Democracy in Kyrgyzstan

By Lily Jamali

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The metal gates surrounding Kyrgyzstan's main government building still bear the marks of the bloody revolution that erupted here in April last year. The bullet holes came from the guns of the former regime's snipers, who shot live ammunition at protesters in an incident that left more than 80 people dead.

That uprising ended the career of a corrupt dictator.

But as Kyrgyzstan's current president Roza Otunbayeva wrote in the Washington Post soon after the Arab Spring began, there is no highway to democracy. In fact — she wrote — toppling the dictator may well be the easiest part.

Untangling the messy systems left behind is perhaps the biggest challenge facing nations in transition.

One widely acknowledged obstacle here in Kyrgyzstan — as in much of the Middle East — is corruption, at every level of government. Most citizens see it as part of life here but 27 year old activist Aftandil Zhorobekov has made fighting it a personal cause.

"This is a symbol of corruption," Zhorobekov said. "This is a symbol of corruption."

In Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, Zhorobekov points out a cluster of mansions looking out over the majestic Tien Shan Mountains. He says they were built illegally here in this public park. Occupants include members of Parliament and other high-ranking officials.

Zhorobekov's involvement got Kyrgyzstan's top prosecutor to charge the park's administrators with abusing their power something many once considered unthinkable. But as Zhorobekov puts it, few people expected uprisings to take hold across the Arab World, and that's only fuelled him further.

"We can make local authorities accountable and transparent … it's our right," Zhorobekov said.

Despite success stories like this, economic hardship is a daily reality for the average Kyrgyz citizen. Unemployment officially stands at 20 percent, although experts say it's even higher.

Shirin Aitmatova, an opposition member of Parliament, says she struggles to help the average person here understand the potential of her nation's experiment with democracy.

Right now, of course it's hard to tell a grandma who runs out of money by the end of the month to buy bread that democracy is great and we have freedom of speech. Obviously, it's really difficult right now but if we get through this difficult transition period and start seeing real results, maybe we have suffered for a good reason.

Kyrgyzstan is still finding its footing 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It experienced revolutions in 2005 and 2010.

Last year's uprising prompted a transition from a presidential system to a parliamentary democracy, but the change coincided with an outbreak of ethnic violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead and the nation on edge.

Local political scientist Emir Kulov says that's led some people here to associate democracy with instability. And he adds that countries bordering Kyrgyzstan want to keep it that way.

"At the moment there is a misunderstanding of what democracy constitutes, generally," Kulov said. "It is now very popular to take democracy as opposite to stability. This is the case in Kazakhstan, Russia. And they occasionally use the Kyrgyz case as an example."

And for this reason, says politician Edil Baisolov, Kyrgyzstan has less in common with its neighbors than it does with Arab nations — thousands of miles away — whose citizens have risen up.

"We're the only country in Central Asia that are not afraid of the Arab Spring," Baisolov said. "We actually feel solidarity. And where we can actually talk about the Arab Spring and events in the Middle East. Because they're not posing any danger to our government."

Washington is watching.

Kyrgyzstan hosts a vital US military transit center, the last stopover for much of the personnel and supplies headed into Afghanistan. US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen says the US spent $20 million on democracy-building initiatives during last year's parliamentary campaign.

And there's another election is on the way.

"In the run-up to the presidential elections that are going to take place this fall, we're likely to do something very similar to support the actual process of the elections and the mechanics of democracy," Spratlen said.

Kyrgyzstan's upcoming election will serve as yet one more test for a population that's been tested again and again. One that has a close eye on the Arab world, and a true understanding of the long road that lies ahead.