Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rotating Kyrgyz Heads

Osh leaders change so frequently that residents barely get a chance to find out who they are
By IWPR Central Asia

The southern Kyrgyz oblast of Osh holds something of a record for its turnover of local leaders.


Since Kyrgyzstan gained independence ten years ago, the province has had six governors and its capital has been through no fewer than eight mayors. It's all part of a process known as "rotation" - executives, from the prime minister to akims (regional state administration heads) and deputies, cannot expect to hold down a post for longer than eighteen months.


Official justification for the process is that heads of central and local government develop better leadership qualities. It's also a means to stem corruption - by limiting political terms, officials are prevented from establishing clan and power bases.


Independent media suggests the rapid turnover is a means by which President Askar Akaev controls potential political rivals. At the same time, it is also a way to reward supporters. A rash of appointments and role-swapping followed Akaev's re-election last October.


In Osh, the only exception so far is former governor Amangeldy Muraliev, who held his post for a record three years (1996-1999). Subsequently appointed prime minister, Muraliev lasted the usual year and a half.


But he is an anomaly as far as political appointees go.


"Authority is probably the only thing that changes with any regularity," noted a regional newspaper editor. "It reminds me of chess, but the same game goes on forever. Only the players understand what's going on. Everybody else just watches silently."


Governors and mayors linger only in the memories of those who served directly under them. Evgenia, a secretary in the Osh governor's office, has seen nine bosses come and go during the 12 years she has worked there. Not surprisingly, she didn't get time to know any of them. Only one stood out, she said, because of the colour of his shirt which, in her opinion, did his image no favours at all.


The majority of people don't know the name of their leaders and wouldn't recognise them if they saw them in the street. In a straw poll of thirty or so people in the capital, most could just about name the current Osh governor and akim but only four recalled his predecessor.


"Why do I need to know their names?" said Khikmet, at his greengrocer's stall in the market. "Will it make my life easier, or what?"


Mavluda, standing over a table of garlic bulbs, commented, " I'm more worried about whether I'll be able to feed my children today than knowing the name of a governor."


Each new regional or city head starts in the same fashion: shuffling or completely replacing staff and defining his priorities - the standard revival of the economy, the improvement of people's quality of life, the drawing on achievements of previous years.


After a year in office, the local press applaud his tenure. Headlines usually read, 'We've been lucky to have such a governor' or 'Thank you governor,' followed by a list of his various achievements.


A year into Jusupbek Shapirov's term as local akim, The Osh Echo ran a piece bemoaning the turnover of five akims in just six years which, it said, has undermined society and the economy.


The piece ended on an upbeat note, however, "But finally, when Jusupbek Sharipov was appointed, Osh residents breathed a sigh of relief." Three months later he left to take up his new post as governor of Issyk-Kul oblast.


Unpopular as rotation may be, the authorities have recently sought to expand the system.


Eighteen months ago, the city administration thought about introducing it into the education sector. It was tried out in a number of schools. Headmasters then directors were swapped. Some staff were horrified by the experiment.


"We were literarily crying," said one of the directors. "I gave 17 years of my life to my school. It's my second home. I'll never manage to adapt to a new school. I won't have enough energy or desire for it."


Distracted by more important concerns, the Osh governor seems to have shelved the idea. And there's been no rush to remind him about it.


Local Osh businessman, Sabir Akhmedjanov, says leaders may come and go, but little change, as they always distance themselves from the needs of ordinary people.


"They just re-fashioned themselves as democrats," said Sabir. "We're allowed to say anything we want, but nobody listens to us. Just try to get an appointment with the city akim or with a regional official - you'll lose yourself weeks.


"Yes, they'll put you in line for an appointment, but the boss will immediately leave for a business trip, then he'll be ill. Your case will be delegated to his deputy, who, in his turn, will delegate it to the head of department."


People have their own theories on 'rotation', convinced that each new leader, governor, akim, along with their assistants and deputies, are in power in order only to line their pockets and those of their families.


Alla Pyatibratova is a regular IWPR contributor