ALMATY (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan, rocked by political violence and upheaval last year, has laid the foundation for Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy, but it is unclear whether the new model will consolidate a country split by regional and ethnic clans.
The impoverished former Soviet republic, which hosts both Russian and U.S. military air bases, held elections on October 10 that resulted in five parties winning seats in a new parliament.
A majority coalition was finally formed in December, when parliament approved a new prime minister and his cabinet.
At the same time, security forces said they had foiled “a series of terrorist attacks” in the capital Bishkek and in the south, underscoring the persistent threat of violence.
Below is an overview of political risks in Kyrgyzstan:
Kyrgyzstan is unique among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia in having rejected presidential rule and attempting to form a parliamentary democracy, following 20 years of failed authoritarian leadership that saw two revolutions.
Under its new constitution, the president will be limited to a single six-year term with greatly reduced powers. Parliament will be the key decision-making body and the prime minister the most powerful figure.
Ata Zhurt, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan and Respublika formed a governing coalition, having come first, second and fourth respectively in the election.
Ata Zhurt faction leader Akhmatbek Keldibekov became speaker. Social Democratic Party leader Almazbek Atambayev became prime minister, and Respublika leader Omurbek Babanov his first deputy.
Roza Otunbayeva, a former ambassador to London and Washington, will remain as acting president until December 31, 2011. She led the interim government that assumed power after a popular uprising in April deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
What to watch:
— Two of the five parties elected to parliament, Ata Zhurt and the pro-Russian Ar-Namys party, have said they oppose the parliamentary model. Critics say this may lead to infighting and problems in pushing through reforms.
— How will parties outside the coalition conduct themselves in parliament? Voters chose parties with widely divergent policies and the risk of violence is high should supporters feel that their parties, including those who failed to pass the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament, are being sidelined.
Officials say 87 people were killed on April 7, when Bakiyev’s forces shot into crowds in Bishkek. The popular revolt that day ousted Bakiyev from power. He is now exiled in Belarus.
The worst bloodshed in Kyrgyzstan’s modern history occurred over several days in June, triggered by attacks by unidentified individuals in balaclavas in the southern city of Osh.
More than 400 people were killed and unofficial estimates place the toll much higher. Many victims were shot, but others, including women and children, were burned inside their homes.
Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks said they had sustained attacks. The United Nations estimated that 400,000 people, mainly Uzbeks, fled at the height of the violence, though most have returned.
Authorities are also concerned about the rise of radical Islam in Kyrgyzstan, as grinding poverty attracts young people to militant groups and hardened fighters filter back into the region after years fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
What to watch:
— Revenge ethnic attacks are possible. There has been little sign of reconciliation between the groups, and raids by Kyrgyz forces are likely to breed more resentment among Uzbeks.
— Political violence is also possible. Parties excluded from parliament have roused their supporters and, should any party feel its interests are not represented, it can quickly assemble a crowd of several thousand protesters.
— Raids and arrests of suspected insurgents, or attacks and statements by radical groups, may provide clues to the extent of Islamist militancy.
Both the United States and Russia operate military air bases in Kyrgyzstan. Washington’s priority is the Manas transit base, an important center for supplying the war in Afghanistan. Russia also leases a local base, in Kant.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Kyrgyzstan on December 2, seeking support from its new government to retain Manas. She said Washington would examine again in 2014 whether it needed the base.
Clinton said the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was crucial to preventing terrorism from spilling into neighboring Central Asian states.
Moscow sees Kyrgyzstan as part of its sphere of influence and has in the past criticized Bishkek’s plans to build a parliamentary republic, believing it could lead to factionalism or even a power grab by Islamist extremists.
Wrangling began under Bakiyev, whose decision in 2009 to extend the U.S. lease on Manas — months after announcing the U.S. military would have to leave — infuriated the Kremlin.
Both Moscow and Washington quickly offered support for Otunbayeva’s interim government after it came to power.
What to watch:
— Will the lease on Manas be renewed? This will be one of the key issues facing the new government, which will comprise some elements fiercely opposed to a U.S. military presence.
— Will Russia use Kyrgyzstan’s volatility as an excuse to beef up its military presence? It has shown little desire to act unilaterally, but views Central Asia as its sphere of influence.
— Fuel contracts with the Manas base have been dogged by allegations of corruption ever since Bakiyev was ousted. The contracts are a sensitive issue in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan secured pledges worth $1.1 billion on July 27 from international donors. The money will be used to rebuild the south and reignite the economy, which the government expects to shrink by 1.5 percent this year.
The economy is dependent on remittances from citizens working abroad, mostly in Russia, which comprise as much as 40 percent of GDP. Mining is the other main earner: the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Centerra Gold, supplied a quarter of industrial output and a third of all exports last year.
Prime minister Atambayev went to Moscow on his first foreign visit, stressing the importance of economic ties with Russia. He told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that Kyrgyzstan would like to join the economic zone that Russia has created with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
What to watch:
— Will Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership be immune to the nepotism and cronyism that sparked the popular indignation that toppled the previous president?
Editing by Kevin Liffey