Kyrgyz Leader Edges Towards Reform

Economic realities may prod Kurmanbek Bakiev away from autocratic impulses towards reform.

Kyrgyz Leader Edges Towards Reform

Economic realities may prod Kurmanbek Bakiev away from autocratic impulses towards reform.

Tuesday, 27 October, 2009

As Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev prepares to announce a series of long-awaited reforms, analysts are divided over whether his intentions are genuine or driven by necessity.

On October 20, Bakiev is widely expected to announce sweeping changes intended to make the decision-making process more democratic and consultative.

Government agencies will be streamlined, some presidential powers transferred to the cabinet and changes made to law enforcement, the judiciary and the military. Two new consultative bodies will be created – the Presidential Council, a platform for interest groups like business, industry and agriculture, and the Supreme Kurultay, an assembly representative of regional, religious and ethnic communities.

The changes come in a year in which Kyrgyzstan has suffered badly from the effects of global downturn. According to the national statistics agency, the economy grew by only 0.3 per cent year-on-year in the first six months of 2009, compared with 7.5 per cent in the same period last year. Industrial production fell by nearly 19 per cent, in part because of a slump in exports.

Analysts say Bakiev’s efforts at political change seem to stem from a realisation that in order to drive the economic reforms seen as essential to recovery, the president will have to soften his own powers and introduce a wider range of voices into decision-making. Some also point to Kyrgyzstan’s dependency on financial aid from the West, which is commonly linked to achieving democratic progress.

Analyst Mars Sariev believes that authoritarian states are intrinsically unstable as they are resented by their populations, and only become sustainable if those in power have the resources to defuse or quell opposition.

“In order to do that, very large resources are needed such as oil, gas or mineral riches,” he said. “That is how authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakstan sustain themselves.

“Kyrgyzstan does not have any of that [mineral wealth], and its only [funding] source is the West – Europe and America. Unless it follows a democratic course, it won’t be able to access these sources, and we will face economic collapse by next spring.”

Bakiev’s past record does not suggest he is a natural reformer.

He was first elected president in July 2005 following popular unrest in March that year, in which the then president Askar Akaev was ousted. Bakiev quickly promised constitutional reforms and an end to the clan-based style of politics seen as having tarnished the previous administration.

Analysts such as Sariev argue that Bakiev was also the product of this system before becoming a revolutionary. Under Akaev, he held a number of high-ranking government jobs including that of prime minister, from which he resigned in 2002 after six protestors were shot dead by police during unrest in the southern Aksy district.

There was therefore little chance that Bakiev would embrace democracy wholeheartedly, say analysts. His first term appeared to confirm this theory, as Bakiev was accused by his fellow-revolutionaries of concentrating power in the hands of his immediate circle and curtailing parliament’s powers in favour of his own.

Aziza Abdirasulova, who heads the human rights group Kylym Shamy, believes Bakiev’s first term in office represented a step backwards for Kyrgyz democracy.

Citing the 2007 referendum for a new constitution which strengthened Bakiev’s powers, Abdirasulova said, “He started a constitutional reform, but not the one demanded by the public and the revolution.”

Bakiev’s critics point to a series of negative developments such as a law restricting public meetings and another which ended attempts to transform state TV into a public broadcaster.

“The situation around press freedom in Kyrgyzstan has worsened. Today there isn’t even one TV station that provides objective reporting,” said Abdirasulova.

Bakiev won a second term in office in July this year, amid opposition claims that the poll was flawed by numerous violations. His main rival, Almazbek Atambaev, representing the main opposition coalition, came a distant second with just eight per cent of the vote.

The leader of the opposition Ata Meken party, Omurbek Tekebaev, doubts whether Bakiev can make the shift towards reform at this stage.

“He’s unable to change and he is going to further strengthen his own personal authority and the power of a narrow circle of people,” he predicted.

Begaly Nargozuev, a Bakiev supporter and member of the ruling Ak Jol party, disagrees wholeheartedly, insisting that there has been more democracy under this administration than there ever was in Akaev’s day.

“All the promises that Bakiev made during the revolution have been fulfilled,” said Nargozuev. “It’s just that the public perception of this varies – some people like it, others don’t.”

Among the pledges the president had delivered on, he gave as examples, “The Akaev family clan has been destroyed, and constitutional reform has been carried out, so that parliament is based on the political party system.”

Narguzoev said Bakiev deserved to be where he was.

“He’s a good president because he’s made his way up the ladder from engineer to prime minister. He was elected leader because of his professionalism and his efforts to unite and develop the country and its citizens.”

Nargozuev dismissed criticisms made by opposition and rights activists. “They aspire to democratic ideals that have been established in countries over 200 or 300 years. Kyrgyzstan became independent only 18 years ago, and it would be difficult to develop a democracy over that period, although we need to try to reach that goal.”

Others believe that whatever his motivation, Bakiev is serious about enacting reforms.

Political scientist Marat Kazakpaev says that since Bakiev is only allowed two five-year terms in office, so this is his last chance to create a positive legacy.

“In these five years, he must implement what he intended,” he said. “If he doesn’t put it into action, then it will be his fault and he will go down in history as a bad president.”

Leading opposition politician Azimbek Beknazarov agreed that the legacy issue was important if Bakiev were to leave politics one day.

“Even now, it isn’t too late to change his mind, and to think about how he can avoid people’s anger when he’s no longer president,” he said.

Timur Toktonaliev is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

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