Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mould Breaking Kyrgyz Politicians

Kyrgyz voters are looking to a new generation of politicians to improve their quality of life.
By Kubat Otorbaev

There are signs that powerful clan and regional affiliations, which have dictated politics in Kyrgyzstan for decades, may be loosened in up coming presidential elections.

The signs first emerged in parliamentary elections earlier this year when a number of oblasts fielded candidates with no local ties. Some of them went on to do well. Two were only prevented from winning by the intervention of the authorities.

Observers expect there to be similar breakthroughs in the forthcoming ballot, but expect family and geographic affiliations to continue to play a decisive factor for some time to come.

Kyrgyzstan has long been divided along north-south lines. The country is naturally cleaved in two by the Ala-Too mountains and over the years, this geographic separation has been reinforced by political and cultural factors.

Northerners have traditionally had a stranglehold on political power. During the Soviet era, industry, academic institutions and scientific and cultural centres tended to be located here. The south, meanwhile, became more agricultural, providing the raw materials for the more industrialised north.

Northerners, unsurprisingly, came to dominate politics, despite the south being the more populous part of the country. The last southerner to hold any real power was, Apsamat Masaliev, appointed first secretary of the central committee of the Communist party in 1985. But his reign lasted only until perestroika. Today, the only post southerners are allowed to hold in the legislature is that of parliamentary speaker, but it's a position that carries no real power.

When Askar Akaev was elected President in 1990 many progressive politicians hoped this would change the face of Kyrgyz politics. Though Akaev is a northerner, he lived and studied in St. Petersburg for years, and had not demonstrated any particular commitment to promoting clan or regional interests.

But these hopes were unjustified. Family connections proved key in the selection of personnel. Relatives and former colleagues of the president - a physicist by profession - dominated the administration and control most government structures. In fact, Kyrgyz like to joke that they are ruled by scientists.

Indeed, another dominant clan leader, Turdakun Usubaliev, who led the country for a quarter of a century, won a seat in the parliamentary poll largely because nobody had the nerve to stand against him in his home district.

Increasingly, though, there are signs that southern politicians, dissatisfied with the regional inequalities, are keen to break the north's stranglehold on power. Many representatives from oblasts in the south are to contest the upcoming presidential elections in October.

And there are also signs that Kyrgyz voters are beginning to break with their geographic and clan allegiances. At the last parliamentary elections, a number of constituencies put so-called "foreigner" up as candidates. And some of them managed to acquire substantial support.

The most publicised example was that of Felix Kulov, an ex-minister turned opposition leader, who stood for parliament in Kara Buura despite having no formal links with the town. Kulov gained considerable support, but lost the election amidst widespread fraud and intimidation. He was subsequently arrested.

Voters also broke with traditional voting habits in a predominantly ethnic Russian constituency of Bishkek. Residents there elected a Kyrgyz candidate, Daniar Usenov, who was also later arrested. He was subsequently released after the intervention of the president, who was apparently concerned the detention would damage his reputation.

These developments are signs that the Kyrgyz desire to improve living standards is beginning to take precedence over clan and geographical allegiances. Indeed, in pre-election campaigning there's been a tendency to play them down.

Kubat Otorbaev is a regular IWPR contributor