an object to being a subject.
This implies the ability of citizens to demand from the government to reduce dependence on external factors and alignment of the country’s development on the basis of its own resources (without mentioning by the country’s leadership the crisis in neighboring countries causes bad situation here). Not many people can accept this appeal, but those who can will move from the category of the population to the category of citizens, and they will also face with another challenge – the ability to not only effectively appeal to the needs and desires of citizens, which should be promoted in this difficult year in relations with the States, but to also listen to their opponents and try to find agreement with each other.
Overall, this year’s challenge, both to the political elite in general, and particularly to the leadership of the country, is the formation of national interests. If we start to google the words “national interests” in kg zone, they often come in combination with the words “of Russia” and “of the United States”, but not “of Kyrgyzstan”. This reflects our reality, which is far from being virtual, that the development of the country is determined by what is happening outside, rather than inside it. This year, sharper than ever, the challenges for the country put the question of the need to not only find, but also to emphasize the internal, not just external, resources and opportunities.
If citizens and political elites can cope with domestic challenges, the storyline of this year will be based not only on the past where we mostly see failures, and not only on the future, which is most often perceived as something bringing more threats then opportunities, but also on a vision of Kyrgyzstan as a self-sufficient country.
Author: Medet Tiulegenov, head of the Department of “International and Comparative Politics”, AUCA
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of Cabar.asia