A public figure, political analyst, regional security and international relations scholar Taalatbek Masadykov, in an interview for CABAR.asia, shared his vision of how Kyrgyzstan should seek its way out of the current political crisis and what to change in the country’s foreign policy; he also discussed his political and career plans.
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CABAR.asia: How would you describe recent events that followed the parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan? Would you call it a revolution or a forcible seizure of power? Are there any differences between this and the events of 2005 and 2010?
Obviously, the recent events are different from what we had in 2005 and 2010. In 2020, following the parliamentary elections on October 4, those political parties that did not pass the vote-share threshold and therefore did not win seats in the legislature united their forces and took to the streets to protest a rigged election, where three parties that were elected and took nearly a hundred seats in parliament had close ties with the government. It was an absolutely right thing to do for losing parties, as the former government, including the Central Election Commission (CEC), had certainly “done their job”. After such elections in every other part of the world, the authorities immediately annul the election results, and the CEC (well, except, for two or three members out of twelve) immediately resign. This is both a professionally and humanly right thing to do. After all, they are the ones responsible for mass vote-rigging in elections.
People took to the streets simply to protest, and if only the authorities had approached it in a professional manner and met with opposition party representatives, and having reviewed and discussed their demands, had opted to invalidate the election results, then nothing would have happened. But as matters turned out, people took to the streets to protest, whilst the authorities failed to respond to the crisis, or should I say, failed to prove its existence. Power vacuum. Public authorities and law enforcement agencies proved to be totally unprofessional and ill-equipped to cope with force majeure. Therefore, it was no revolution after all; it was some sort of a power grab or a coup. Some might still argue it was a revolution. I’m going to disagree with this labeling.
The previous regime officials and those that took to the streets to protest election results – both did not expect the way things ended. Hence, I would say that it was a seizure of power, and even a non-violent one. There was really no need to use the power because both the Interior Ministry with its leadership and the State Committee for National Security demonstrated their ineffectiveness. They basically were not there. When the people took to the streets, top officials of these two security agencies simply fled. This suggests that practically all public offices, including power structures, have decayed. There is no state, and no one is responsible for anything. It’s not that the state was powerless, it simply did not exist; everyone hid, felt ill, or simply fled. We, therefore, can largely differentiate between the events of 2005, 2010, and 2020.
How to find a way out of the political crisis?
To resolve the political impasse, it was pivotal to act in accordance with the country’s Basic Law in force in the first place. Some are now critiquing the current Constitution, which was adopted in 2010 and amended in 2016 during the time of President Atambayev. Someone likes it, some do not, but before any constitutional reforms, the adoption of amendments, and changes to the Constitution, there is only one law in the country. Thus, if there was a seizure of power and new people came, then they had to respect the existing Constitution and act in accordance with it.
As the October 4 parliamentary election results were invalidated, the Law in force stipulates to hold new parliamentary elections and later presidential elections, and then proceed with the constitutional reform, or vice versa.
But either, if such a time has come and the majority of citizens alongside various political forces want to change the Constitution, then new elections should be held after the referendum. That is if there is already a new Constitution, then new parliamentary and presidential elections must be held in accordance with it. Therefore, this situation reinforces the severeness of the political crisis in the country. The new government took the path of slightest resistance, i.e., they sensed that the political forces are not ready to resist now; there is no power per se; public entities are very weak; and they went that way in order to enter the legitimate field at the earliest opportunity, legitimize and validate themselves in the places that they, one might say, received as a prize.
A way out of the political crisis, therefore, is strict adherence to the existing Constitution. If you are already in power, then you should not worry that in case of new elections some political forces might openly oppose you. There is no reason to worry about it; you just need to do everything according to the law. If we, political leaders and various forces in the country, do not respect our own Constitution, the basic law of the country, then how will the international community – our neighbors, our allies, our Western and Eastern partners – feel about us? They all have questions for us: what is the new government doing? Why are they breaching their own laws? What is happening and what will happen next? The world now questions the credibility of both the new government and Kyrgyzstan in general. Hence, I believe it’s a major political crisis we are dealing with. I have no idea how the new government will seek the way out of this crisis, but I can assert you it will be challenging.
It is regardless of what has now been announced about the presidential elections on January 10, followed by constitutional reform and parliamentary elections; this is what we hear so far, and this is probably not final. For more than a month with the new regime in power, the authorities have changed their minds so many times, overpromised and underperformed, made new declarations, and adopted new decisions.
Everything is, therefore, very chaotic, incoherent, and unpredictable that it is tricky to propose something, as I am not convinced that the current government will follow anyone’s recommendations. Political players need to be consistent in their actions to understand where they are heading and what’s on their minds. To say one thing today and do another tomorrow – this, I think, raises doubts and uncertainty from all sides – both within the country, in our region, and in the wider international community.
Do you believe that Kyrgyzstan is a failed state? If not, how close are we to being one?
I perhaps would not label Kyrgyzstan as a failed state, although we are at risk of becoming one as in nearly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan did not form as a stable state. In the first years after the collapse of the Union, we, with the help of our first president, hailed ourselves as a country that first advanced to implement democratic transformation and were successful in that. But these initial and correct efforts did not go all the way. As a result, everything was turned upside down and our democracy turned into anarchy and chaos. And this continues to this day. Virtually everything has gone corrupt in our country: ministries and agencies, parliament, governing bodies, and power structures.
There is no economy; even if someone disagrees, it remains true. There is a small and possibly a medium business, but we do not observe any major economic development in the country. We have several large enterprises like Kumtor that pay taxes, but Kumtor’s shares are held mainly by corrupt officials or their front men from the time of the first president to this day. Therefore, Kumtor continues to do “its job” by polluting our environment and failing to fulfill its obligations signed many times with each new regime.
What has been done in the country? It does not take much knowledge to do what is declared as an achievement, i.e. to borrow money, and even with the help of foreign workers, to build roads and power lines like Datka-Kemin. This should something they take pride in. What else has been done since the times of the Soviet Union? Nearly all the industries that we had at that time do not exist, none of the pre-existing industries is operating now. Plants and factories have been ransacked, privatized, and sold off as tools and equipment. We see shopping centers everywhere; everything is sold out. That is, the country’s economy does not exist. In this respect, we can say that we are a failed state.
Yes, we still are a subject of international law. Yes, we still have our state border. But even during this time, neither one of the presidents was able to protect our borders. For 30 years, we have sold part of the land to our neighbors – Kazakhstan, China, of course, for money or something else. The border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan has not yet been demarcated and delimited. Sensing that the government in Kyrgyzstan, being weak and extremely corrupt, primarily looks after their own material interests, and not the interests of the state, our neighbors act in a way to maximize benefits and meet their national interests in addressing demarcation and delimitation issues.
That is, frankly speaking, there is no economy; politically, no one respects us and mistrusts us – we do not play any role in the region and the world. Smuggling has swept the whole country, we practically exist because of the smuggling of goods that come from China, then they are rustled into the Eurasian Economic Union, obliterating the already weak EEU. There is also a lot of drug trafficking that passes through the country. Hence the money circulation. The only time we could and should say something nice about our economy is when we speak about our migrant workers in near and far abroad. The money they send back home to their families and friends annually aids our budget and the country. We, therefore, are at risk of becoming a failed state. There is not a single area we can brag about and say we did it. We carry on like that, after a while we might quite confidently assert that Kyrgyzstan is a failed state.
Do we need to change Kyrgyzstan’s approach to foreign policy? If so, in what areas?
I believe that Kyrgyzstan did not have a foreign policy as such. We are a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This is our security shield. We are members of the so-called Customs Union, or as they call it now Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). We are a member country of the SCO regional international organization. And what are we doing? We have strategic partners – both in the CSTO and the EEU – but even there we cannot play our part and advocate for our foreign policy interests. That is, we have misunderstandings even with our strategic partners; there have been and still are unresolved issues. Both strategic partners and our direct neighbors share profound doubt and mistrust of us.
Generally speaking, the whole world has long believed that Kyrgyzstan is a weak tiny state with intermittent domestic politics and turbulent political situation inside the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one might say, does not exist in our country. For decades, the Foreign Ministry did not play any role, i.e. Foreign ministers have come and gone, whilst essentially the Ministry’s functions had been narrowed down to protocol and consular services. Our foreign missions abroad, embassies, mainly do protocol and consular work. That is, whenever our state officials, deputies with their families arrive in other countries, diplomats and our ambassadors serve them, take them to malls and restaurants; these are shopping travel agencies, not embassies. Or they issue visas, often illegally. A number of our diplomatic staff, both junior, middle, and senior ones, have been and still are engaged in small-scale smuggling in different countries, using diplomatic immunity, and thereby violating the laws of the host country. It is no longer a secret.
We are such a small country that we should not, in any case, establish relations in foreign policy with anyone against any country. In my understanding, for a country like Kyrgyzstan, foreign policy should be built with any states based on our national interests. Our strategic partners and immediate neighbors should be, of course, a foremost priority, and only after other states. We must build relationships with whichever state for something positive and creative, and not against someone or something. Therefore, we must obviously work with the entire international community on global challenges that raise no doubts or questions. These are security issues such as terrorism, drug trafficking, environmental pollution, global warming, and others. It is on these issues that we must speak out and support the whole international community, whilst in other issues, we prioritize our strategic partners, our immediate neighbors, other member states of critical regional international organizations we are part of. But the main point is that we should not be against someone. Our foreign policy requires careful and deliberate steps, statements, and initiatives that do not raise any doubts, apprehensions, or bewilderment on the side of our strategic partners and other countries in the international community.
As a small country, we had to try and help Kyrgyzstan become a venue for negotiations on various global challenges. There are countries that have great experience in negotiation processes. In our region, these are Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which play a highly commendable role in the negotiation processes both in the region and the world; and thereby help not only themselves and their strategic partners but also the international community. So, we must learn not to fear to initiate.
Foreign policy conversations are lengthy and detailed. But in short, for a start, it is essential to revise the main goals and objectives of our foreign policy and assess whether they meet our national interests today. It is critical to revise the Foreign Ministry structure; to enhance the Ministry’s status in the government; to revise the list of states where we have our embassies and consulates. Now fancy word lustration; we must introduce lustration in relation to the employees of the Ministry and the foreign policy department of the presidential administration for their education, professionalism, knowledge, experience, and essentially their understanding of what foreign policy is.
What are your future political and career plans?
Career-wise, I have been working as a senior analyst at the Open World Forecast and Analysis Center for almost a year now. This is a Kazakhstani research center based in Nur-Sultan and Almaty. I mainly work as a freelance analyst: I write policy briefs that various organizations can acquire. I travel to different countries and give advice to state and non-state agencies on regional security in Central Asia and issues related to the Afghan-Pakistani region. I also get paid for giving lectures, occasionally public ones, largely for higher educational institutions or an academic community. My professional life is now more stress-free and, say, self-planned; I do not have to go to work every day.
Time will tell whether I am going to change my career plans in the future. In any case, I recently visited Kyrgyzstan and met with representatives of the new government, where I was offered an important government office. At the moment, I could not accept this offer because I have obligations to employers that need to be fulfilled; and only then will I be ready to go back to this question, in about six months.
Political plans – yes, we have the Socialist Party of Kyrgyzstan. These are colleagues, friends, like-minded people who have coalesced around a certain vision and mission. We did not take part in the parliamentary elections on October 4 this year. On the reasons for non-participation in the elections, I made an official appeal on behalf of the Socialist Party of Kyrgyzstan in July this year. Just a few days ago, I made a statement that I am not running for the presidency on January 10, 2021, and gave reasons for it. When the situation in the country is stabilized and gets back to normal when the new government enters the legitimate field, I reckon our party, where I am a co-chairman, will contest the parliamentary elections, and I myself probably will run for the presidency in the future, but not in the upcoming elections on January 10. There are big plans, and we will make every effort to implement these plans.
In the meantime, the main task for me and, I think, for many Kyrgyz politicians, political parties, their leaders, is to do their utmost to ensure stability in our country and hinder any regional, religious, ethnic and other divisions. The country shouldn’t divide. We are a single country, a multinational country. We must stay united, and that’s what matters.
Naturally, there must be constructive opposition and criticism. When I met with the new government, I told them that I am not their enemy, and at the same time I am not their proponent, and I will regularly express my principled and consistent position on certain issues; I will give recommendations that I deem important at one stage or another for our country’s leadership; of course, if my advice is needed.
We, Kyrgyzstanis, must make every effort so that the country finally rises, shakes itself up, and starts moving forward to end this bacchanalia that has been going on for all these 30 years. After all, for 30 years we have not done anything significant for our country. We have nothing to be proud of. We only squandered, plundered, and simply destroyed our country; and all this was done under varying slogans like “a way forward”. We must learn to work and develop our country. We must become ultimate reliable, consistent, reasonable partners for our neighbors, for our strategic partners, and for the international community as a whole. And that’s a major challenge.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.