What Crucial Central Asian Elections Mean for Biden's Eurasian Policy | Opinion

As the Biden administration is looking to manage China and Russia, and finalize the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the strategic Central Asia remains at the heart of a comprehensive U.S. Eurasian foreign policy. The dual elections in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan offer crucial insights as to how incoming Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, should approach conducting U.S. diplomatic and economic outreach to the region. Both countries serve as critical corridors for China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, and simultaneously remain in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. A critical understanding of the region remains key to achieving U.S. global policy priorities in the 21st century.

On Sunday January 10, two elections took place in the increasingly strategic region of Central Asia. Kazakhstan, the largest by landmass and GDP among the five post-Soviet states, elected its Parliament (Majilis), while Kyrgyzstan voted in a new President following a popular uprising that swept aside the previous regime of Sooronbay Jeenbekov last October.

Kazakhstan's election—in which the Nur Otan ("Light of the Fatherland") ruling party bolstered its position—tells a lot about the stability of the first president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev-founded political machine. Voters have yet again entrusted this party with a ruling mandate while the post-Soviet space is reeling in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, inter-ethnic conflicts, and internal instability.

Kyrgyzstan's elections, on the other hand, have brought forth a new system of governance to the small Central Asian nation. The parliamentary system embraced in Kyrgyzstan since 2010 was thoroughly rejected by voters (and violent protestors) in the fall of 2020 and this latest round of elections. President-elect Sadyr Japarov has since promised to transition the country's government to a presidential system, where the head of state controls the levers of power. The problem is the persona of Japarov himself, who was catapulted to power from jail, where he was serving a 11.5 year sentence for kidnapping a local official.

Prolonged periods of instability—as experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic—can lead to voter yearning of "return to normalcy." Based on preliminary data in the most recent round of parliamentary elections, Kazakhstani citizens appear to be calling for just that. The nation's voters came out in droves to support the ruling Nur Otan party. This is above all a vote for pre-pandemic "business as usual": economic development, geopolitical balance and modernization.

In Kyrgyzstan, whose north-south divide has increasingly played a role in polarizing the nation's politics, a "return to normalcy" is the rejection of the parliamentary experiment and the emergence of a strong head of state with firm control over domestic and foreign policy in the small mountainous country.

Deep poverty and clan rivalry along north-south lines have made it difficult for each successive government to effectively impose their will on the nation. Deep-seated corruption will remain part of the political system. In addition, it was in fact credible allegations of vote-buying in last October's parliamentary elections that led to the subsequent uprising and the current transition of power.

The country is also one of the few post-Soviet states to use the Russian language as official, benefits from massive remittances of the migrant Kyrgyz workers in Russia, and remains a strategic ally of Moscow. Neighboring China is another key economic partner for Kyrgyzstan. and the government's main lender.

When Kazakhstan's longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned from his presidential post in mid-2019, there was a flurry of speculation about the civic and political trajectory of the country. Concerns over the power transition were eased when Nazarbayev's successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, laid out his plan for the nation in his first major National address. He articulated a vision of political reforms which would strengthen Kazakhstan's nascent democratic institutions.

Pro-government analysts believe that this round of elections represented an incremental step towards greater pluralism. It should be noted that Kazakhstan's regulatory bodies will not certify the official result of the election until January 17. But the election was not without some political frictions: the main opposition party, The Nationwide Social Democratic Party, boycotted the vote as a protest against what they labeled a "rigged" system.

Nevertheless, Sunday's turnout reached a respectable 63.3 percent, though markedly less than in the elections in March 2016, which stood at 77.1 percent. January frost did not help a low turnouts in the three largest population centers: Nur-Sultan (45.1 percent), Almaty (30.3 percent) and Shymkent (56.5 percent). The rest of the country's more rural provinces recorded higher results than in the largest cities, indicating widening political divide between the country's urban cores and rural areas.

While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly played a role in decreasing election participation, the 30 percent turnout rate in Almaty—Kazakhstan's largest urban center—is significant.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center and Director, Energy, Growth and Security Program (EGS) at the International Tax and Investment Center. David Pasmanik is a Research Assistant at the EGS.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.