Few would have expected it to be possible a few months ago, but Kyrgyzstan managed to hold a free, fair, and surprisingly non-violent and trouble-free parliamentary election this weekend. In an assessment widely shared by regional experts, David Trilling, writing at EurasiaNet, concluded, "Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections couldn't have gone better." Turnout exceeded 50 percent of the country's 2.8 million eligible voters and produced sharply divided results that will force political leaders to compromise to form a coalition government. Five political parties, out of the 29 that participated, overcame the 5 percent threshold required to receive seats in the 120-member parliament.
After the success of the ballot became apparent, U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Kyrgyz voters for "selecting their government through peaceful, democratic means." Obama added that "yesterday's vote . . . renews our conviction to help the courageous people of Kyrgyzstan consolidate their democracy, jumpstart their economy, and maintain peace and security."
Just as the earlier political instability in Kyrgyzstan threatened to harm many important regional interests, renewed political stability offers the international community an opportunity, though perhaps a fleeting one, to consolidate important regional security gains.
> Map of Kyrgyzstan
Perhaps the general surprise is unwarranted given that the June 2010 constitutional referendum also went unexpectedly well. Those reforms concentrated power in the legislature, an anomaly in a region dominated by strong, semi-authoritarian political leaders who rule over weak parliaments and docile political parties. The transitional Kyrgyz government took a big gamble in holding the constitutional referendum just weeks after mass violence erupted in the south, an aftershock of the riots that toppled the government of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April. But the high turnout and overwhelming support for the draft constitution boosted the beleaguered authorities' national and international legitimacy at a crucial time.
Morten Hoeglund, who oversaw this weekend's election monitoring for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, remarked, "I have observed many elections in Central Asia over the years, but this is the first election where I could not predict the outcome."
That no political party achieved anywhere close to a majority is a welcome development, since it will force the political factions to compromise. In addition, a coalition government that includes minority parties is reassuring, even for those groups and factions excluded from the government on this occasion, as it makes it less likely that any particular group or party will be permanently denied political influence. It is especially important that ethnic Uzbeks do not feel so excluded from power that they turn to Tashkent to defend their interests -- or even push to incorporate their territories into Uzbekistan directly.
The precise reasons why ethnic tensions exploded in June, prior to the constitutional referendum, remain unclear. The riots probably killed more than 1,000 people and at one point produced 500,000 refugees and internally displaced people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks. Kyrgyz and international analysts cite various causes, including a resurgence of longstanding tensions between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, opportunistic looting motivated by economic and class jealousies, a plot by supporters of Bakiyev to return him to power, and conspiracies by Russia, the United States, or other foreign powers to advance their regional interests. The underlying reason for the country's continuing instability are clearer: Kyrgyzstan is an impoverished country with artificial borders and a weak and divided political class -- one that is penetrated by drug dealers and Islamist extremists, and of little intrinsic importance to the great powers, who see the country primarily as a transit route to and from Afghanistan and other countries.
Kyrgyzstan's return to political stability, marked by this weekend's voting, is good for the entire region. The earlier political violence threatened U.S. and Russian military installations as well as the main conduit by which American troops enter and leave Afghanistan. Although impoverished and isolated, Kyrgyzstan is not sufficiently important to Russia, China, the United States or other great powers to provoke a major clash among them, they each have important interests at stake in seeing a stable Kyrgyzstan.
The Chinese authorities fear that continued instability in their western neighbor will spill over into China or other Central Asian states, complicating Beijing's efforts to exploit the region's natural resources.
Russian policymakers seem most concerned about how instability in Kyrgyzstan reflects on Moscow, making Russia and its regional security institutions look impotent. The surprising failure of either the Shanghai Security Organization (SCO) or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to assist the Kyrgyz government to suppress the June riots sparked concerns by many Central Asians over whether they can rely on these institutions to defend them against domestic security threats.
Another Russian concern is how the collapse of Kyrgyz border controls is facilitating drug trafficking and other transnational crimes in Central Asia, which can easily spill over into the Russian Federation due to the weak border controls separating these former Soviet republics.
U.S. officials have become newly concerned about Kyrgyzstan now that recent clashes between NATO and Pakistan have again highlighted the vulnerability (.pdf) of the coalition's supply lines into Afghanistan. Although Kyrgyzstan is not a major player in NATO's alternate supply route to Afghanistan, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), its Manas international airport has played an important role in providing a means by which NATO soldiers can enter and leave Afghanistan. Since Uzbekistan evicted American defense personnel from its territory in 2005, Manas has been the main U.S. military transit facility in the region. The Pentagon has used the base to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since late-2001. Almost all American soldiers who deploy on the ground in Afghanistan enter and leave through Manas. The international airport's two main assets are its relatively advanced facilities and its pivotal location. Its 4,200 meter runway, shared between the military and civilian airports, was originally constructed for Soviet bombers and has proved uniquely capable among Kyrgyzstan's airports of sustaining round-the-clock support for large military aircraft such as cargo and tanker planes. Their crews can make the 1,000-mile flight to Afghanistan in 90 minutes, many hours less than any other major airport.
In the aftermath of this weekend's voting, Washington must now turn its attention once again to the issue of U.S. access to the base, whose lease expires in July 2011. Some of the winning parties have called for closing Manas, and the question of whether or not to extend the lease could become a major political football in the coalition-formation process.
Although maintaining access to the base is important, U.S. policymakers must also pursue a more positive cooperative agenda to prevent further violence and disorder in a country that plays an important support role in the troubled Afghanistan mission. Designing, funding, and sustaining a successful long-term recovery program for Kyrgyzstan will require the active cooperation of multiple multinational institutions, including NATO and the OSCE, but also the EU, the CSTO, the SCO, and the international financial institutions. Next month's NATO and OSCE heads-of-state summits offer excellent opportunities for key regional players to initiate such measures to help fortify Kyrgyzstan's newfound stability.
Editors Note: Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.
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