Five things to know about Kyrgyzstan - the mountainous former Soviet-state 

Kyrgyzstan holds a presidential election on Sunday in which the outcome is unusually open for an ex-Soviet Central Asian state.

Published: 13th October 2017 12:46 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th October 2017 12:46 PM   |  A+A-

French minister Alain Peyrefitte (L), rides a horse in October 1966, somewhere in the Steppe of Kirghizia during his trip to Soviet Siberian republics. (AFP)


BISHKEK (KYRGYZSTAN): Kyrgyzstan holds a presidential election on Sunday in which the outcome is unusually open for an ex-Soviet Central Asian state.

Here are five things to know about the politically volatile nation of six million people:

Mountains upon mountains 
Kyrgyz people say their country would be the size of China if it was rolled out flat thanks to the procession of towering peaks that cut through the republic as part of the Tien Shan and Pamir Alay ranges.

Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and Russian President Vladimir Putin have mountains named after them in the landlocked country, while the highest mountain is called Victory Peak at 7,439 metres (24,406 feet), located on Kyrgyzstan's border with China. 

Politically combustible 
While Kyrgyzstan is widely seen as the freest of the ex-Soviet "stans" in Central Asia, it has also been the most politically volatile in recent times.

The Muslim-majority country experienced two revolutions that unseated presidents in 2005 and 2010 followed by ethnic violence in the same year pitting Kyrgyz against minority Uzbeks that left more than 400 people dead.

Sunday's election is likely to see the first peaceful transfer of power between two elected presidents but the build-up to the vote has been beset by tensions.

With a split electorate pointing to a potential second round of voting, the country will hope that confrontations between the leading candidates do not turn violent.

Foreign bases 
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Washington acquired military bases in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, beginning what some interpreted as an American challenge to Russia's traditional influence in the region. 

By 2003, Russia had its own airbase in Kyrgyzstan.  

While Kyrgyzstan's second president, autocrat Kurmanbek Bakiyev, reneged on a pledge to evict US forces from the country, current President Almazbek Atambayev did not, and the lease on the US airbase was cancelled in 2014.

As Atambayev prepares to leave office he has even raised the prospect of Russia acquiring a second military base in the country.

Land of water and gold 
Kyrgyzstan has few resources compared to commodity-rich neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan but is endowed with relatively abundant water in a region where it is scarce.

The country has looked to build hydroelectric stations to become a power hub for the region, but such efforts require careful negotiations with countries downstream of its glacial rivers that need the water for farming.

Kyrgyzstan's other vital commodity is gold. The giant Kumtor gold mine that the government part owns through its stake in Toronto-listed company Centerra Gold contributed 8.0 percent of gross domestic product in 2016.

But the mine has often found itself at the centre of the country's turbulent domestic politics and elite wrangling, with scores of people detained and wounded in riots close to the mine in 2013.

In 2016, a British employee of the mine was deported after his Facebook post falsely identified a local delicacy as "horse penis", causing an uproar.  

A million abroad 
According to the World Bank, Kyrgyzstan is one of the most remittance dependent economies in the world, with such money transfers equating to between a quarter and a third of GDP in recent years.

Russian government data released in September showed some 623,000 Kyrgyz citizens living and working in Russia, although unofficial estimates top one million and Kyrgyz also find work in Kazakhstan, Turkey and the Middle East.

Ironically, given their huge contribution to the national economy, only a fraction of Kyrgyz citizens abroad will be able to take part in Sunday's vote.

According to Kyrgyzstan's central election commission, just 18,580 foreign-based Kyrgyz have submitted biometric data and registered with an embassy or consulate to vote abroad. 

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