As Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous 2010 came to a close, President Roza Otunbayeva travelled to Astana for the OSCE Summit in December. I was able to sit in on her interesting discussion with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as she outlined some of the priorities for 2011. Kyrgyzstan’s friends will be wishing the country a more peaceful and settled year, but there is no denying that real challenges remain.
The UK’s Ambassador to the Republic of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
It was no mean achievement to organise and conduct two peaceful votes – the June referendum and the October parliamentary elections. Conclusion of negotiations on a governing coalition meant that Kyrgyzstan has the potential to launch a different political era. But as leaders in Bishkek acknowledge, now the hard work begins. As they work to rebuild trust and confidence after the fall of the Bakiev regime in April and the appalling violence in Osh in June, they are well aware of high expectations that the lives of ordinary citizens must improve. One way to foster confidence will be to signal that politicians across the national spectrum are able and willing to work together for the common good.
Any new political system takes a bit of time to bed in. Rather than reinventing the wheel, a number of leading Kyrgyz politicians have expressed interest in drawing on other examples of parliamentary governance. Many seem especially interested in the British model, given our long history of parliamentary democracy, as well as our more recent experience of developing and maintaining a governing coalition. Britain is well placed to help – government officials, Members of Parliament and bodies such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy have extensive experience of arranging exchanges or training seminars covering the way in which the UK Parliament develops and scrutinises legislation as well as holding government ministers and officials to account. As in other legislative assemblies, some of the most effective detailed work in Parliament is done by committees away from the chambers of the Commons and the Lords.
As for coalition government, two things are proving especially important – a clear concrete programme agreed by the parties at the outset, and taking the time for regular discussions to maintain the political consensus with the coalition in light of events. Politicians in Bishkek will need to find the structures and procedures best suited for Kyrgyzstan, but one cannot overemphasise the importance of good communication within government and between the government and citizens.
Of course, sound policies are as important as effective governance structures. Many sectors need urgent attention – energy and boosting small scale enterprises spring immediately to mind. Here I will focus on education and health. Over the past year, I have met a number of dedicated Kyrgyz teachers and doctors doing good work with very limited resources. They understand what needs to be done. But the country’s education and health systems have been under serious pressure over the past ten years, with insufficient investment made by previous governments in training, retention, or physical infrastructure. Political leadership will now be needed to deliver some early concrete results on the ground, as well as to develop a coherent and realistic longer term strategy. Experience in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere shows that, while investment in primary education and healthcare is less glamorous than splashing out on prestige projects, the results are more widespread and sustainable.
Such programmes will require proper local consultation and monitoring. It is also important to build on Kyrgyzstan’s existing innovative health financing and autonomous primary healthcare reforms.
Alongside larger donor institutions such as the World Bank, UNDP and the EU, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) spends some £7 million each year on activities designed to help this process, from a partnership with the Ministry of Finance on enhanced budgetary management to support for grassroots development under a Village Improvement Programme.
Kyrgyzstan’s civil society is one of its strengths. DfID has spent around £1 million on conflict resolution work over the past nine months. The British Embassy funds some small projects run by local NGOs to address problems such as statelessness and people without documents in the south of the country. The south will remain an area to watch closely in 2011. The hurt will take a long time to heal. There are a lot of bridges to be built between – and within – communities. But there are some positives. Some farsighted people – community elders, religious leaders and local administration officials – have been reaching beyond their own communities. When I visited Osh in September, I heard numerous stories of brave ethnic Kyrgyz who had protected ethnic Uzbek friends from the June violence, and vice versa. Now that same courage is needed to promote reconciliation and enable the rebuilding of the south so that all communities can again coexist peacefully. Visible representation of both communities in Kyrgyzstan’s new political structures in Bishkek would send a powerful signal of inclusion.
Kyrgyzstan is deservedly known for its stunning mountain landscapes and hospitable traditions. It has a chance to become known for something equally commendable – a determination to break past patterns and build a more positive future. Britain and Kyrgyzstan’s many other friends in the international community will do what we can to support this. It will not be easy, but it is what people from all communities in Kyrgyzstan rightly expect – and deserve.