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Comment: Multiple Headaches for New Kyrgyz Leader

A former minister sees huge challenges awaiting the president whom voters will pick on July 10.
By Muratbek Imanaliev

Kyrgyzstan goes to the polls on July 10, in a president election that I hope will be fair and transparent. Whoever gets elected as the country’s second president faces a tough job – above all, he or she will have to constantly keep in mind that this is the most vulnerable country in Central Asia.

There are many aspects to this vulnerability: economic, political, military and demographic. Within the country, there are numerous domestic problems to be dealt with, not least those that are the legacy of the regime of Askar Akaev.

First of all, the incoming president will need to establish effective control over the country. This may not be a new problem, but it is especially relevant now.

To do this, Kyrgyzstan’s new leader has to restore the nation’s trust in government, create an administrative structure that integrates the institutions of power both vertically and laterally, and instil greater professionalism in officials in the public sector.

More important than all this, re-establishing control implies offering people a concept for the country’s future development. The current transitional government has not even come up with a theoretical vision of the future – and the lack of it is a threat not just to the new president, but to very the existence of Kyrgyzstan as a sovereign nation.

Next, the political process must be given back the legitimacy it has lost. The constitutional position is a conundrum: there is wide-scale public rejection of the present constitution, which includes controversial amendments made in 2003, but the new constitution (or the old one with new changes) which so many politicians and members of the public want to see does not yet exist.

If this situation is allowed to persist, there are politicians who will behave according to how they see the law.

In this connection, let us note a phenomenon one might term the “politicisation of criminals”. If such individuals continue trying to stake out claims to political power, this will place the legitimacy of the entire state in jeopardy.

Aside from politics, a prospective leader will have to face up to the protracted economic crisis, which is likely to get worse rather than better in the short term. Furthermore, there has been an outflow of capital and business, and it will be very difficult encouraging these back any time soon. Relations with the international financial and economic organisations will be difficult.

It is unlikely that any new president will be able to come up with a radical new economic programme that satisfies the expectations of Kyrgyz citizens – above all businessmen - and also the international community.

To govern effectively, the president will have to extend the administration’s reach across the country, taking particular note of the regional differences between north and south. This latter issue has now been laid bare, and healing the wounds will be no easy matter. The main means of bridging the gulf would involve economic integration: perhaps through a nationwide economic project; ensuring balance in the news media and in the cultural sphere; and working to build solidarity and unity between ethnic communities.

Central government’s control of the regions, particularly those in the south which President Akaev can be said to have abandoned, has grown weaker from year to year. There is obviously a connection between this failure of governance and the general north-south divide, yet it is fundamentally a different problem and must be dealt with as such.

In this partial vacuum, local leaders have gained de facto control in certain areas and are now playing a significant role. But this does not imply that separatist tendencies are on the rise – rather, what we have here are the interests of local “chieftains” to do with property and financial interests, and also an element of tribalism.

The loose coexistence that has grown up between central government and such informal leaders is likely to remain an issue for some time to come, with implications for how far Bishkek’s legal writ really runs.

It is not even clear where the president– and by extension the administration and the state – should stand, politically and ideologically. Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan’s political elite has come up with – or tried to, at least – four different ideological visions for the country: post-communist, liberal-democratic, Islamic and traditionalist/nationalist. This confusing position on an issue essential to the country’s identity can only become more complicated as pressure mounts to resolve the big questions of future economic development and security.

This hesitancy over future policy directions is already apparent in international affairs. The current administration is now riven with disagreements on what to do about the Uzbek refugees who fled to our country seeking refuge after the violence in Andijan on May 13. Should we send them back, or allow them to stay and risk incurring our powerful neighbour’s ire? And there are going to be many more headaches for Kyrgyzstan’s leaders – for example how to position ourselves between the United States, Russia, China and Kazakstan, or within the Uzbekistan-Kazakstan-Kyrgyzstan triangle.

There is one final problem I should mention, even if it is not one that falls within the new president’s remit: the future of political opposition in Kyrgyzstan.

A new opposition is already taking shape. But there are big question-marks and some potential risks here, principally to do with how this opposition constitutes itself. Will it be based on clan and regional interests, or on political and ideological viewpoints? There is a great deal riding on which way it goes.

Muratbek Imanaliev is a former foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan who now leads the Justice and Progress party, and is a professor at the American University in Central Asia.

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