Will Kyrgyzstan's election reinforce democracy?

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The good news is that Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections on Sunday may be a major step for the fractious central Asian state on the road to stability. The bad news is that the vote could in fact spell more bloodshed, if not the country’s outright disintegration.

Journalistic cliches are from time to time accurate: Kyrgyzstan is truly at a crossroads. This weekend’s vote is a decisive moment in what so far has been a horrific, blood-saturated year for the small, but strategically-located, ex-Soviet republic.

After an April revolution in Bishkek that left more than 80 dead, and ethnic pogroms in the south in June that left hundreds — maybe even thousands — dead, Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, is gambling that an authentic parliamentary democracy is the country’s path out of its present turmoil.

It's a highly risky move, to say the least — one almost unheard of in the former Soviet sphere. Among the former republics, soft authoritarianism or outright dictatorship are considered the most stable, durable and productive political systems. Otunbayeva might get high points then for at least keeping the democratic faith and maintaining a vision for her country that has not been rotted out by cynicism and greed. (As well as giving up power voluntarily — also an all-too-rare occurrence in the former Soviet Union.)

And she may be right in her optimism. Kyrgyzstan has been dogged this year by a steady rhythm of stories and reports predicting its imminent collapse. (I’ve written a couple as well.) So far this has not happened.

The summer’s constitutional referendum was an unquestionable (and surprising) success. Many analysts, and Otunbayeva’s own allies, said it was insanity to hold a major vote just weeks after the worst ethnic bloodletting and refugee crisis the country had ever seen.

The new system that the referendum established — placing the center of power with the legislature and prime minister, and not the president — may in fact help balance out Kyrgyzstan’s numerous political factions and ethnic groups. The number of parliamentary seats has been increased from 90 to 120, and no party can have more than 65 deputies. Minority parties will be represented by a deputy speaker of parliament, and will control major committees like budget, security and law enforcement.

Everyone will now have a stake in preserving the status quo, as the logic goes. Indeed the election campaign has been marked by a high level of participation, news reports say. Twenty-nine parties are taking part, though only six are expected to pass a 5-percent barrier to qualify for seats.

Kyrgyzstan also benefits from the disproportionate interest of two big brothers: Russia and the United States. Both rent military bases there, making Kyrgyzstan the only country in the world to play host to both powers. In the end, they may not want the central Asia state to implode, and have at times worked together to avoid this.

Moscow sees Kyrgyzstan as lying within its sphere of interest, its “near abroad,” and maintains strong cultural, economic and political ties to the impoverished, landlocked nation. Washington on the other hand views the country as a potential beacon of democracy for the region. Moreover, the Manas Transit Center just outside the capital is a critical hub for supplying U.S. troops in nearby Afghanistan — and will provide an equally vital conduit out, when forces begin to withdraw.

These are the arguments for Kyrgyzstan pulling through its present time of troubles, perhaps even flourishing in the future. The arguments against are unfortunately just as strong — if not stronger.

Instead of placating Kyrgyzstan’s volatile political culture, the parliamentary system may actually exacerbate it. While the election campaign so far has not suffered from any gross violations, there has been an inordinate amount of mud-slinging and dirty tricks.

A video has re-emerged purporting to be a sex tape of Omurbek Tekebayev, head of the Ata Meken party (and so far leading the polls), and an unidentified woman (who is definitely not his wife). This week, a group of protestors broke into and ransacked the Bishkek headquarters of Ata Jurt, another leading party; they were reacting to comments by Ata Jurt’s leader, who allegedly called for the return of the country’s deposed authoritarian leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Kyrgyzstan remains at a flashpoint. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement that the climate in the country remained very tense, “with reports of incidents of disappearances and violence.”

In the south, the anxiety is particularly acute. Ethnic Uzbeks, who make up a substantial minority in the area and suffered the brunt of June’s bloodletting, may stay away from the polls on Sunday. Large numbers of Kyrgyz at the same time consider themselves to be the true victims of the June events (they say that the Uzbeks initiated the clashes and the media under-reported the Kyrgyz losses), which is further stoking the ethnic fires. Some parties, like Ata Jurt, are unabashed ethnic Kyrgyz chauvinists.

Meanwhile, the region is increasingly becoming its own political entity. Melis Mirzakmatov, mayor of Osh — the south’s largest city and ground zero in June’s violence — is another Kyrgyz nationalist. In August, he flouted an order from President Otunbayeva in August to resign. He also helped block the introduction of a 52-person police force from the OSCE to help stabilize the province.

And in the end, Russia and America’s role could hurt more than help. While Washington has been alarmed by Kyrgyzstan’s downward spiral, it is highly questionable how far it is able (or desires) to become intricately involved there — Manas or no Manas. Russia, for its part, seems ambivalent about the country’s democratic path. The Kremlin has forged strong ties with Feliks Kulov, head of the Ar-Namys party and a former KGB general, who is calling for a rejection of the parliamentary system and a return to a strong single leader. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev seems to agree.

“We are constantly told about parliamentary democracy. Our Kyrgyz friends took this route. But for Russia, I fear, and for Kyrgyzstan, parliamentary democracy is a disaster,” Medvedev said last month.