No Give and Take in Kyrgyz Stand-off

The president offers his opponents more and more concessions, but all they want is his resignation.

No Give and Take in Kyrgyz Stand-off

The president offers his opponents more and more concessions, but all they want is his resignation.

On the face of it, Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev is bending over backwards to satisfy the opposition and defuse political tensions. Yet after appointing an opponent as prime minister, pledging constitutional reform and meeting other demands set out by opposition groups, he has still not succeeded in dissuading them from mass protests later this month

At one level, Kyrgyz politics resembles a game of chess between the two main protagonists – the president and Felix Kulov, the leader of the United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan.

The complication is that there are not two but three major players in the game, and the rules are constantly changing.

Until January 26, Kulov was Bakiev’s prime minister, while the main opposition force was the Movement for Democratic Reforms – itself consisting of groups that brought Bakiev to power in the March 2005 revolution but subsequently grew disillusioned with his rule.

After Kulov left office, he set up the United Front which immediately adopted a more radical position than the Movement for Reforms, which now found itself in the middle ground, vacillating between Kulov’s all-or nothing-demands for the president’s resignation, or working with what concessions the authorities were prepared to offer.

On the government side, the ground has been shifting rapidly as well. From a position of no compromise, Bakiev has begun offering one concession after another over the last couple of weeks.

First, he indicated that he was prepared to negotiate with opposition leaders, and met Almazbek Atambaev of the Movement for Reforms on March 21. Two days later, he gave a televised address to the nation which was trailed as a response to the list of demands the opposition delegation had presented to him.

“A return to a confrontation would be fatal for the country. I call on political forces to engage in a constructive dialogue,” he said in the address.

But apart from calling for dialogue, the president offered compromise in only one area, pledging to launch constitutional reforms and outlining the mechanism – a working group – to make that happen as soon as possible.

The constitution has been central to the dispute between the Bakiev administration and the Movement for Reforms. After a week of street protests in early November, Bakiev unexpectedly agreed to a new version of the constitution which significantly curbed his authority. But in late December, after Kulov and his cabinet resigned in hope of forcing an early parliamentary election, Bakiev used the impasse to force another set of constitutional amendments through the legislature, restoring some of his powers.

Then, on March 26, he agreed to another key demand – transforming the state television and radio company into a public broadcasting service. A bill proposing this measure went through parliament last June, but Bakiev vetoed it at the time.

The most significant concession came on March 29, when the president appointed Atambaev as prime minister to head up a new coalition government. The appointment was confirmed by parliament within 24 hours.

Atambaev is leader of the Social Democratic Party and served as minister for industry, trade and tourism until October 2006, when he resigned because he disagreed with the president’s policies. He then became co-chairman of the opposition Movement for Reforms, which he has recently stepped away from.

As parliament approved him in office, Atambaev explained that he wanted use his position to build bridges.

“The divide between the regime and the opposition is widening day by day. I do not want to see this country fall apart, so I will try to form a government which will become a bridge between the regime and the opposition.”

State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov told IWPR that the Bakiev was making a concerted effort to engage the opposition in government.

“The doors of Government House are open, and anyone from the opposition who wishes to do so can join the coalition government. All problems can be solved through talks, and the authorities are rushing to meet the opposition halfway,” he said.

The United Front immediately refused to be part of any coalition, and said it was pressing ahead with planning its April 11 rally.

More surprisingly, the prospect of a coalition government led by one of its own recent members prompted the Movement for Reforms to jump – and rather than accepting the offer, it tied its colours firmly to the mast of Kulov’s group.

A joint statement by the two groups said Bakiev “has not fulfilled a single one of the promises he made to the people”.

In the absence of willing contenders from the opposition, the cabinet changes made by Atambaev were unremarkable. One casualty in the reshuffle was First Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, who was disliked by opposition groups.

Tamerlan Ibraimov, head of the Centre for Political and Legal Studies, commented,“The fact that Atambaev has been appointed prime minister does not create the space for a political consensus between the authorities and the opposition. The confrontation will continue until instruments and mechanisms are found for moderating the United Front’s radical demands for an early presidential election.”

As this report was published, no such mechanisms were apparent. The April rally was still going ahead, now with the backing of both opposition movements, and the principal demand was that Bakiev must go.

In Kulov’s words, “on April 11, a peaceful transfer of power will take place by constitutional means”.

The United Front and the Movement for Reforms continue to operate as separate entities, with some crossover of membership, and they have agreed that neither will talk to the authorities without consulting the other.

“The opposition is now stronger and more united than ever before,” Omurbek Tekebaev, the former speaker of parliament who is now a rank-and-file deputy and a member of both opposition groups, told IWPR.

For many in the opposition, it is Bakiev himself who is the problem, however many concessions he makes. His opponents – many of them recent political allies – blame him for all the problems Kyrgyzstan has had since its “liberation” from President Askar Akaev’s rule in March 2005, and accuse him everything from failing to institute reforms to turning a blind eye to nepotism and corruption.

“We refuse to be part of the government because we do not believe the president is sincere in the statements he makes, “said Tekebaev. “We suspect that all the moves he has made to satisfy the opposition’s demands are tactical ploys and tricks. Until the system is changed, no one will be able to achieve these [opposition-defined] goals.”

Some analysts suggest that the issue is not that Bakiev’s concessions are inadequate, but that the slow and apparently confused manner with which they have materialised suggests that they are not backed by sincerity.

“You get the impression that the president is making an attempt to split the opposition,” said political analyst Nur Omarov. “He was late in creating a coalition government - he should have done it in November, when the opposition demanded it. Now the only people prepared to join a coalition cabinet are those who have lost political authority and influence. And that only goes to make things worse rather than better, and shows that the president is trying to save his own skin.”

But there are others who say the coalition is the best deal on offer, and the opposition should grab it with both hands rather than doggedly pursuing their rejectionist policy.

“I hope the arrival of Atambaev will calm things down and prevent the country dividing in two,” deputy Iskhak Masaliev told IWPR. “It will lead to a redistribution of power in government, and he will act as a kind of counterweight.”

The opposition’s continued refusal to come to the table “threatens to split the state and the nation, just so that they [opposition] can achieve their own personal goals”, said Masaliev.

A hint of the next move in this high-stakes game came from State Secretary Madumarov, who said that if the opposition will not negotiate or join the coalition cabinet, a national referendum might be called in which people would be asked for a vote of confidence in the president.

“Unless the authorities and the opposition can find ways to resolve the current situation, then the people will decide,” said Madumarov.

Taalaibek Amanov is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia agency contributed additional reporting.

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