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Oct 24, 2011 | 12:07 GMT

4 mins read

Fundamental Issues Facing Kyrgyzstan's Future Leader

On Oct. 30, Kyrgyzstan will hold its first presidential election since the April 2010 uprising. Whoever wins the election will face inherent challenges domestically and regionally. Many of Kyrgyzstan's problems can be attributed to its almost completely mountainous terrain, complex borders with its neighbors and ethnic and political divisions within the country. Kyrgyzstan's fundamental characteristics create an environment conducive to protests, ethnic tensions and militancy.
Kyrgyzstan will hold a presidential election Oct. 30, the first such election since the country's revolution in April 2010. Many of the problems that led to the uprising (and the ethnic riots only a few months later in June 2010) are rooted in Kyrgyzstan's geopolitical fundamentals. Kyrgyzstan's security environment changed after the ethnic riots, and no major incidents like the revolution or the subsequent riots have occurred since those events. However, because the geopolitical factors that led to the events remain, unrest is still a possibility. Whoever wins the Oct. 30 elections will face the inherent challenges of governing Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan plays an essential role in the Afghan war, and it is the only country in the world to host both U.S. and Russian military bases. Though its location makes it strategically important, its geography is one of the elements that make Kyrgyzstan politically and socially volatile. Kyrgyzstan is split both geographically and politically between its northern and southern regions, a split that makes the country prone to instability. The country's almost entirely mountainous terrain fuels the ethnic and political tensions that can manifest as protests and riots, and Kyrgyzstan's complex borders facilitate the spillover of violence and the entrance of militants from neighboring countries. The Kyrgyz protests are a result of the society's disenchantment with the government and a tradition of public expression through rallies. This tradition has continued because of the government's weak executive branch, which is a characteristic that sets it apart from other Central Asian countries, and its security services. Kyrgyz security services are less pervasive than those found in other countries, such as Uzbekistan. Protests preceded the 2010 uprising, and in 2006, Kyrgyzstan underwent the Tulip Revolution that swept former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev into power. Protests in Kyrgyzstan did not end with the 2010 uprising; regular protests still occur in various regions in both the north and south. On Sept. 6, approximately 100 citizens in northern Bishkek picketed a Kyrgyz government building, demanding utilities, infrastructure and the formal registration of their property. On Oct. 3, some 400 protesters blocked a highway in southern Kyrgyzstan and demanded the immediate release of four local policemen detained in connection with the death of a local Uzbek with Russian citizenship. Then, on Oct. 18, approximately 200 protesters blocked the Osh-Bishkek highway in southern Kyrgyzstan to demand the release of the policemen. These are not the only incidents that have occurred since the 2010 uprising, and though these are small-scale protests, larger protests are possible due to Kyrgyzstan's threshold for instability. Ethnic tensions also pose a problem for Kyrgyzstan, particularly along its borders and in the Fergana Valley region, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan meet. Josef Stalin designed these borders specifically to foment ethnic tensions and keep the region divided so that it could not coalesce and rise up to challenge the central authority in Moscow — an issue that remains to this day. Such tensions pose a serious problem for Kyrgyzstan, particularly in southern cities like Osh and Jalal-Abad. Uzbek and Kyrgyz youths clashed in Osh on July 18, and while this incident was not as violent as the June 2010 riots, it is possible that ahead of Kyrgyzstan's upcoming elections such ethnic clashes could become more violent. The problem of militancy in Kyrgyzstan is a complicated one, because there are numerous factors involved. First, there are Islamist militants in Kyrgyzstan left over from groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb al-Tahrir, which were quite active in the region in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Most of these elements have been eliminated since the United States invaded Afghanistan, eventually becoming involved in fighting militancy in the region. Though few of these militants remain, they have not altogether disappeared, and there have been signs that they are making something of a comeback. Second, there is the threat of a possible spillover of militants from neighboring countries, something that will become more likely as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz government uses the threat of militancy within its borders to gain more attention from major powers like Russia and the United States. Third, some of the government's raids that allegedly target militants in the southern part of the country could actually be targeting ethnic Uzbeks instead, as Uzbek neighborhoods are subject to such security raids. As recently as Oct. 10, around 10 individuals suspected of planning to carry out a series of militant attacks were detained in southern Kyrgyzstan. Whoever wins the Kyrgyz presidential election will have to face these challenges presented by Kyrgyzstan's geopolitical realities.

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