News of Kyrgyzstan is seldom seen in the mainstream western press, but it is fast becoming a focal point of Islamic extremism in Central Asia. Former president Bakiyev was driven from power last year and replaced by a weak interim government, followed by several days of bloody ethnic conflict in the country’s south. Although voters have strongly backed constitutional reforms to increase parliamentary powers, the interim government has been weak, and a period of political gridlock is likely to follow the coming presidential election at the end of October. Kyrgyzstan’s growing political uncertainty and its deteriorating economy are making it more vulnerable to Islamic extremism.
Much of the country’s current problems stem from years of government corruption and a widening economic gap between supporters of the former president and the rest of the country. Public frustration eventually led to Bakiyev’s ouster last April, but the new coalition has suffered from internal division and a lack of support in Kygyzstan’s south. Instead of building a broad base of support (which Bakiyev had done upon taking power in 2005), the interim government has excluded many prominent politicians and failed to attract meaningful support from important political families in the south, marginalizing key figures and losing authority in some areas.
Equally troubling, the interim government has done little to reduce tensions in the south over the competing business interests of ethnic Kyrgyz—who believe they have lost influence following Bakiyev’s ouster—and ethnic Uzbeks. Although animosity over business interests is not new—ethnic Uzbeks have dominated a significant part of the south’s commerce for decades—the interim coalition’s alienation of ethnic Kyrgyz and its general lack of southern support have only exacerbated tensions. Political alliances are further divided as Uzbeks generally support the interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva, while most southern Kyrgyz supported Bakiyev.
Despite their relative economic successes, Uzbeks are largely underrepresented in government and frustrated with their political position. By alienating the southern Kyrgyz, Otunbayeva’s coalition has fueled support for nationalist politicians running in the coming presidential elections. Uzbeks fear a nationalist president would restrict their access to domestic markets. Without sufficient representation in the new government, Uzbeks could turn to extremist elements for support in an attempt to exert greater political influence. Disillusionment with corrupt public officials, in combination with the economic challenges, may also provide Uzbeks with an incentive to embrace Islamic extremism. Ethnic Uzbeks already have a history of turning to extremism and are generally more orthodox than ethnic Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan.
A shift toward a more parliamentary system of governance could solve some of these problems, yet the recently passed parliamentary reforms are at risk as the general population has already expressed frustration with the process. A number of politicians do not believe the reforms will last long, and have become contenders to run in the October election. Even Omurbek Tekebaev, seen as the reform’s ‘father’, is taking part in the race, signaling a lack of faith in the notion that parliament will ultimately become more powerful than the president. If elected, some presidential contenders have pledged to overturn parliamentary reform. It is also unclear how much positive impact the new legislation would have if it were to survive.
As neither of the leading candidates are expected to secure enough votes to win during the first round of voting, and as both are expected to challenge election results, a run-off between current Prime Minister Atambayev (who leads the Social Democratic Party and commands strong support from Kyrgyzstan’s north) and his closest rival—Kamchibek Tashiyev—is likely. A destabilizing struggle between the two (and consequently between Kyrgyzstan’s north and south) could follow, and lead to more violence. This would weaken prospects of an improved economy, reduce the likelihood that problems will be rectified in the south, and embolden the ranks of disillusioned citizens who will have an additional motive to join extremist groups
One such group, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), was founded in the 1990s and has carried out terrorist operations in Kyrgyzstan. Although mostly eradicated in 2001 during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the group has the potential to reemerge and pose a real threat to the region. The London-based Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), is the most popular Islamist organization in Kyrgyzstan. Like the IMU, HuT hopes to create an Islamic system of government across the region. In spite of the group’s official declaration of non-violence, many regional experts believe HuT supports violent methods to enact political change. Indeed, there have been reports indicating that HuT has already spawned violent splinter cells. Particularly troubling for Kyrgyzstan, ethnic Uzbeks have been especially drawn to the organization. Along with the poorest members of society, Uzbeki small businessmen and merchants, professionals, university students and NGO activists have been known to belong to HuT. The coming U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan could add a further degree of uncertainty to the region, thus strengthening these groups and splinter organizations.
Long considered an ‘island of democracy’ and hope in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is clearly regressing. Many of its current challenges are derived from existing issues that have become aggravated and increasingly more difficult to address than in the past. The current interim coalition has proven to be weak and there is little hope that the coming presidential elections will result in a strong government capable of tackling the plethora of issues facing the country. Given likely political gridlock following the elections, it is difficult to imagine the next coalition government addressing the country’s fundamental ethnic woes in any meaningful way, or successfully reducing the rivalry over southern business interests. As a result, Kyrgyzstan’s susceptibility to Islamic extremism can only rise.