This chapter focuses on the relation between Askar Akaev’s political leadership and the democratization process in Kyrgyzstan. Keeping in mind the fact that politics can be highly personalistic in Central Asia and executive power generally has a big influence in the region, political leadership seems to be an important factor in the transition of all Central Asian republics (CARs), including Kyrgyzstan. Due to the fact that the whole transition process is a very broad topic to be analysed, this chapter focuses basically on one particular aspect of transition in this country: the relation between political leadership and democratization. Since independence in 1991, leadership patterns in each of the CARs has shown similar characteristics and played a major role in the establishment of several forms of authoritarianism: “strong presidential systems”, “strongmen regimes” or “sultanates” (Ishiyama 2002: 49). In due course, Kyrgyzstan (at least initially) was a notable exception. Upon its independence, Kyrgyzstan appeared to have the highest potential to realize a real democratic transition and was viewed as a success story of economic and political reform in Central Asia.1 However, by the mid-1990s, the initial democratic trajectory of Kyrgyzstan was reversed and it resembled more and more the other CARs. In that sense, this study analyses the role of Askar Akaev’s leadership in Kyrgyzstan’s initial democratic leap, its subsequent reversal from this path and its final shift to authoritarianism. These three phases in Kyrgyzstan’s political transition seemed to be parallel to the three stages of Akaev’s leadership. Therefore, it seems important to understand the relation between Askar Akaev’s political leadership and Kyrgyzstan’s overall transition process. Did President Akaev contribute to the process of democratic transition in Kyrgyzstan or not? Which aspects of democratic transition did Akaev affect? Were there any differences in the presidency of Akaev in pre-independence and post-independence periods? Was Akaev basically an authoritarian leader or was he merely adopting a democratic discourse initially to gain legitimacy? As was mentioned above, Askar Akaev initially posed a somewhat different profile relative to his other Central Asian colleagues. Even at the beginning of the transition period, he had already gained the reputation of being the most liberal leader among the Central Asian presidents in the international community. Indeed,
Akaev deserved this reputation to a certain degree. He succeeded in carrying out a series of reforms, which was also confirmed and appreciated by the outside world, as Akaev seemed to be willing to transform his country into a democratically governed one by initiating democratization via the formation of democratic institutions, and introducing political pluralism, rule of law and civil society. Simultaneously, Akaev was also committed to realizing radical economic reforms such as leaving the rouble zone, adopting a new national currency, implementing land reform and privatization policies, and having the country become a member of various international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the International Monetary Fund (IMF ), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Kyrgyzstan would become the first of the former USSR countries to complete the accession negotiations with WTO and become a full member of the organization. These steps helped Akaev to develop a very positive image in the eyes of the Western world. Consequently, in a very short period of time, Kyrgyzstan became the major foreign aid recipient as compared to any other member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and was labeled as “the island of democracy” in the “sea” of autocracies (Anderson 1998). This perception resulted in the emergence of an optimistic expectation of Akaev in the West, especially in terms of his future success in realizing what he had promised about democratic reforms (Huskey 2002: 74-78; Tolipov 2006: 67).2 All these factors made the issue of leadership even more important in the democratic transition of Kyrgyzstan as compared to the other Central Asian countries. In general, it can be argued that the difference displayed by the leaders’ attitudes and policies toward transition determined the level of improvement in the transition processes of each Central Asian regime. As Boris Rumer suggests, in Central Asia, regimes with varying degrees of authoritarianism were established behind a pseudo-democratic façade. These regimes varied from relatively moderate ones, such as that in Kyrgyzstan, to full-blown despotisms, as in Turkmenistan (Rumer 2005: 3). Rumer’s classification is in harmony with Sally N. Cumming’s, who also describes Akaev’s government in Kyrgyzstan as mildly authoritarian, Nazarbaev’s government in Kazakhstan as authoritarian with limited liberalization, Karimov’s government in Uzbekistan as located between sultanism and authoritarianism, Rahmonov’s government in Tajikistan as oligarchic and Niyazov’s government in Turkmenistan as the closest to sultanism (Cummings 2002: 8). This chapter begins with a brief theoretical framework for the concept of political leadership. Then, Akaev’s political career is analysed in three stages, which also corresponded to and considerably affected the process of post-Soviet transition to democracy in Kyrgyzstan. The first stage (1990-1995) included Akaev’s rise to power in the last days of the USSR and his emergence as the first president of the newly independent Kyrgyzstan. The second stage (1991-1995) corresponded to Akaev’s adaptation of liberal policies in political and economic spheres, and the third stage (1995-2005) witnessed a setback in his democratic
reforms and a shift towards an authoritarian mode of leadership (Spector 2003: 2). In due course, the policies Akaev implemented, the constitutions he adopted, the relations he was engaged with the rest of the state bureaucracy, political elites, various sections of the society, the outside world, and the social, political and economic circumstances all seemed to be indicating such a shift. Thus, the main methods of the study are discourse analysis and policy analysis. For discourse analysis, principal sources used are press analysis, published official documents, biographies of Akaev and his books. For policy analysis, the main sources are legal documents such as the Kyrgyz constitutions, and related laws and decrees. In addition to certain statistical data on Kyrgyzstan published by certain institutions such as OSCE, Freedom House and International Crisis Group (ICG), the works of prominent scholars are also utilized.