Democratic Governance in a Multi-cultural and Multi-ethnic Society, Swiss - Kyrgyz Democracy Training Project


At the request of the Kyrgyz government, UNESCO has established a democracy training project to introduce selected individuals from Kyrgyzstan - among them policy-makers, legislators, judiciary officials, and representatives from public and non-governmental organisations - to the functioning of democratic governance under the conditions of ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. The project has taken up a suggestion by the Central Asian Regional UNESCO Meeting (Bishkek 1994), which has asked for closer attention being paid to the issue of democratic and peaceful multi-ethnic co-existence in Central Asia.

The democracy training project envisions a close and fruitful co-operation between Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan. By developing institutional and individual ties to Switzerland, a multi-cultural/multi-ethnic country with a long and rich democratic tradition, leading representatives of the Kyrgyz society gain in-depth insights into building and consolidating democratic structures founded on community-based political participation and inter-ethnic co-operation. Likewise, Swiss experts and institutions benefit from sharing the Kyrgyz experience of managing the ongoing transformations. Short-term training activities started in 1997 are designed to lead to a long-term co-operation between the two countries, which is expected to further the process of democratisation in Kyrgyzstan.

Main activities of the project are the establishment of an academic curriculum on democratic governance, the training of legislators, academics and policy-makers in the creation of laws concerned with multi-culturalism, the publication of basic texts on the subject, including comparisons of existing approaches to the issues, and the establishment of an academic exchange programme. MOST conceives this project as an essential and first-of-its-kind initiative leading to a long-term bilateral co-operation that will contribute substantially to building sustainable intellectual and institutional capacities for democratic governance in Kyrgyzstan.

The project is funded by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and supported by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) which contributes expertise to the training programme in Kyrgyzstan.


1. The Political and Social Structure of the Kyrgyz Republic

Kyrgyzstan, as one of the five Central Asian countries that declared their sovereignty from the Soviet Union in 1990 and became members of the CIS in 1991, has since its independence dedicated itself to establishing a democratic political system. Universal, direct and free elections were held in 1991, and Askar Akayev, who was previously elected by the Supreme Soviet, became first President of the independent Kyrgyz Republic (and was re-elected in 1995). A new democratic constitution was adopted in 1993, and in 1995 Kyrgyzstan adhered to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But obviously, a successful transition to democracy requires much more than free elections and formal declarations, which are necessary but not sufficient initials steps. Developing democratic institutions and a political culture based on democratic modes of interaction and participation constitutes a complex and lengthy process, especially in Central Asia, where the current political changes are intricately tied up with increasing ethnic tensions as well as radical economic transformations.

The Kyrgyz Republic is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society in which many political and social relations are organised along unstable but ever-present ethnic lines. Kyrgyzstan encompasses three major ethnic groups - Kyrgyz, Russians and Uzbeks - whose size and socio-political roles are continuously subject to transformation. Following the independence, the long-neglected and downgraded group of ethnic Kyrgyz has regained a highly influential status on almost all levels of society, which corresponds to their numerical majority. This has resulted in a widespread alienation of other ethnic groups, especially Russians whose emigration movement reached its peak in 1993/94. Therefore, the proportion of ethnic Russians has declined over the past few years, while that of ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks has risen. To halt the tide of Russian emigration, the President's decree of 1994 has made Russian an official language again, if only in regions populated by ethnic Russians as well as in some economic sectors. In March 1996, the parliament finally accorded an overall official status to the Russian language, with Kyrgyz retaining its status as state language according to the Constitution. But while current Russian-Kyrgyz relations tend toward appeasement, those with other minorities and neighbouring countries exhibit an increasing tension.

Ethnic tensions are enhanced by sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory religious, linguistic, cultural and regional frontiers that have resulted in an uneven distribution of political and social power. A regional division into a more Russified and politically centrist north, and a more Islamised and politically extremist south reinforces cleavages between ethnic communities, even though ethnic, political and territorial boundaries by no means coincide. While previous privileges of the Russian minority play a lasting role in, for example, the military realm, minority groups today are allegedly discriminated against in various sectors of public and private life. A major problem consists in the insufficient representation and participation of ethnic minorities in the political process. As executive and legislative policy-making is based on clear majority rule, no minority group has any substantial influence.

The Kyrgyz Republic is a presidential democracy that has over the past few years - via popular referenda - further strengthened the central executive power embodied in the president. The bicameral parliament, which was established in its present form in 1994, consists of a directly elected legislature and an assembly elected on a regional basis. It has yet to clearly define its competencies, especially regarding the role of the assembly, which has so far remained rather symbolic. The multiplicity of changing parties and their division along regional lines complicates the task of asserting parliamentary versus presidential power.

Additionally, today's parliament can not adequately fulfil its function of representation, since the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians is of ethnic Kyrgyz origin, so that the country's various ethnic minorities are substantially underrepresented. This problem of inadequate multi-ethnic representation and participation is also apparent on the executive level, particularly with regard to the dominance of the central power over local politics. The competencies of local governmental executives, which are nominated by the president, have recently been extended to include the right to dissolve local councils or to suspend their decisions. As these councils are often the institutional bodies most likely to represent the specific ethnic and cultural differences of a community, those differences now have a reduced impact on the political process. Contributing to this centralising and unifying power of the executive branch is the method of regional rotation, which regularly moves local governors from one district office to the other in an effort to reduce the gap between northern and southern regions. This emphasis on a nationally unified exercise of democratic power is also manifested in the increased significance of the instrument of popular referendum, which has been established as an constitutional mechanism in 1994.

2. Perspectives of Change

For Kyrgyzstan, a further democratisation of existing political institutions and an extension and a strengthening of democratic processes of political interaction are not simply desirable long-range goals that in the meantime have to give way to pragmatic necessities. On the contrary: if a country that has just gained its political independence and that is struggling to reform and rebuild its weak economy does not find a mechanism of social cohesion, it is destined to be torn apart by the old and new conflicts accompanying these ruptures. That this mechanism has to be of democratic nature is confirmed by the results of more authoritarian attempts at nation-building made elsewhere. If minorities (including those that were previously in a position of dominance) are denied their language and culture, if they are not adequately represented and actively participating in the political process, they are likely to resort to isolationism and separatism, resulting in emigration or violent struggles for territorial sovereignty. Kyrgyzstan, as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society in transition, has to find ways of managing its diversity that involve all concerned groups and that accord to every one of them an equal position while still allowing them to express and manifest their difference. This necessarily intricate balance between cohesion and autonomy calls for a pluralist political system ensuring group rights and participation. While the successful establishment and democratic management of such a system marks a continuous challenge for every modern society, the new democracy in Kyrgyzstan can benefit from studying the procedural and institutional mechanisms that a consolidated multi-ethnic democracy like Switzerland has developed over a long period of time.

The ongoing political and economic changes in the Central Asian region entail the unique opportunity of building peaceful, tolerant and empowering modes of social coexistence. But such a transitory process is also a tightrope walk facing the continuous danger of a proliferation of social and ethnic conflicts. Due to the lack of well-established mediating and negotiation mechanisms, these conflicts can easily lead to violent civil and transfrontier struggles. It is in this situation of radically alternative development possibilities that assistance from countries experienced in the democratic management of ethnic tensions can take on a decisive role. The MOST democracy training project is to provide the Kyrgyz Republic and its political and social leaders with crucial insights into instituting and maintaining democratic modes of governance in the context of heterogeneous ethnic structures. The specific objectives for training in this field will become apparent by taking a closer look at central political institutions, legal issues, and civil society activities in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the context of existing Swiss experiences in these fields. In doing so, MOST relies on a report prepared especially for this purpose by AFEMOTI (Association Française pour l'Etude de la Méditerranée Orientale et du Monde Turco-Iranien).

3. Project Objectives

The democracy training project provides a specific and focused support of ongoing processes of democratisation and a strategic incentive to their intensification. Its overall objective is to further the development of democratic modes of interaction on all levels of society. In the long range, this implies institutional reforms as well as a strengthening of the nascent civil society. Given the multi-ethnic character of the Kyrgyz society, the main challenge to which the project responds is the need of democratic management of ethnic diversity. It provides representatives of the Kyrgyz society with the opportunity to devise new policies geared towards implementing mechanisms of peaceful inter-ethnic co-operation.

On the level of political institutions the Swiss example of a confederation that relegates considerable autonomy to the local level can contribute to formulating reform objectives with regard to the relation between central and local powers in Kyrgyzstan. A more egalitarian distribution of local and central competencies within the Kyrgyz Republic could enhance minority representation and participation. An increase of local autonomy could be supported by taking advantage of the bicameral structure of the parliament on the national level. The assembly, as the national political body made up of regional representatives, could play a decisive role in mediating between local and national interests. Its upgraded function might consist in elaborating laws that directly concern ethnic minorities, in examining policies with regard to their effect on inter-ethnic co-operation, and in investigating complaints from minority groups and representatives.

On the legal and social levels, the project allows Kyrgyz specialists to thoroughly discuss and, where possible, examine the various possible measures and instruments of minority participation (e.g. enhanced community-based responsibilities, quota, territorial autonomy, collective rights, dual citizenship). The objective is to develop a mechanism suitable for the Kyrgyz society that will ensure multi-ethnic political representation and participation, a just treatment of minorities by the legal system, their adequate representation among high-level professionals, and a right to their own language, culture, and tradition. Again, the Swiss way of managing co-operation between its different cultural/ ethnic groups is used as an instructive example for devising modes of inter-ethnic relations in Kyrgyzstan.

Inter-ethnic co-operation cannot simply be prescribed politically and regulated legally. It is just as much an effect and a characteristic of a vibrant civil society, i.e. of a plurality of non-governmental organisations and institutions, of neighbourhood initiatives, concerned individuals and independent media interacting with each other. Such a rich social environment can only flourish if it is not suffocated by an overwhelming state or penetrated by unregulated economic activities. Enriching and strengthening the Kyrgyz civil society is an important focus of the proposed project's training activities, as it is an indispensable part of the process of democratisation.

The achievement of these broad normative objectives is difficult to measure. It can be indicated, though, by the quantitative increase of minority participation and representation in the political process (seats in parliament, positions in the administration, representation in political parties and their programmes), in executive professional positions, and in academic institutions. An active participation of community initiatives in shaping the local policy agenda, and their influence on the political decision-making process can reveal a greater integration of formerly alienated minorities. The number of independent civil society actors like NGOs, media, and cultural organisations of different ethnic background can point to an enrichment of social relations.

In order for these objectives to be attainable, a few substantial assumptions have to be made. The overall political situation in Kyrgyzstan has to remain relatively stable and free of violent civil or international conflicts. The existing political and social system and its institutions have to espouse enough flexibility to incorporate the desired improvements. Since these improvements are not to be imposed by external actors, but are to develop out of a reasoning process of Kyrgyz political and social leaders, the willingness of these actors - as well as of the government and the institutions supporting them - to seriously continue the transition to democracy is critical to the success of this project. The decisive role of the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs in pursuing this project suggests the fulfilment of this requirement.

4. Project Purpose and Participants

The specific purpose of the democracy training project is to build the institutional and intellectual capacities for managing the desired transition to democracy. On the level of individual actors, the project provides leading representatives of the Kyrgyz society with the opportunity to gain in-depth insights into existing ways of democratic governance in general, and various mechanisms of managing ethnic diversity in particular. The project attempts to achieve this by devising several short- and medium-term training and seminar programmes. On the level of institutional structures, the project is establishing an infrastructure that opens the way for focused assistance in elaborating specific reforms to foster an institutional environment more conducive to multi-ethnic co-operation. Twinning relations with Swiss institutions, as well as direct assistance by Swiss experts in developing and implementing reforms areserving as means of promoting these improvements. Both these individual and institutional enhancements of capacities are designed to be effective not only in the governmental and legal spheres but also in the realm of civil society.

For realising these goals and for ensuring their lasting positive impacts it is crucial to carefully identify and select the appropriate institutions and participants involved. While the actor-oriented training part of the project has a short-term character, its success depends on a long-term multiplier function fulfilled by the selected participants, and on their present and future ability to assume influential political or social roles that allow them to initiate and implement policy improvements. Once trained, the participants' political or professional position in the Kyrgyz society, the specific activities they carry out, and the contacts they maintain, will indicate the achievement of the project's purpose.

The participants of the project's short-term training programme, which mainly consists of a training mission to Switzerland, are selected according to their professional expertise and influential role in the Kyrgyz society. They will be experienced professionals - man and women -, approximately aged between 35 and 50 years, and of different ethnic and regional backgrounds. The Kyrgyz Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms. R. Otunbayeva, has envisioned a small group of five to ten high-profile leadership personalities including a government official, a parliamentarian, an assembly member, an academic expert in the field of democratic governance studies, and a representative from a major public organisation. Their mission to Switzerland will serve the purpose to acquaint them with Swiss mechanisms of governance, to establish contacts with Swiss experts, and to initiate a bilateral process of reflection on possible policy reforms. For preliminary and follow-up meetings as well as for future seminars in Kyrgyzstan the group profile should clearly exhibit junior-level and ethnically diverse participation. These participants will primarily be expected to disseminate their acquired knowledge to civil society institutions and actors.

Institutional capacity building depends on programmes that from the very start have a long-term character, even though specific activities contributing to it can be carried out as short-term interventions. The target institutions that this project's activities are to focus on are both objects and subjects of reform. The project objectives have made clear that promising targets of reform initiatives include, for example, the assembly and local governments. To develop a policy framework for those reforms, and to formulate and implement the pertinent measures, the project is initiating close contacts and twinning relations between selected Swiss and Kyrgyz legislative and executive bodies, and establish appropriate research and training facilities at a Kyrgyz academic institution. Thus, an initial infrastructural and technical support for establishing a network of assistance and bilateral co-operation will have substantial long-term benefits.

5. Project Activities

As the project's purpose is to train Kyrgyz participants in democratic governance, and to improve the institutional environment for supporting democratic interaction, its activities include both short-term missions and initiatives for long-term programmes (with the former contributing to the latter).

The project has set out with an orientation mission of three Swiss experts and a MOST Secretariat member, who have made initial contacts with Kyrgyz officials and institutions, have informed themselves about facilities and their need of improvement, and have assessed the specific objectives for the training programme. In September 1998 they will participate in a two day roundtable meeting to be held in Bishkek.

This roundtable meeting, to be organised by Kyrgyz authorities, will bring together 20 to 30 Kyrgyz representatives from major political, academic, public and civil institutions and organisations to discuss the perspective of democratisation and inter-ethnic co-operation with regard to the specific training needs and objectives. This preliminary meeting will also serve to select the participants for the mission to Switzerland, to prepare a tentative trip itinerary, and to develop an outline for follow-up activities.

The ten working day training mission to Switzerland, scheduled for spring 1999, will introduce five to ten political and public leaders from Kyrgyzstan to the Swiss way of democratically managing a multi-ethnic society. Participants could be received by the Federal Government and by party representatives in Bern (and other cities), and, if possible, observe parliamentary meetings. They will be acquainted with the Swiss political system, from the workings of federalism to modes of party organisation. Beyond gaining knowledge about the Swiss model and placing it in a comparative perspective, participants should have the opportunity to discuss a broad spectrum of political and legal mechanisms of organising a democratic state in a multi-ethnic environment. This process of reflection could be continued under the supervision of Swiss academic institutes, such as the Center for Applied Studies in International Negotiation at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva and the Europe Institute in Basel. Here, training sessions could be held to teach participants basic procedures of democratic interaction. The institute, known for its seminars in negotiation processes, could, among other things, train participants in methods of conflict resolution. After these sessions, participants should visit local governments, community organisations and cultural institutions. At this stage, they will have the opportunity to make valuable contacts and initiate self-sustaining co-operative relations between Swiss and Kyrgyz partners. During any phase of their trip, participants should make sure to meet with representatives from all major ethnic groups. As the Kyrgyz National Commission for UNESCO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasize, the study of the situation of ethnic minorities, especially with regard to the use of multiple languages, is to be a focal point of the mission.

Back in Kyrgyzstan, at least one follow-up meeting will be held in September 1999 in accordance with the workplan of the roundtable. In addition to the mission participants, junior policy-makers and young representatives of public and civil organisations will be invited, so that the process of passing on acquired insights may begin. To facilitate that process this meeting will also prepare a publication fostering a debate of these issues.

Those project activities with an intermediate and long-term perspective are focusing on establishing various modes of bilateral co-operation that will continue after the termination of the project. Individual contacts between Kyrgyz and Swiss representatives of academic institutions, political parties, parliament, local governments and public organisations should be transformed into institutional partnerships offering exchange and assistance programmes. On the academic level, the project will seek to establish a rotating UNESCO/MOST Chair at three Kyrgyz universities to provide at least one semester of seminars on problems of democratic governance in multi-ethnic societies in a comparative perspective. A long-term exchange programme could be established - to be financed by extra-budgetary sources - that would allow Kyrgyz and Swiss graduate students as well as professors to broaden their perspectives and share their ideas.

6. Project Results / Project Monitoring

Upon successful completion of all activities, the democracy training project will have achieved the following results.

It will have provided in-depth training for five to ten Kyrgyz political and public leaders. Additionally, a broader spectrum of Kyrgyz politicians and professionals will have participated in and benefited from the debate on possible policy reforms that has both accompanied the training programme and ensued from it.
It will have provided the essential infrastructure to ensure well-directed assistance by Swiss institutions in the framework of long-term bilateral co-operation.
At least three to five institutional partnerships will have been established.
Permanent Swiss and Kyrgyz contact persons will have taken over the responsibility to co-ordinate continuing co-operation.
A rotating UNESCO/MOST Chair at three Kyrgyz universities will have been established.
An academic student/teacher exchange programme between a Kyrgyz and a Swiss university will have been initiated.
These results will be tangibly manifested in specific documents both accompanying and accounting for each activity. The initial roundtable will draft a workplan to specify what kinds of publications are to be produced. Partnership agreements will account for the crucial twinning relations. Both the training programme and the direct institutional assistance will result in written policy recommendations directed to the Kyrgyz government and institutional executives.

As this project is carried out under the auspices of UNESCO, MOST is responsible for monitoring its process, activities and outcome. MOST is assisting in matters of co-ordination and organisation. It has taken on a mediating role between Swiss and Kyrgyz partners to ensure that the needs and objectives of both sides will be met. As a preliminary project activity, MOST has set up a steering committee, consisting of one contact person from each country and a MOST co-ordinator. The Committee's primary task is to issue a final report on the achievement of the project's results, and to present a detailed evaluation.

7. Conclusion

The project is designed to not only help the Kyrgyz people to cope with the ongoing historical changes that affect the entire Central Asian region, but to actively turn them into a full transition to democracy. Its purpose is to build the specific capacities to enable the Kyrgyz to manage that process. Therefore, its success is dependent on two major prerequisites: Firstly, there has to exist a favourable policy environment in the Kyrgyz Republic that helps to translate theoretical insights into practice and that allows for the implementation of reforms - just as the participating individuals and institutions allow themselves to be open for new influences. As the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs is actively supporting and pursuing this project, the present political situation can safely be considered supportive. Secondly, the project requires the direct co-operation with a country that can share its experience in the democratic governance of a multi-ethnic society. Therefore, the Swiss' involvement is essential to establish this form of international co-operation that can further processes of democratisation across national boundaries.

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