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Tough Times Ahead for Kyrgyz Coalition

Survival of new government depends on party leaders keeping differences in check.
By Emir Kulov, Dina Tokbaeva
  • Kyrgyz prime minister Almazbek Atambaev (left) with the new speaker of parliament, Ahmatbek Keldibekov. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)
    Kyrgyz prime minister Almazbek Atambaev (left) with the new speaker of parliament, Ahmatbek Keldibekov. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)
  • The new Kyrgyz parliament sits in the White House, formerly the presidential building. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)
    The new Kyrgyz parliament sits in the White House, formerly the presidential building. (Photo: Igor Kovalenko)

As the long-awaited government in Kyrgyzstan sets its priorities for its first few months in office, analysts say the diverse composition of the coalition will make it hard to tackle the numerous political, security and economic challenges facing it. 

The long and uncertain wait following parliamentary elections in October finally ended in December with the approval of a cabinet consisting of Ata Jurt and the Social Democratic Party, which came first and second in the ballot, respectively, and Respublika, which came fourth. Together they hold 77 of the 120 seats in parliament, well above the 50 per cent margin required to hold power.

The coalition partners make surprising bedfellows. Ata Jurt describes its stance as “national patriotic” and emerged last year in opposition to the interim administration which came to power following the ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiev in a popular uprising in April. At the time, that made it a natural adversary of the Social Democrats, who held key positions in the transitional administration.

After the election, most analysts predicted that two blocs would compete for the right to form a government, one of them bringing together Ata Jurt together with the third-placed Ar Namys, and the other consisting of the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken, which had also been part of the interim government. Winning over Respublika, a newish party, was seen as key to the success of either bloc.

The first coalition to emerge was indeed made up of the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken plus Respublika, but it foundered at the first hurdle when some of its members of parliament were among the majority who refused to approve its choice of speaker.

A further round of negotiations produced the current alignment, which successfully got its candidates through votes in mid-December, with Social Democrat leader Almazbek Atambaev selected as prime minister and Ata Jurt parliamentary leader Ahmatbek Keldibekov becoming the speaker. Respublika’s leader, Omurbek Babanov, was made first deputy prime minister.

The establishment of a functioning government is just the start on the difficult road to overcoming the many challenges facing Kyrgyzstan.

The election followed months of political turbulence which began with the ejection of President Bakiev in April and reached a peak in June with widespread ethnic clashes in and around the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad, which left over 400 dead and caused massive devastation.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan’s already fragile economy continues to reel from the blows dealt to it by the multiple effects of global financial crisis, ranging from a downturn in trade to falling demand for its migrant labour force in countries like Russia.

Analysts say fundamental differences of approach among the three coalition parties will inevitably resurface as they set about formulating policies to when they negotiate the common approach on policies. The highly personalised nature of Kyrgyz politics will make compromises especially difficult.

The stakes are high because in the new new-shape parliament, which stems from a constitutional referendum held in late June 2010, the coalition enjoys more powers than previous governing blocs.

Kadyr Malikov, head of the Religion, Law and Politics Centre in Bishkek, says the new cabinet needs to agree immediate actions such as how to ensure that public-sector wages and benefits are paid. Yet decisions on economic and security matters alike are going to be hard to reach, since each party has its own vision of the future.

But he warns, “There is no common mechanism by which the coalition can function. The parties have different programmes, and different approaches to economics and to shaping the budget. The coalition has distributed the [ministerial] portfolios but mistrust still exists between the parties within it. Each party also has its own internal groupings that don’t trust one another.”

Much will depend on the willingness of party leaders to give ground, and also on the behaviour of individual members of parliament, Malikov said.

Pavel Dyatlenko, a political analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank, predicts that the coalition government will face tough times through the winter and spring, and says its survival will depend on success in areas such as securing financial aid from foreign governments and international organisations, reviving the economy, and strengthening the control of central government over regional leaders, informal political elites and the law enforcement agencies.

One positive move came when Prime Minister Atambaev visited Russia at the end of December, securing agreement from Moscow to lift export duties on fuel sales to Kyrgyzstan from January 1.

Providing it lasts through the cold season, Dyatlenko forecasts that the coalition government will remain in place until October 2011, when a presidential election is due.

As well as economics, security matters will also feature high on the parliamentary agenda.

Malikov said one immediate issue to be dealt with was the threat posed by armed militants. On January 5, three armed men and a member of the security services died when police mounted an operation against a suspected Islamic radical group in a village outside Bishkek. The group is believed to have been behind the murder of three policemen the day before, a bombing near the venue of a high-profile trial on November 30, and an attempted bomb attack outside the capital’s police headquarters on December 24.

Despite the difficult circumstances the government is operating in, Medet Tyulegenov, senior lecturer in comparative international politics at the American University in Central Asia in Bishkek, remains cautiously optimistic about its chances, arguing that coalition members are displaying a pragmatic approach to making government work.

At the same time, Tyulegenov warned that the coalition would stray into difficult territory when it came to rendering an account of last June’s violence, which a parliamentary commission is currently investigating.

During debates, the Social Democrats could find itself under fire through its association with the interim government, which has been accused of not doing enough to prevent the conflict. Ata-Jurt, meanwhile, will be on the other side of the fence as it was not in power at the time and made a name for itself by organising aid shipments to southern Kyrgyzstan.

The government is already facing its first practical test with a threat by teachers to go on strike unless their salaries are raised fourfold by the end of January. The ultimatum follows protests last month by thousands of secondary schoolteachers across Kyrgyzstan.

The government says it cannot afford the pay rise, even though the amount the teachers are asking for comes to an average of 40 US dollars a month.

Healthcare workers have also issued a statement demanding a wage increase.

Emir Kulov is IWPR editor for Kyrgyzstan, Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR’s regional editor for Central Asia. Additional reporting provided by Askar Erkebaev, a reporter in Bishkek, and Timur Toktonaliev, an IWPR-trained correspondent in Bishkek.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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