Will Too Many Cooks Spoil the Kyrgyz Soup?
April 16, 2010
By James Kirchick
BISHKEK -- The next six months will be a decisive period for Kyrgyzstan.
That’s the amount of time the country’s provisional government -- which took power last week after President Kurmanbek Bakiev initially fled the capital following violent protests opposing his rule -- has allotted itself to write a new constitution, create an electoral code, and hold elections for a new parliament.
Amid the general euphoria at the downfall of Bakiev and his internationally brokered departure late on April 15, one pressing question hangs in the air: Is the interim government now running the country -- composed of 14 former opposition figures from a variety of different political parties -- sufficiently durable and capable of governing Kyrgyzstan over the next half year?
While few people are dismayed to see Bakiev gone, the way in which he was removed from office was hardly ideal. “The greatest threat [to stability in Kyrgyzstan] is how the government came to power and where they get their legitimacy from,” says Donna Stewart of the USAID-funded PACT, which works to strengthen civil society and democracy in Kyrgyzstan.
To be sure, the Bakiev regime had stifled many forms of democratic dissent and a violent ouster might have been the only way to force him out of office. But that only emphasizes the vast structural weaknesses of Kyrgyz political culture, which -- ironically, given the country’s never-ending political turmoil -- lacks genuine politics.
“We have precedence for violence, it’s happened before,” Stewart says. “And that seems to be an option for people: ‘If I don’t like things I can run out into the square.’”
The members of the provisional government now running the country were appointed last month to a National Executive which was able to quickly take the reins once Bakiev was deposed. They have announced plans to write a new constitution that will establish a parliamentary system with a weakened executive branch, effectively transforming the president into a ceremonial position. This, they hope, will help the country avoid the problems that it faced under its last two leaders.
Kyrgyzstan’s political culture is personality-dominated, and whatever conflicts the country faces over the next six months will likely originate over differences among the various leaders vying for power in the provisional government. The only thing uniting these 14 leaders is that, at some point in their political careers, they all became opponents of Bakiev. And there is no telling what sort of divisions and problems will arise among them now.
“I am sure there will be problems between our interim government’s members because they represent various views, various values. That’s why I think they cannot be on one team,” says Ravshan Djeyenbekov, the deputy chairman of the Ata Meken party. “But we need to try a coalition, we are working on this now, to keep this government for five or six months before we create legitimate power in our country.”
Doubts over the durability of the interim government are echoed by Feliks Kulov, a former prime minister under Bakiev who had been imprisoned under former President Askar Akaev. In an interview last week, Kulov cited a Kyrgyz proverb that “two sheep's heads can’t be boiled in one kettle.”
The most prominent figure to emerge in the past week has been Roza Otunbaeva, leader of the provisional government. A former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, she is considered the most internationally savvy of the team.
It’s unclear whether Otunbaeva will run for president, or if she even has much of a domestic political base to support her. How she stewards the country over the ensuing months could determine her political fate.
Thus far, judging from the opinions of people in Bishkek, she seems to be universally respected for the calm manner in which she has led the country through the uncertainty of the past 10 days. Gulperi Adilova, a mourner interviewed at the mass funeral on April 10 for victims of the April 7 violence, compared her to Kurmanjan Datka, a legendary 19th-century Kyrgyz political figure known locally as the “Queen of the South.”
Whatever Otunbaeva’s attributes, however, it’s unclear whether Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim country of conservative social mores, would elect a woman as leader. Some of the Kyrgyz citizens interviewed by RFE/RL, while praising Otunbaeva’s performance this past week, said they would have trouble supporting her in an election because of her gender.
The next most prominent figure in the government is acting Deputy Prime Minister Omurbek Tekebaev. The leader of the Ata-Meken socialist party, he is widely considered to be the most charismatic figure in Kyrgyz politics and is likely to run for president in the fall.
As speaker of the parliament, elected in the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution, Tekebaev clashed early with Bakiev, famously saying in a television interview that the president was “a dog who should hang himself from the first tree that he sees.”
In an interview with RFE/RL over the weekend, Tekebaev was asked about the tendency of the country’s leaders to rob the state on behalf of their families and how such endemic corruption could be prevented in the future. Tekebaev said, “Now there are 14 of us, so it will be difficult to come to an agreement.” After a hearty chuckle, he added, “I am joking, of course.”
Almazbek Atambayev, who is the acting deputy economics minister and head of the Social Democratic Party, also has a flair for harsh language, having once called Bakiev “a political corpse.” He served as prime minister for a six-month spell in 2007, a position he attained after massive protests in Bishkek.
Atambayev lost some credibility during the 2009 presidential election, however, when he decided to withdraw his candidacy halfway through election day, despite early signs that the vote would be flawed.
Temir Sariev, the acting deputy finance minister, leads the White Falcon party and was a leading voice of the opposition in the months leading up to last week’s political violence. He has become particularly influential thanks to his ties to the Kremlin. Returning from a trip to Moscow on April 6th, the day that the riots that unseated Bakiev began building momentum, he told the country that he had met with Vladimir Putin and that the Russian prime minister had pledged his support for Kyrgyzstan’s opposition.
In a country where Russia’s image has been burnished recently due to the perception that it helped oust a loathed regime, Sariev’s close ties to Moscow should prove helpful.
Finally, there is Azimbek Beknazarov, who chairs the Asaba party* and who now finds himself in charge of the country’s law-enforcement agencies. Beknazarov has a reputation for political stubbornness; as a member of parliament he tried to block most legislation that the government submitted. Analysts say that due to this inability to compromise, Beknazarov is not seen as a serious presidential candidate, but would be valued as a political ally.
Right now, there is precious little attention being paid to the difficult questions of how to rebuild the country’s democracy, or whatever semblance of democracy it once had, as the foremost concern is ensuring the country's internal stability in the aftermath of Bakiev's departure for Kazakhstan.
Having already witnessed a revolution promising democracy, only to see it collapse under its own lofty rhetoric, most observers here hope that Kyrgyzstan's political elites have learned from their mistakes. Whether or not they have done so will determine if this revolution, like so many before it, eventually eats its own.
* CORRECTION: This story initially identified Beknazarov as a co-chair of Asaba along with Roza Otunbaeva. In fact, Otunbaeva is a former Asaba member who subsequently led the Social Democratic faction in the Kyrgyz parliament.
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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