End of the Beginning in Kyrgyzstan

As pessimists warn that continuing social conflict in Kyrgyzstan is the first sign of state disintegration, the friction may just be a necessary part of building a more democratic society.

End of the Beginning in Kyrgyzstan

As pessimists warn that continuing social conflict in Kyrgyzstan is the first sign of state disintegration, the friction may just be a necessary part of building a more democratic society.

Kyrgyzstan has been in constant turmoil in recent months, with protests, confrontations and scandals following one another in close succession.

These events are the fall-out from the change of regime in March 2005, which produced what one might term a wave of democratisation. All sections of society, from railway workers to prisoners, now feel empowered to stand up for their particular interests and seem prepared to take desperate measures to defend them.

Appointments and job transfers – and not only those involving key posts – give rise to public anger and protests. Further upsets are caused by intense competition between different power groups to wrest control of the main political and economic levers of the state.

The old division into pro-government, opposition and neutral forces has given way to a more nebulous picture of a fragmented society in which there are numerous centres of political influence.

It is no longer possible to talk about the executive or the legislature as institutions that behave in a predictable manner and share a common position on the big issues, at least. Instead, each of them is riven with internal divisions and subject to influence from a variety of external forces. The extent of this internecine strife was amply demonstrated by the recent arrest of a National Security Service, NSS, officer, which resulted in a scandal that drew in the NSS itself, the interior ministry, parliament and the government.

When it comes to the basic tasks of government - law and order, resource management, and reform – the authorities are failing badly, and they are also losing out to their critics in the battle for public opinion.

Given all these circumstances, one hears more and more often the view that the country is swiftly moving towards a tragic finale where it becomes patently apparent that Kyrgyzstan has not developed into a fully-fledged nation, and peace-keeping forces are brought in from the outside. The greatest pessimists predict that the country will split in two – one part joining Uzbekistan and the other Kazakstan.

Among these experts, there are broadly two schools of thought about how things will start going downhill.

According to one view, Kyrgyzstan will revert to a harsh authoritarian system which justifies its existence by arguing that citizens are no longer capable of taking part in the democratic process. One might see a single strong leader emerging, or a junta formed by the police and security agencies. As a result, one would see a fresh wave of revolutions and counter-revolutions, each one followed by a repressive crackdown.

The second scenario is the complete “Afghanisation” of society – a bloody war of everyone against everyone else. This dire prediction is in fact the one many public figures and observers, both domestic and foreign, are now making. But those who advocate this view seem to gloss over the fact that certain preconditions would need to be in place for such a swift collapse to follow.

A more sober analysis of the facts leads one to the conclusion that these prerequisites do not exist right now, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, a conflict on such a scale as to destroy a whole country, even a young one like Kyrgyzstan, must have a broad basis that encompasses all sections of society. Given the existing contours of Kyrgyz society, the most likely cause of state collapse would be a social conflict - a war of the poor against the rich, or an ethnic conflict - or alternatively an ideological conflict, most probably based on religion.

And even when such a conflict arises, the participants will only fight to the bitter end if they feel that there is no other way, and that all attempts at compromise have been exhausted. This was shown by the recent clash between Kyrgyz and ethnic Dungans in a village in the Chui region.

None of the conflicts that have taken place recently affect all elements of society. In the main there are no irreconcilable differences between disparate social groupings. Many of the incidents in fact boil down to personal disputes between powerful politicians, or to conflicts within particular groups.

What we are seeing is essentially a release of energy from minor conflicts which previously lay dormant because they were suppressed. If this hidden potential is not allowed to come out now, it could do much more serious damage in future.

Turning to the potential for violent political conflict, that actually seems unlikely given the current picture of multipolar power, since the very existence of numerous centres of influence make concession more of a possibility. When no one political grouping has sufficient power to dictate its own conditions on the rest, the mechanism of compromise and agreement naturally comes into play.

The ability to arrive at mutually beneficial arrangements is traditional to Kyrgyz society. This characteristic was shown both in the ease with which the country got through the difficult period of the July presidential election, and with the fact that political parties holding the most diverse beliefs have actively sought ways of uniting.

Finally, the fact that the various sides involved in any given confrontation do their best to make their case public by engaging the media and sending out press-releases shows their desire for popular support and legitimisation. The very act of publicising a case where opposing sides are head to head tends to defuse the situation and make a positive outcome more likely. When the media is engaged, even the most inveterate supporters of violence may eventually re-examine their positions.

It thus seems more appropriate to see these conflicts as the unavoidable, and even positive, concomitants of social change. They are inevitable because destroying existing institutions of power to create more democratic ones always entails a re-examination of values, a division of spheres of influence, and the loss of a degree of effectiveness. The positive aspect is that people in Kyrgyzstan are learning the art of living in a situation in which multiple interests collide.

In a society striving for democratic forms of government, any conflict of interest will take centre stage. But it is important to remember that even the most extreme conflict of interest does not by itself mean bloodshed, and bloodshed does not mean war.

The diverse interests of Kyrgyz society will not always coincide, and there may be more victims as these interests collide, but in the process people will learn to co-exist.

Of greater concern is the possibility that a society weighed down by false fears of some inevitable conflict could lose its threshold level of sensitivity to real signs of societal collapse and thus will be unable to react properly.

The real danger of collapse is much more likely to emanate from the other scenario I have outlined: creeping authoritarianism and alternating bouts of revolt and repression.

Those who would like to see a more authoritarian system in place would relish the thought of an apparently desperate situation which could only be remedied through immediate state intervention – restricting civil rights and liberties along the way, and all in the name of order and stability.

Kumar Bekbolotov is country director of IWPR Kyrgyzstan.
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