Friday, 01 July 2011 15:06

Flirting with State Failure. Power and Politics in Kyrgyzstan since Independence



By Johan Engvall

July 2011

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Executive Summary

2010 was a dramatic year in Kyrgyzstan. In April, a revolt unseated the country‟s leader for the second time in five years. In the aftermath of this upheaval, deadly ethnic riots in June took the life of over 400 people in southern Kyrgyzstan and led to the displacement of more than 100,000. After these events, parliamentary elections were held in October bringing hope for stability and peaceful developments.

Those elections inspired observers to talk about a historical watershed of democratic politics and a parliamentary system in Central Asia. Yet in order to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead and assess whether a fresh start for Kyrgyzstan is likely, it is not sufficient to look at elections, or indeed the formal structure of government. It is necessary to go beyond these to seek an understanding of how Kyrgyzstan‟s politics actually have come to work since independence.

This study aspires to do exactly that. Beginning with Kyrgyzstan‟s political situation at the dawn of the unexpected independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it examines the progressive first years of independence, when the country‟s first President, Askar Akaev, was widely lauded by the international community for his bold attempts to introduce democracy and a market economy. Although Akaev appears to have harbored a sincere vision of reforming the political and economic system, he ruled through a heterogeneous government unable to implement these ideas in real life, leading to chaos and minimal levels of governance. In this environment, people were largely left to seek protection and justice on their own.

Starting in the second half of the 1990s, Akaev embarked on an increasingly authoritarian path. Using referenda, the president strengthened his formal political powers at the expense of other branches of the government. Moreover, the president and his family increasingly approached the state and the economy as personal fiefdoms. A ruling family emerged, based on control over the country‟s politics and economy, which increased popular dissatisfaction with the incumbent leader. This culminated in the so-called Tulip Revolution that unseated Akaev.

The Tulip Revolution initially brought hope for renewed democratization. Yet under President Kurmanbek Bakiev‟s tenure, from 2005 to 2010, Kyrgyzstan‟s downward slide accelerated perilously. The new ruling family created a full-scale kleptocracy based on establishing control over all major financial flows, and top government positions were distributed to the president‟s closest family members at the expense of competing political elites. In pursuing this aggressive policy, Bakiev overreached; his overthrow in April 2010 demonstrated that violence had become an increasingly accepted method for regulating politics.

This study concludes that political power in Kyrgyzstan is a battle between personalities, not organized group interests. Elites compete for power not through formal institutional channels, but by means of competing informal patron-client pyramid networks. These networks are primarily based on two things: family ties and money. When one of these pyramid networks manages to consolidate power, the state itself is constructed according to the same basic logic, and is made to function as a shield protecting the ruling group from the rest of society. A striking feature is the extent to which political power is motivated by greed: ideology as well as other motives for seeking power are very weak. Consequently, many key political figures rather take the money and run, instead of resisting attempts to usurp power with decisive force. Against this background, the power changes in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010 are not as dramatic and “revolutionary” as often proclaimed; they are rather manifestations of the nature of power in the country.

The actual political order that has emerged in contemporary Kyrgyzstan has three major features. A first striking component is the dominance of personalized influence games. In this system, success is dependent on proximity to the president and his family circle. As a consequence, property rights are rarely protected by courts but are beholden to the courtesy of the ruler‟s will and the shifting balance among competing families. Economic holdings can be protected if claimants in some way or the other can demonstrate their commitment and willingness to serve the ruling family, and manage to find a mutually beneficial relationship with its representatives. In brief, rather than relying on due legal process, finding a so-called political roof (a krysha) is ultimately the only way to protect rights, and a fundamental element of order. In contrast to a predictable judicial order under the rule of law, however, the personalized influence system ensures very short term jurisdiction. If an individual becomes a political threat, protection can be withdrawn instantly.

A second pillar of political power is the redistribution of rents. In Kyrgyzstan, out of necessity, all large economic entities are also political organizations. No business can survive without connections to the state. In a system based on controlling rents, the strongest politician needs to be the biggest business executive. Thus, the separation between politics and the economy that is generally assumed to exist across countries is merely artificial in Kyrgyzstan: the state is in fact the arena through which wealth and status are obtained. From an economic perspective, what has emerged in Kyrgyzstan is not a market-oriented capitalism but a politically-oriented capitalism.

Finally, the state itself is organized as a marketplace. For the operation of the state, this market logic holds a number of significant implications. First, administrative and political offices are investments much like on any other market and are motivated by return on investments by the means of graft. Second, due to frequent government turnovers, individuals adopt a very short term decision horizon and seek return on their investment as quickly as possible. Third, since the ability to pay for a position determines who will be appointed, the quality of governance is negatively affected. Fourth, since they are effectively privatized, there are in reality no state-supplied public goods; access to police protection or redress in court require informal monetary payments. Fifth, funds that could flow into productive economic activity are instead circulating unofficially among state officials with negative consequences for economic growth as well as for the state treasury.

Against this background, is a fresh start likely in Kyrgyzstan, and could a parliamentary system serve as a vehicle of change?

First of all, political change in Kyrgyzstan cannot be measured by changes in the formal framework of governance. A new development path requires fundamental changes to the motivation and behavior of the political elite. Yet the performance of the provisional government and of party leaders in the new legislature raises doubts about whether the new political leadership fits this ticket. In fact, as before, corrupt practices and the redistribution of assets for private purposes have continued to dominate politics. In an optimistic scenario, a parliamentary system may gradually reduce the possibility of one particular faction to monopolize the forms of corruption around which the system is being organized. Increasing competition in the political economy may gradually stimulate more diverse alliances and more interest groups, leading to more universalistic rules at the expense of the particularistic personal relationships presently defining the country. However, there is also the question of whether the state is too weak to actually manage to provide the basis for a functioning system of governance, whether parliamentary or presidential.

What, then, should the priorities be? The political leadership must get the logic right. Democracy is a form of governance of a state. Therefore, for democracy to make a substantial difference, it is of paramount importance that the state be rebuilt. Critical dimensions include ensuring basic law and order, a functioning public administration that provides citizens a minimum of public goods, increases the government‟s public legitimacy, and reduces the role of alternative sources of authority and protection. Developing a sound judicial system is also important in order to curb the dominance of informal personal relationships in shaping political power and access to wealth.


Read 11417 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 October 2020 08:16





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.