DAI’s Kregg Halstead Describes for University Audience the Growth of Parliament in Embattled Kyrgyzstan

June 12, 2012

Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk Kul is a natural wonder: one of the largest and deepest lakes in the world, fed by natural mineral springs and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it could be a premium destination for the world’s tourists.

For years, local and national government officials failed to develop a strategy to improve infrastructure and facilities needed to make Issyk Kul more accessible. But with the help of the Kyrgyzstan Parliamentary Strengthening Program (KPSP), Members of Parliament are bringing together stakeholders from the public and private sectors and developing plans for transforming Issyk Kul. If the Parliament succeeds in its tourism initiative, it could be a source of much-needed private income and public revenue.

Given the country’s recent upheaval, it is a small wonder that Kyrgyzstan even has a functioning Parliament, known as the Jogorku Kenesh (JK). Only two years before, hundreds of Kyrgyz had died or were wounded during uprisings that forced a hardline president from office. A few months later, voters ratified a constitution based on the radical idea that a democratically elected Parliament—not a strong President—would be the leading force in Kyrgyzstan’s government.

The October 2010 election produced a legislative body almost evenly split among five political parties, but the Parliament succeeded in forming a ruling coalition while assuring an active oversight role for the vocal minority.

“I’ve been told that if this parliament-centric system still survives in Kyrgyzstan five years from now, 10 years from now, that our program will have been a success,” said Kregg Halstead, team leader of the KPSP, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by DAI.

Halstead shared his views on June 7 at a panel discussion at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where the remarkable story of Kyrgyzstan’s political healing was being told. Halstead was joined by panelists Sean Roberts, Director of the university’s International Development Studies Program, and USAID’s Eric Rudenshiold, Senior Officer in Charge for Kyrgyzstan and the Central Asian Republics.

“The Kyrgyz people pay attention to politics,” Halstead continued. “They are used to taking matters into their own hands. In this embattled part of the world, if the Parliament survives in its current form and, hopefully, even thrives, it will be because the Kyrgyz people approve of it.”

The fate of Kyrgyzstan, which has the distinction of being host to both Russian and U.S. air bases, is of great interest to its neighbors and to the West. The Kyrgyz people have deposed two authoritarian presidents in the past seven years, and social stress there is palpable, exacerbated by ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, a flatlining economy, and almost complete dependence on Russia and Kazakhstan for oil, natural gas, and electricity.

“Economic deprivation does not bring out the best in people in terms of ethnic tolerance,” Halstead said. “Hopefully, this Parliament can serve as a mechanism to overcome these divisions.”

KPSP was established with urgency by USAID in the summer of 2010 in the wake of the deadly April riots and an ensuing June referendum. The new Parliament of 120 members was elected in October 2010, one month after DAI was awarded the program to assist the JK in becoming a more effective state body.

Halstead described for the audience how his team has implemented scores of activities: training sessions, public forums, seminars on policy, roundtables, video conferences, and other presentations on topics crucial for parliamentary development and capacity building. In aggregate, nearly 2,000 people—members of Parliament, their assistants and consultants, as well as JK department and committee staffers, half of whom are women—have attended, participated, and benefitted.

Halstead outlined the keys so far to the program’s success:

  • Political neutrality—the project focuses only on institutional development, not on partisan politics.
  • Responsiveness—to the JK speaker, vice speakers, MPs, and the non-elected Administration so needs are addressed promptly.
  • Sustainability—because activities are planned and undertaken in full collaboration with the JK and its staff.
  • Keeping USAID updated—the donor is provided with a weekly update and write-ups describing individual programming events.
  • Coordination with other implementers—so ongoing USAID-funded projects in governance, economic development, education, health, and other areas are fully involved in the parliamentary process.
  • Teamwork—holding events that bring together, for example, JK staff from legal, human resources, information technology, translation services, the press office, protocol, and other JK departments in order to break down and overcome divisions.

The Parliament’s fair-mindedness was also demonstrated recently when it was challenged by the Kurultay, the region’s time-honored people’s council, which wanted a direct say in the country’s lawmaking. Parliament has tentatively approved an advisory role for these elders that does not compromise the legislative processes now taking root.

In the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states on Russia’s periphery, USAID has led the effort to help parliaments in these countries become more effective in passing meaningful legislation, and become more engaged with citizens and more independent of the executive branch. A landlocked, mountainous country of 5 million people, Kyrgyzstan is looked to by others in the region as something of a beacon of democracy, with separation of powers and checks and balances, Halstead said.

“The people in the neighboring countries are smart and aware,” said Halstead, referring to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, among others. “If a strong democracy can take root in Kyrgyzstan, it can also take root in these countries as well.”



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