Kyrgyz Reforms Leave President Stronger

Plan for leaner, tighter government seems as much about increasing president’s role as about turning economy round.

Kyrgyz Reforms Leave President Stronger

Plan for leaner, tighter government seems as much about increasing president’s role as about turning economy round.

Tuesday, 27 October, 2009

Wide-ranging reforms announced by President Kurmanbek Bakiev were headlined as an attempt to overcome economic crisis by means of technocratic government and sweeping away bureaucracy. However, some aspects of the new structure look suspiciously like an attempt to concentrate power in the president’s hands.

President Bakiev unveiled details of his much-anticipated reform package at an October 20 meeting with central and local government officials.

Before embarking on economic reforms, he said, governance systems themselves must be restructured, starting with his own presidential office.

As a result, the current presidential administration has been abolished, and replaced by a Presidential Institution with less staff but with several new functions and much more authority. In the president’s words, this becomes the “unified decision-making body”.

In line with the economic focus of the reforms, the Institution will include a Central Agency for Development, Investment and Innovation.

For less obvious reasons, it will also include the foreign minister, and a presidential advisor for defense, security, and law and order, who takes over the functions of the now-defunct national Security Council, on which the defence, internal affairs and other “power” ministers used to sit. The Presidential Institution also acquires direct control over the state security service and the financial police.

Also within the Presidential Institution is a new council called the Presidential Council. When Bakiev outlined his reforms to parliament in early December, it appeared that this body would draw its members from various interest groups, but it is now looking more like a super-cabinet, with the president’s new defence and security adviser, the foreign minister, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament among its members.

For the government itself, Bakiev prescribed a massive streamlining of civil servants in the ministries, in a bid to slash a bureaucracy that he said had proven itself incapable of pro-active planning to combat the ongoing economic crisis. He noted that the reduced wage burden on government would be an additional benefit.

As the president made clear in his speech, this phase is about fixing the structural obstacles to change, and the substantive economic policy decisions are yet to come.

At this point, politicians and commentators are divided on whether the reforms are enough to steer Kyrgyzstan out of troubled economic waters.

Begaly Nargozuev, a member of parliament from Bakiev’s Ak Jol party, is certain that things are going to get better.

“These reforms are likely to produce results, since many things have been achieved so far. There is no way back,” he said.

Mars Sariev, an independent political analyst, argues that making the presidency look visibly different is essential to recruiting highly educated technocrats capable of delivering effective government, who might not have wanted to work in the old structure.

“This had to be done, with a new title and new, more attractive watchwords, so as to make educated intellectuals more inclined to join the Presidential Institution,” he said.

Pavel Dyatlenko, an analyst at the Polis Asia think-tank, believes the new development and investment agency shows how serious the president is about having direct control over the way economic policy is planned and resources distributed.

Dyatlenko believe the plan is designed to ensure political stability, which in turn creates a window for modernisation led from the top.

“If this is carried through successfully, President Bakiev will go down in history as a reformer,” he added.

Dyatlenko is less enthusiastic about the reduction in the army of public servants, calling it “a step to increase the president’s popularity rating by showing that the state cares about its people at a time of hardship”.

In reality, he said, “The practical efficacy of this step is questionable, as reorganising government institutions and finding employment for a large number of redundant civil servants will take substantial resources, which are in short supply during this economic crisis. If it leads to economies in government funds, that will happen only after some time.”

Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based journalist and veteran Central Asia-watcher, believes Bakiev wants to use the new structures to bring together a variety of political interest groups.

“Creating the Presidential Institution represents a solution to the problems surrounding him [Bakiev], and to regional and clan strife,” says Dubnov.

Regional, tribal and clan affinities remain important factors in Kyrgyz politics.

Dubnov does not, however, think Bakiev will achieve his overarching aim of turning the economy around.

“His idea that this reform will provide the impetus for an economic breakthrough is unlikely to come to fruition, because Kyrgyzstan is a country without resources, without high levels of human capacity among officials, and with little in the way of financial investment,” said Dubnov. “Reshuffling the bureaucracy and redistributing the functions are hardly going to produce economic change.”

The most controversial part of Bakiev’s reform package is the appropriation of foreign affairs and security functions which traditionally with the government led by the prime minister.

Bakiev’s explanation of why the foreign minister should shift from government to presidency was that this role should involve oversight of all ministries and agencies which have a foreign policy element to their activities.

As for the security sector changes, Dubnov suggested that the Kyrgyz leadership might be trying to create more effective systems for striking at corruption – a move which could win Bakiev a lot of popular support.

Cholpon Nogoibayeva, who heads the Institute for Public Studies in Bishkek, is worried by the growing focus on internal security.

“The problem of terrorism is now discussed constantly, and the budget for equipping and building up the security forces is being expanded. The trend is towards strengthening the security services, and that explains why they are being hived off from government,” she said. “Kyrgyzstan is turning into a police state.”

Nogoibayeva predicts that from now on it will be the Presidential Institution that governs – it will shape policies, while the cabinet is left to implement them.

Sariev agrees with this view, adding that the government was being set up to serve as a “scapegoat”.

“They always need someone they can blame for everything later on,” he added.

On October 21, the day after the president unveiled his reforms, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov and his cabinet stepped down to make way for the changes. His replacement was named as Daniyar Usenov, until that point the head of Bakiev’s administration.

Timur Toktonaliev and Ainagul Abdrakhmanova are IWPR-trained journalists in Bishkek.

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