Political Divorce in Kyrgyzstan

The difficult relationship between the president and his prime minister breaks down after parliament refuses to let Felix Kulov come back as premier.

Political Divorce in Kyrgyzstan

The difficult relationship between the president and his prime minister breaks down after parliament refuses to let Felix Kulov come back as premier.

The end of Felix Kulov’s career as prime minister has broken up an alliance with President Kurmanbek Bakiev that until now seemed to lie at the heart of Kyrgyzstan’s political set-up.

Kulov resigned with his entire cabinet on December 19, but stayed on in a caretaker capacity. Many believed he would automatically be confirmed in office again when Bakiev put his name forward to parliament on January 18, but deputies rejected him.

The president tried again on January 25, but the legislators held out. Many of them had been angered by Kulov’s resignation, which they saw as a tactic to force a dissolution of parliament and fresh elections.

A new constitution approved in early November after a week-long confrontation between the Bakiev administration and opposition demonstrators required that any new cabinet had to be formed by the majority party. Since this would only work if 50 per cent of parliament was elected by proportional representation as stipulated in the new constitution, and the current body is entirely based on first-past-the-post constituency ballots, a parliamentary election would have to take place before a government could be selected.

Bakiev got round this apparent impasse by revising the constitution again, winning back rights to propose a prime minister in a new draft which went through parliament on December 30. He then used this right to nominate Kulov - but the tactic failed.

After parliament rejected Kulov for the second time, Bakiev appeared to give up the fight and offered instead another name – the relatively unknown Azim Isabekov, who was acting minister of agriculture, water resources and processing industries. Isabekov, who was approved by a huge majority in parliament on January 29, is seen as less likely than his predecessor to rub parliament up the wrong way.

The removal of Kulov as the country’s second most powerful politician effectively ends the “tandem”, the alliance Bakiev forged with him to secure victory in the July 2005 presidential election. At the time, Kulov was seen as his main rival, and the deal helped neutralise a confrontation that would have been damaging amid the political turbulence that followed the March 2005 revolution in which Askar Akaev was ousted as president.

In addition, in a country where the north-south divide is seen as an important and potentially explosive factor in politics, Kulov brought a northern constituency with him which was important to Bakiev and his allies, whose stronghold was in their home region of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Kulov has refrained from commenting on his departure, although the Agym newspaper quoted him as saying bitterly, “What can I say about someone who didn’t keep his word?”

He seems to have bet on being re-appointed easily, believing that Bakiev could not afford to break up the “tandem” and would do anything to secure parliament’s agreement. After the first rejection, Kulov told reporters, “The president has promised that he will put me forward again and again until I get in.”

Bakiev’s press secretary Nurlan Shakiev said that even when the president announced he was nominating someone else to be prime minister, Kulov asked him to make one more attempt.

“Kulov was loyal to the tandem to the very end, and he naively believed that Bakiev would be just as loyal to him,” Kubatbek Baibolov, a member of parliament, commented to IWPR.

Political analyst Orozbek Moldaliev thinks the president let his ally down. “Kulov is an experienced politician, but he didn’t expect to be treated like this,” he said. “The presidential administration did not mount a [pro-Kulov] campaign. The president looked on unconcernedly, and the deputies realised he had no need of Kulov.”

Bakyt Beshimov, co-chairman of the Union of Democratic Forces party, saw the warning signs when Bakiev sent along relatively minor figure to support Kulov’s nomination in parliament.

“This is proof that the tandem was not strong, and that these two leaders mistrusted one another from the outset,” he said. “If the president had come himself and asked the deputies to vote for [Kulov], it would have been a different story.”

Is this the end of the tandem – and does Bakiev believe he can dispense with Kulov? Several politicians interviewed by IWPR believe the answer is yes on both counts.

“Of course a strong figure like Kulov was a stabilising factor and he added weight to the government,” said Naken Kasiev, who heads the Elet party. “But then again, Bakiev wins as a result, because now the prime minister will be someone who does the president’s bidding. No one will oppose the president now.”

As prime minister, Kulov riled legislators with some of the policies he espoused, by his perceived failure to make progress in other areas, and crucially, for not standing up to Bakiev, with whom parliament has had a strained relationship all along.

Parliamentarian Dooronbek Sadyrbaev said Kulov effectively admitted defeat as head of the government by pressing for Kyrgyzstan to join the Heavy Indebted Poor Countries, HIPC, initiative, a debt reduction scheme run by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Although Kyrgyzstan has now applied to enter the programme, the move has incurred popular hostility since many people are unhappy at being equated with badly-run and impoverished third-world countries.

“A person does not have the right to be prime minister if he sees HIPC as the only way out of crisis. His strong stance on HIPC had a negative effect on his career as prime minister,” said Sadyrbaev.

Kulov then annoyed the opposition when he aligned himself firmly with President Bakiev during the November protests. His strong support – which belied the previously rocky nature of the relationship - undoubtedly helped Bakiev ride out this difficult period.

Asiya Sasykbaeva, leader of the non-government group Interbilim, was one of those who felt disappointed. “The opposition was waiting for him at the November rallies - we thought he would come and speak openly. We knew that his hands were tied, that he had no power to operate, and that he disagreed with Bakiev’s policies. But at this point it became clear that he was covering for Bakiev’s mistakes. He failed to become a strong leader, and simply supported his ‘tandem’ partner blindly.”

Kulov’s resignation in December was the last straw, after which parliament was unlikely to willingly have him back as prime minister.

The former prime minister is a survivor who started out as a policeman and rose to become deputy interior minister by the late Soviet period. Under President Akaev, he was minister of internal affairs and, in 1992-93, vice-president of Kyrgyzstan.

At the end of the Nineties he was mayor of Bishkek, but after founding the Arnamys party, whose name means “dignity”, he was arrested and convicted on corruption charges that many felt were brought against him to eliminate him as a potential challenger to Akaev. He was only released during the March 2005 revolution.

Now he faces the task of carving out a niche for himself, standing apart from both the Bakiev administration and the opposition.

President Bakiev has offered him other posts, but many analysts say he will turn these down and withdraw from government, to concentrate on building Arnamys into a heavyweight political force.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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