Winding Road: Democratization in Kyrgyzstan

By Schmitt, Jason | Harvard International Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Winding Road: Democratization in Kyrgyzstan


Schmitt, Jason, Harvard International Review


Jason Schmitt is a Staff Writer for the Harvard International Review.

While on a fund-raising visit to the United States in 1993, Kyrgyzstan's president Askar Akaev boldly predicted that, with proper funding, his nation would become the Swiss success story of Asia. President Akaev was referring to the economic success and political stability which Switzerland has maintained despite its size. However, unlike Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan lacks the trademark features heralded by political scientists as necessary for democratic consolidation. Though committed to agriculture, Kyrgyzstan lacks an agrarian bourgeoisie. Rather, its social structures are vertical, elite-centered ones affiliated with tribal nomadism. Its history is punctuated by authoritarian dictatorships ranging from Soviet communists to Mongol khans. In spite of these impediments, Akaev has managed to craft the only stable "democracy" in Central Asia, a region renowned more for its authoritarian rather than democratic tendencies.

This increased democratization is in stark contrast with the experiences of many of Kyrgyzstan's neighbors and former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Whereas the factors allowing for the relative transition to a more democratic society in Kyrgyzstan do not deviate far from many of those advanced by political scientists such as Samuel Huntington and Robert Putnam, there are several factors that have facilitated this transition that are particular to Kyrgyzstan. In particular, five factors can be traced as root causes for the development of democracy in Kyrgyzstan: nomadic tradition, Akaev's charisma, geographic locale, ethnic bifurcation, and monetary troubles. The cumulative effect of these forces has been a hybrid form of democracy which fails to uphold the democratic hallmarks of participation, contestation, and rights protection--a form of government which many political scientists would not categorize as democracy.

"Nomadic Islam"

The Kirgiz nomadic heritage (dating to the 17th century B.C.) operates as a source of both unity and differentiation with the rest of Central Asia. While this heritage links the Kirgiz people to fellow nomads in Kazakhstan, it distinguishes them from the neighboring Uzbeks, who founded their civilization around the Islamic city of Bukhara. Due to the large number of Muslims journeying to Bukhara for pilgrimage, Uzbeks adopted strict laws regarding the Qur'an's precepts. These laws created a rigid institutional structure focused on creating a theocratic hierarchy, one which counters the egalitarian and rights-oriented premises of democracy. In the current political climate of the region, the potential threat posed by a theocratic state provides a secular leader with a justification for continued tyranny, as has been the case with the Uzbek president Islam Karimov.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the nomadic tradition has distilled the democratic (rather than the theocratic) aspect from Islam. Within that nomadic tradition, their practice of Islam has focused more on the rituals of the Islamic faith rather than codified laws. Women in Kyrgyzstan rarely wear veils in public and are often found beside their husbands harvesting in the fields, while Uzbek women are often veiled and relegated to domestic tasks. Supporting this ritual focus are the ancient Persian mystical traditions of Sufism and Shamanism, which concentrated on teaching methods of contemplation and prayer rather than Qur'anic laws. These variants of Islamic practice, which are more egalitarian in nature, have proved to be a breeding ground for democracy. By diluting the rigidity of Islam, the Kirgiz people have employed it as a mark of a common past and a national identity.

Though nomadic traditions have played a major role in the "democratization" of Kyrgyzstan, the charisma of Akaev himself cannot be discounted. His abrupt rise to power occurred in 1990 when a constitutional provision eliminated his two chief rivals from the presidential race. …

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