- Kyrgyzstan:The Trials of Independence
Under the presidency of Askar Akayev, Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous republic of about 4.4 million people on the northwestern border of China, has acquired the reputation of being the most democratic and progressive of the newly independent states in post-Soviet Central Asia. Akayev's relatively liberal policies, the presence of a political opposition and a free press, and continuing efforts to move toward a market economy would all seem to confirm Kyrgyzstan's democratic image.
Akayev was initially chosen as president by the Kirghiz Supreme Soviet in October 1990 after ethnic clashes during the previous summer between Kirghiz and Uzbeks in the southern Kirghiz town of Osh. These disturbances left at least two hundred people dead and effectively discredited the communist leadership. Popular presidential elections in October 1991, in which Akayev ran unopposed, confirmed his position, and for a time it did indeed look as if Kyrgyzstan was on the way to becoming a real democracy. Official foreign visitors to the republic still frequently remark that they are impressed by Kyrgyzstan's efforts to democratize society and switch to a market economy, and the Kirghiz themselves frequently emphasize their democratic traditions.
Many local observers, however, are quick to point out that things are not quite as they seem, and Kyrgyzstan's early promise has largely faded. The collapse of economic ties following the breakup of the Soviet Union has wreaked havoc on the republic's fragile economy. Repeated promises of an improvement in living standards have remained unfulfilled, and the previous bureaucratic structures remain largely intact. [End Page 109] A series of contradictory statements by the president and members of the government, combined with policy changes in many areas, has led to disillusionment, disaffection, and cynicism among most sections of the population.1
Ethnic Groups and Political Parties
The Kirghiz now make up 56.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's total population, with Russians about 20 percent and Uzbeks a further 13 percent. Other significant nationalities include Germans, Ukrainians, and Kazakhs, and there are an additional 80 ethnic and religious groups including Jews and Dungans (Chinese Muslims).
Having come to power as a result of ethnic strife, Akayev has sought to foster interethnic peace through the policy known as "national harmony," which accords the various nationalities a generous degree of autonomy in cultural matters. This policy frequently runs into difficulties in practice because of competing claims from rival groups, which are quick to complain when one nationality is seen as having gained an advantage over the others. Akayev is therefore forced to engage in a complex juggling act aimed at keeping everyone happy all the time. Inasmuch as there have been no further ethnic clashes, his policy must be judged a success, despite the constant stream of criticism levelled at him by the major nationalities. Akayev realizes only too well that failure to preserve peace would destroy efforts to resuscitate the republic's struggling economy.
Despite being president, Akayev has no real power base, which hinders his efforts to get his policies implemented. Unlike the other chief executives in Central Asia, Akayev is not a veteran of the Communist Party machine; before entering politics in the mid-1980s, he worked as a research physicist. He is therefore not a "product of the system," and his reformist policies are meeting with greater bureaucratic resistance than are the more cautious initiatives of his counterparts in the neighboring republics.
Akayev has deliberately refused to be identified with any party. Not that Kyrgyzstan has any political parties in the Western sense: none has more than a few dozen active members, and all exist largely on paper. With the economy deteriorating constantly, people are far more concerned about making ends meet than about politics. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the communists are making something of comeback, though their chances of success are limited. As elsewhere in the former USSR, most people have long since realized that the communists have no answers to current problems, and do not wish to return to the old ways.
The most important political force in the republic is thus the Demokraticheskoe Dvizhenie Kyrgyzstan (Democratic Movement of [End Page 110...