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Kyrgyzstan: New Government, Old Faces

Is President Akaev building a slimmed-down government for reform, or just rearranging an entourage of old friends?
By Leila Saralaeva

A recent cabinet reshuffle in Kyrgyzstan has sparked controversy over whether it is a tactic to make President Askar Akaev's position unassailable, or a well-intentioned step to build a more modern, efficient style of government.

As might have been expected, spokesmen for the president came out with the latter, upbeat line, saying the changes were all about promoting the best people and cutting out the flab from central government.

Just as predictably, opposition figures attacked the shake-up, portraying it as a deliberate ploy to surround the president with a tight network of people whose loyalty he can rely on as he prepares for elections next year.

The truth may lie somewhere in between. One of the most important changes is the creation of a single ministry to run the bulk of the government's economic policy. The Ministry for Economic Development, Industry and Trade will, for example, absorb the functions of the foreign trade ministry, which becomes defunct.

Akaev singled out the importance of the new ministry when he announced the changes in parliament. Judging from what he said, the aim is to create more cohesion in policy development and implementation.

At the same time, the names that emerged as the reshuffle took place in the first week of February suggested that Akaev was mainly recycling old allies rather than bringing in fresh blood.

Key changes include the appointment of Toichubek Kasymov, a former governor of the Chui region, as the head of the presidential office. Kasymov is seen as a longstanding and close ally of Akaev. In a country where regional and family ties count for a lot, Kasymov went to school with the president's wife Mayram Akaeva and shares common roots in her home area, Talas.

Kasymov gets two deputies, Bolot Januzakov and Alikbek Jekshenkulov, both promoted although they retain their portfolios of domestic security and foreign affairs, respectively, in Akaev's office.

Kubanychbek Jumaliev, who has been a friend of the president's family for a number of years and studied physics under Akaev when both were in academic life, became first deputy premier and also minister of transport and communications. He took over the former post from Kurmanbek Osmonov, who also lost his job as justice minister and moved over to become the head of Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court.

Overall, the changes involved the liquidation of five government departments and several agencies, inspectorates and commissions. Five ministerial positions, six deputy minister posts and ten middle-ranking offices were abolished, while some government departments gained greater authority and a number of senior officials were given new responsibilities.

Officials were quick to explain the reasoning behind the reshuffle. Presidential press secretary Abdil Segizbaev said constitutional changes adopted last year gave the government much more authority. What the president was now doing, he said, was making those powers a reality by cutting out duplication and putting in place the structures needed to make the cabinet "quicker on its feet and more independent".

Segizbaev's colleague Dosaly Esenaliev, who heads Akaev's press office, agreed that it was all about efficiency. He stressed that "everyone whom the president has appointed to these official positions is known for being an intelligent manager".

But opposition figures dispute this reasoning, saying instead that President Akaev has acted to create a loyal circle around him as he goes forward to first parliamentary and then presidential elections next year.

"This government reform has not been carried out to improve the economic and social conditions in the country," opposition deputy Azimbek Beknazarov told IWPR. "It was a first step toward reinforcing Akaev's position by having his people in position, so as to win the parliamentary and presidential elections and remain in power.”

Like others in the opposition, Beknazarov does not believe the assertion that people have been moved up purely on grounds of professional excellence. "Why haven't they brought new people into the government - representatives of the opposition or civil society? They have recruited the closest, most reliable and tried-and-tested people so that they can win the elections," he said.

Another opposition deputy, Duishen Chotonov, sees the new cabinet as an election campaign team in the making, "Akaev has gathered together everyone with whom he plans to go to forward to the elections."

Bektur Asanov, another deputy representing the opposition, thinks there is more to come, "These recent appointments are only the president's first step towards bolstering his position."

Others doubt that – elections aside – Akaev's new team is capable of bringing major changes, since it includes so many old faces.

Such criticism is dismissed as mere carping by Bolot Januzakov, one of the beneficiaries of what he calls these "vital changes".

"Opposition figures have a habit of saying black is white, and vice versa," he told IWPR. "There's nothing out of the ordinary about them being unhappy with the changes."

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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