Kyrgyzstan's Promising but Uncertain Political Future

With a new President, the Central Asian country can claim the first peaceful transition of power in the region. But where does it go from here?

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Children wait for a meeting with Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister / Reuters

Today Kyrgyzstan inaugurated Almazbek Atambaev as their new president. It was a momentous event, the first peaceful transition of power in Central Asia. Unfortunately, Atambaev is inheriting a country with a troubled recent past and an uncertain future, including how it will relate to the United States.

Outgoing President Roza Otunbaeva recently apologized for "failing to prevent" last year's ethic bloodshed, which killed hundreds of people, torched thousands of buildings, and left an ethnic minority dispossessed and marginalized. She is right to apologize: though understandably distracted by the on-going fallout of Kyrgyzstan's April Revolution, less than two months before, the riots were the result of a buildup of ethnic tension and local government depredation that she was obligated, as president, to address. Her response was so impotent she publicly contemplated seeking Russian help in establishing the peace in Osh.

While Otunbaeva's handling of the ethnic riots last year was disappointing, she did usher in a new constitution and spearhead the current orderly transition of power. This should not be downplayed. Despite October's Presidential election's obvious flaws, establishing a precedent for an orderly transition is a huge accomplishment and deserves praise.

But where Kyrgyzstan can go from here is uncertain. The ethnic divide that erupted last year remains, and despite Atambaev's pledge for ethnic unity no one knows if he has the charisma and political capital to begin addressing those divides. Krygyzstan faces numerous other challenges as well: a stagnating economy, pervasive corruption, and an uncertain regional orientation -- from the lively debate over whether Bishkek is swinging toward Russia or China to the bigger questions about its trade arrangements, position along The New Silk Road, and its struggles with narcotics trafficking.

Despite the seeming promise of Kyrgyzstan's election, the country's political class seem undecided about its outcome. Azimbek Beknazarov, the former Prosecutor General, just rejected a prestigious medal awarded him by outgoing President Otunbaeva. Beknazarov's act of protest is significant: he led the first round of protests in the northern city of Talas last April, sparking the revolution coup that toppled the government of Bakiev. It makes sense for revolutionaries to be disappointed that their ideals aren't met, but nevertheless seeing such a high-profile defection from the cause is noteworthy.

So where does Kyrgyzstan go from here? For starters, President Atambaev has some basic hurdles to cross in making Kyrgyzstan a functioning country. The separation of powers need to be solidified and gain broad acceptance, including the proper roles and responsibilities not just of the Presidency, but of the Parliament and the Courts and local governments. Kyrgyzstan's basic government functioning also needs to improve: in Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index Kyrgyzstan ranked 162, nestled between Yemen and Guinea.

Lastly, President Atambaev needs to take some concrete steps to heal Kyrgyzstan deep regional and ethnic divisions. Some of these divisions have their roots in economic problems, and there has to be some kind of economic reform to simplify and formalize the process of property rights, business ownership, and taxation. The deep North-South divide in Kyrgyzstan needs to be defused, whether through proportional cabinet appointments, some form of reconciliation process, or some additional political development. There has to be a focus on seeking justice for the victims of depredation of all kinds. And President Atambaev has to reimpose central accountability for local governments, particularly in the southwest.

Not a single item on that wishlist is simple to do or easy to achieve (or even easy to plan). That is why Kyrgyzstan's future is so uncertain -- there are far more questions than answers at this point about the survivability of both the government and Kyrgyz society as a whole. Added into this is the grinding political contentiousness of the U.S. airbase at Manas. It is politically unpopular, but some leaders think it may have long-term utility for national security.

In other words, Kyrgyzstan is a big question mark. It has taken some very promising steps on the path to normalcy, but, sadly, the country still has a long way to go.