Kyrgyzstan elections: Unity top priority for Atambayev

Newly elected Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev has said his biggest challenge will be to unify the country, which has seen two revolutions and a string of questionable elections during the past decade.

Vladimir Voronin/AP
A man riding a donkey-cart passes a poster of Almazbek Atambayev in the outskirts of Bishkek. Today, the former Prime Minister declared victory in Kyrgyzstan's presidential polls.

Former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev declared victory Monday in Kyrgyzstan's presidential polls. The small, strategically-located central Asian nation's election is its latest attempt to restore political stability following two revolutions and a string of dubious elections over the past six years.

Mr. Atambayev, who was supported by Moscow, won almost 63 percent of the votes in a field of 16 candidates, electoral officials announced Monday. International observers described the election as mostly fair, though marred by "procedural flaws," including irregularities with voter lists and ballot-counting.

However, two leading contenders from the ethnically-diverse region in southern Kyrgyzstan – former parliament speaker Adakhan Madumarov and head of the Ata-Jurt opposition group Kamchybek Tashiyev – have alleged massive fraud and indicated they may challenge the result in court.

"Atambayev is the clear winner, there is no doubt about that," Asiya Sasykbayeva, deputy speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, said by telephone from Bishkek Monday. "He was the most acceptable candidate. He's not a nationalist who will split the country between north and south, he's not a radical who will seek to upset our international relationships, and he already has plenty of experience in managing the state as prime minister. There may be protests from the losers, but his margin of victory was so overwhelming that it's not likely to make any difference."

Russia and the US, both of which maintain military bases in Kyrgyzstan, are likely to welcome the result. Atambayev is a known quantity who appears likely to press for closer relations with Moscow, but also to carefully avoid offending Washington by threatening to close down the US military transit center at Manas, a vital link in the resupply chain for NATO forces in nearby Afghanistan, as some of his predecessors have done.

"Kyrgyzstan needs cooperation with Russia, while Russia is strongly interested in maintaining stability in that region," says Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Kremlin-funded Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Atambayev has a lot of friends here in Moscow, he has declared that he's pro-Russian, but at the same time I think he'll seek to keep relations with other countries, including the US, on an even keel. Basically, he's a cautious, smart politician who will do what's in his country's best interests," he says.

Kyrgyzstan's rocky divide

Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic of 5.5 million at Asia's heart, is divided by a high chain of snowcapped mountains between its relatively prosperous and ethnically homogeneous north and its impoverished and chronically unstable south. Under former President Askar Akayev, a Soviet-era physicist, the little country was widely praised for its stability, liberal institution-building, and openness to the world.

But that ended when Mr. Akayev was overthrown in 2005's "Tulip Revolution" after being accused of rigging elections and running the economy for his own family's enrichment. Akayev's successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who hailed from the south of the country, soon faced widespread allegations of massive corruption and winning re-election in 2009 through fraud, in polls that international observers described as "disappointing."

Mr. Bakiyev was turned out of office last year in a street revolt that brought Roza Otunbayeva, a feisty former diplomat, to power as interim leader. Ms. Otunbayeva attempted to break the country's cycle of instability by rewriting Kyrgyzstan's constitution to slash the powers of the presidency and vest more authority in the legislature.

Parliamentary elections a year ago created the first genuine parliament-dominated system in central Asia, but were sharply criticized by Moscow – which is leery of such precedents in the region it regards as its 'sphere of influence'.

Last year's democratic revolution was tarnished by bloody ethnic riots that killed hundreds in Kyrgyzstan's volatile south and raised the specter of national breakup. Many experts say that continuing unrest in the south is abetted by drug lords, who use the region as a staging ground in the lucrative export of narcotics from Afghanistan, via pipelines through former Soviet territory, to the West.

"We know that drug operations are expanding, and now there are even opium plantations around Osh (in southern Kyrgyzstan), and this has got to be a key concern for Russia," says Leonid Gusev, an expert with the official Moscow State Institute of International Relations. "Joint efforts will have to be stepped up, and that's one good reason for more cooperation."

Strategic location

Kyrgyzstan may also be a prime candidate to join the "Eurasian Union," a post-Soviet superstate proposed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who seems virtually certain to return as president next March.

"Kyrgyzstan would like to join the Eurasian Union," says Mr. Gusev. "But while the political establishment is positive about that, many local businessmen fear being muscled out by competitors from Russia and (next door) Kazakhstan if they do join."

If no serious unrest over the election result occurs in coming days, observers say the election of Atambayev may have given Kyrgyzstan its best chance in almost a decade to regain its national balance.

"It was important that the people of the Kyrgyz Republic had the opportunity to express their choice in a peaceful and orderly manner," Nursuna Memecan, the Head of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly delegation, said in a statement Monday. "I hope this election will be a step towards breaking the vicious cycle of corruption, lack of implementation of the rule of law and ethnic tensions. We call on all political actors to continue doing their utmost for the stability of the country by protecting the human rights of all its citizens and respecting democratic standards."

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