Kyrgyzstan is the only nation in the world to host military bases of Russia and of the United States. Voters in this Central Asian nation are about to vote for president.
On Sunday, Kyrgyzstan undergoes a rare experience for Central Asia, multiparty elections for president. In a second rarity, no one knows who will win.
With 16 candidates in the race, a runoff vote is expected for mid-November.
Located on the western edge of China, Kyrgyzstan is one of the smallest of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia. It is also the most volatile. In the last five years, two street revolutions have forced presidents to flee the country.
Since the last revolution - 18 months ago - Kyrgyzstan has been run by Roza Otunbayeva, Central Asia’s first woman president. In another break with strong-man rule, Otunbayeva plans to step down at the end of her term on December 31, becoming the first Central Asian leader to step down voluntarily since the five republics won independence at the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
Pyotr Chernyak, a former newspaper editor in the capital, Bishkek, believes voting Sunday will be peaceful, despite some candidates crying fraud in advance.
Geography splits this mountainous nation, between north and south. And then, ethnicity further splits the population of 5.5 million.
Last year, in Kyrgyz cities bordering Uzbekistan, rioting broke out between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks. When the fight was over, about 500 people were dead, thousands were wounded and thousands of houses were in ruins.
In polls, the front-runner is Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner who resigned last month as prime minister to run for president. His opponents say he used government resources to boost his candidacy, a charge he denies.
Earlier this month, Atambayev traveled to Moscow where he met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He is the only candidate to win such an audience. Kremlin approval is key in a country where one-quarter of adult males work in Russia.
Although the southern vote is split between two strong candidates, it is unclear if Atambayev will win the 50 percent of votes needed to win on the first round. Chernyak adds that chances of a runoff in mid-November are 50-50.
With Bishkek located about 90 minutes by cargo jet from Kabul, Afghanistan, Kyrygyzstan’s capital hosts Manas, an American-run military air transit center. At present, all NATO soldiers flying in and out of Afghanistan pass through Manas.
On the campaign trail, the top three leading candidates said they would respect the base lease, which expires in 2014. Less controversial is a Russian base on the other side of Bishkek, a legacy of Soviet days.
Valentin Bogatyrev, director of Perspectiva consulting group in Bishkek, says society is split over the impact of NATO’s planned troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. He adds that some fear that it could open the door to Islamic extremism moving north.
Whoever wins the presidential elections will guide this pivotal Central Asian nation through this time of transition. The president’s term runs through the end of 2016.