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IWPR Organised Online Discussion “The Power of Conflicts and Protests in Central Asia: comparative analysis”

On the 5th of November the Representative Office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Central Asia, its regional analytical platform CABAR.asia organized online event related to the power of conflicts and protests in Central Asia.

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During the meeting, the participants discussed “The power of conflicts and protests in Central Asia: comparative analysis”. The event brought together experts and academics from Europe, Central Asia, and the United States.

Abakhon Sultonazarov

At the beginning of the event IWPR’s Regional Director in Central Asia Abakhon Sultonazarov opened the meeting and delivered his welcome speech. Сhair of the event – Senior Central Asia correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Bruce Pannier gave the floor to the first speaker Colleen Wood, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University.

Colleen Wood spoke about the role of electoral institutions as a demand from citizens and a tool for consolidating power:

Colleen Wood

“The way the electoral institutions are designed is really at the heart of protracted political issues Kyrgyzstan is having right now. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution maintains a very careful balance of power between the president and the parliament which is manifested in the rules of how the president should conduct his/her duties, how the elections are run, how the power is gained in the parliament.  The examples include the fact that the president is limited for a single six-year term, parties must cross a threshold in order to secure places in parliament. After the revolution in 2010, the threshold was raised from 5% to 7% with the goal in mind of encouraging stronger political parties to participate in parliament as a better balance to the president.

So, in the elections on October 4 even though there were 16 parties that were running, there were many popular and strong parties that were trying to run in 7 oblasts, only 4 of them ended up crossing the 7% threshold and able to gain seats. And the frustration with this perception of “business-as-usual”, no real check on the government’s authority and Jeenbekov’s power is what drew people out to the streets on the day after the election October 5th.

And the anthropologist Judith Beyer calls it constitutional hope, that citizens hold the constitution very dearly, that having gone through multiple revolutions, having survived and pushing through so much political uncertainty, and so many crises, that people do see the rules of the game as holding their leaders accountable. But I think this demand for operating within this legal framework has also then created some more interesting incentives for leadership. But basically, Kyrgyzstan is at a crossroads right now in that leadership is trying to change the rules of the game”.

The second session continued with particular focus on how political instability affects Sino-Russian strategic interests in the region by Dr. Fabio Indeo, analyst on Central Asia issues at Observatory of Central Asia and Caspian (Venice, Italy):

Fabio Indeo

In October 2020 Kyrgyzstan experienced its third revolution, which on the one hand, shows how the civil society is strong in the country, how it is rooted, and more or less multiparty system and which characterizes the country as more liberal compared to the others countries. However, Kyrgyzstan is affected by a condition of political instability which affects the relationship between these countries with the external actors, mainly Russia and China. It is interesting that the main concerns of Russia in China focus on the so-called, geopolitically speaking, weak “pawns” in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, because they don’t have hydrocarbons because they are economically weaker compared to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. They are also important because these counties are highly involved in their multilateral initiatives and projects made by Russia and China and in the cases of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in security terms because they share a border with China. For China and Russia to preserve the status quo is one of the main goals to achieve because the change in political leadership could spread uncertainty.

In my conclusion, the problem will be in the coming months, because if there is a widespread condition of political and social instability, which affects Central Asia, or the interest, the strategic, energy, political and security interest of China and Russia will be affected, especially the regional security architecture, which is based on Russia as a security provider. But also, China is trying to increase its role in order to enhance the security in the region to protect the Belt and Road corridor. So, this very sensitive situation will characterize Central Asia and hoping that the new political leadership in Kyrgyzstan will be able to ensure and to restore the normal political life in their country”.

Dr. Jennifer Murtazashvili, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs talked about crisis of governance.

Jennifer Murtazashvili

“There’s a crisis of governance everywhere around the world right now. I want to draw your attention to legitimacy. Legitimacy and democracy are closely intertwined. They’re not necessary and sufficient conditions to produce one another. They are closely related. But they all are based on trust. As someone who works on governance in the region, legitimacy is really key to maintaining stability and security and responding to citizens’ needs.

In Kyrgyzstan, it seems that for many, many years, the government’s ability to provide public services really collapsed. I always cite back to the 2009-2010 PISA survey that put educational levels in Kyrgyzstan is the lowest in the world. The government became a sort of a piggy bank for officials. It became a repository of resources for officials who knew they would not be in power for very long.

But on the other hand, there are huge sources of resilience in Kyrgyzstan. As we’ve seen, especially over the past six months, people understood that they couldn’t rely on the state to provide public goods and services. So, they turned to their own communities. People are looking inwards. They’re providing for themselves. They are creating new organizations and respond to this. And we’ve seen this over and over again.

When people perceive that the government’s behaving in a predatory manner, when they’re taking their property without compensation, this becomes a source of enormous alienation. And that is when you go from just corruption to alienation. There are enormous risks for governments when these kinds of things occur”.

The next speaker Akram Umarov, project coordinator of Development Strategy Center shared his views on lessons for Central Asia from South Caucasus conflict.

Akram Umarov

“The experience of the South Caucasus clearly shows that all attempts to freeze the settlement of complex regional issues are fraught with their periodic aggravation and further complication of the prospects for a diplomatic solution. The parties have not been able to normalize the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for over 30 years, despite the presence of the international mediation mechanism of the “Minsk Group”, the adoption of a number of important Security Council resolutions, which have not been largely implemented in practice. As a result of the lack of progress in the peace negotiations, the parties at times make attempts by military means to reverse the status quo and pedal the settlement of the conflict situation in their favor.

Central Asia also faces a number of perennial problems, such as incomplete formalization of state borders, the problem of rational water use, interethnic tensions in certain parts of the region, as well as the deterioration of the ecological situation.

Despite the centuries-old bonds of friendship and coexistence in the common region, the presence of a huge range of cultural and humanitarian ties, the atmosphere of interaction in the region and the willingness to settle complex interstate issues were largely determined by the strong-willed decisions of national leaders over the past 29 years of independent development of states. This approach often turned into both a sharp freeze of contacts in Central Asia and a significant thawing of relations. In order to prevent such rapid fluctuations in regional interaction, it is necessary to gradually develop and deepen the system of multi-level cooperation between the states of Central Asia with the active involvement of private business and public associations, the academic community and representatives of the sphere of culture and art.”

Senior Researcher of Danish Institute for International Studies Flemming Splidsboel Hansen compared the different states, where protests took place:

Flemming Splidsboel Hansen

“Studies show that the average lifespan of the dictatorship has increased dramatically in the past 25 years. So, until about the year 2000, it was about 10 years the average life expectancy for dictatorship. Now, since the year 2000, it increased to about 25 years. And what we see is that they use modern information communications technologies very well, they use them in a cynical way, they use them in an expert way to monopolize the information space. With the advance of new information and communication technology, there is an increased risk of dictatorship, holding on to power simply by the use of that.

So once put in place, if once allowed, it may be more difficult to get rid of. So, they have sharpened their tools. And this is why we see also that they survive longer. This may be especially true for countries like Kyrgyzstan. Now, when I spoke, and this earlier session about Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, it struck me, of course, also that they’re both anomalies. As you all know, we used to refer to Kyrgyzstan as the Switzerland of Central Asia. Using the same analogy, we may speak about Belarus as North Korea of Europe. And we know, of course, from the literature that neighborhoods matter, it’s very important to look at neighborhoods, it’s very difficult to be a democratic or semi-democratic state, in an area surrounded by authoritarian governments. It’s also very difficult as Belarus has somewhat managed to stay authoritarian to remain a dictatorship, even when almost surrounded by EU member states, at least side it has gone on to the northwest, Lithuania and Poland. So, neighborhoods matter.

After an interesting Q&A session moderator of the event Bruce Pannier concluded the expert meeting, thanking all the participants for their hard work and expressing hope that this event would contribute to further research.

Watch the full video recording of the expert online meeting:

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