Most Improved Country for 2012: Kyrgyzstan

Published June 20, 2012
By Patricia Taft
The Failed States Index
The most improved country in the 2012 Failed States Index, the landlocked Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, seems an unlikely one. Since independence from Russia in 1991, the country has been beset with a host of problems that have spanned political, social and economic lines.

Like several of its Central Asian neighbors, the country plays host to various ethnic minorities, with Uzbeks the predominant group in the South of the country. Keeping in line with several other Central Asian Republics, Kyrgyzstan was ruled from independence by a series of authoritarian regimes which brutally quelled opposition and strangled freedom of expression in all its forms. Adding to the tinderbox are myriad demographic pressures resulting from disputes over natural resources, particularly in the Ferghana Valley, as well as the country’s complex relationship with Russia and, at times, the U.S.

When looking at Kyrgyzstan’s improvement in this year’s Index, it is impossible not to point out that last year, the country came second only to earthquake-ravaged Haiti in the category of states that had most worsened. Roiled by political turmoil that led to the ouster of long-time President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April of 2010, the year quickly turned bloody when clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks resulted in over 200 deaths in June. Clashes in the south of the country in 2010 also caused a large scale humanitarian emergency and IDP crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, fleeing their homes. The attacks against ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan further heightened tensions with neighboring Uzbekistan, already at a boiling point over Tashkent’s decision to shut down natural gas supplies to the country by 50%. Spillover from the June uprising, coupled with a generally worsening economy also caused upheaval in the Ferghana Valley, leading to riots and protests where dozens were injured.

Given the kind of year Kyrgyzstan experienced in 2010, it becomes a bit clearer why they may have claimed the most improved status on this year’s index. However, was the most improved status warranted as a mark of genuine reforms or just a case of a country coming back from the brink? To determine this, it is important to examine which indicators improved throughout the year and which ones remained the same or worsened.

In the short term, two indicators that are most often amenable to rapid improvement are Demographic Pressures and Refugees and IDPs. These two indicators improved the most from their high scores the previous year, following the violent clashes and humanitarian emergency that gripped the country. Also improved was the indicator score for Public Services, although this is more likely the result of a lessened burden on this indicator in 2011 absent a humanitarian crisis, rather than a marked improvement in government capacity or infrastructure. Finally, the indicator that measures the Security Apparatus also improved, which may be the result of the dramatically lessening violence throughout 2011 as well as the reigning in of the state security services in targeting civilians and opposition leaders.

However, when looking to other indicators that measure the social and political pressures on Kyrgyzstan, there was little to no improvement. Most notably, Group Grievance, which measures critical issues like ethnic and religious tension, stayed the same in the 2012 Index. The failure of this indicator to improve, after it has steadily worsened over the past four years, is indicative that although violent conflict between ethnic groups did not manifest itself as it did the prior year, tensions still remain dangerously high. To be certain, throughout 2011, reports from various human rights organizations and the media underscored the continued polarization of ethnic Uzbeks in the south and the increased moves by right-wing Kyrgyz political figures to strip them of basic rights.

Politically, although the indicator for state legitimacy improved slightly in this year’s Index, it did not show marked improvement, demonstrating that many Kyrgyz citizens still do not perceive the government to be fair or representative. Similarly, the score which measures political factionalization also stayed the same, despite a coalition government led by Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who pursued vast constitutional reforms that led to making parliament the main decision-making body. Her decision to step aside peacefully in October of 2011, making way for the former Prime Minister and Kyrgyz businessman, Almazbek Atambayev, was also a first in the history of a country where leaders had once viciously clung to power.

President Atambayev, since assuming the helm, has promised to repair the fractured political landscape and move Kyrgyzstan firmly on a path to economic reform through partnerships with its Central Asian neighbors and Russia. However, although official numbers indicate that he won the election with more than 60% of the vote, an OSCE report declaring “significant irregularities,” and the failure of his two main challengers to accept the results cast a shadow over the process. Finally, the economic outlook in Kyrgyzstan in 2011 continued to be bleak. Unlike its oil and gas rich neighbors, the economy is largely agricultural and deeply vulnerable to dips and peaks in global prices on commodities. Moreover, its landlocked status also makes it highly dependent on its neighbors and Russia for imports, which often are used as political gambling chips, making the provision of basic goods and services highly unstable.

In both the 2011 and 2012 Failed States Index, Kyrgyzstan has been one of the most volatile players. While its improvements this year, such as the peaceful transition of power and the constitutional reforms that ushered in a more powerful Parliament are to be commended, it will take some time to determine if these gains will hold. Most pressingly, the deep ethnic cleavages that still divide the North and South of the country, and the continued repression of minority rights, are issues that could quickly cause the country to backslide into conflict. Additionally, while the country has made overtures towards repairing hostile relations with its neighbors, dynamics from both inside and outside the country could quickly undermine those gains if not carefully balanced. In sum, only time will tell whether Kyrgyzstan’s much improved standing is representative of true reform or if its gains are only skin deep.