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Kyrgyzstan: Hardball Politics With No Winners

  • Daniel Kimmage

Kyrgyz Premier Kulov (left) and President Bakiev on 14 February (RFE/RL) It has been almost a year since Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev abandoned the ship of state as a crowd seethed in Bishkek on 24 March 2005. The intervening months have passed in an atmosphere of tenuous calm punctuated by high-profile killings and flaring political tensions. In recent weeks the strains within the ruling elite have increased to a level suggestive of systemic crisis.

The latest upswing in political tension took the form of public statements by Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, President Kurmanbek Bakiev, and parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev. They articulated mutually opposed visions of what is now happening in Kyrgyzstan, with Kulov cautioning that organized crime is a cancerous growth on the body politic, Bakiev blasting parliament for obstructionism, and Tekebaev personally attacking the president and expressing disappointment in the results of Akaev's ouster.


Premier Says Corruption, Criminality Prevalent


On 25 January, Prime Minister Kulov issued a statement warning that corruption and criminality have penetrated law-enforcement bodies. Kulov singled out National Security Service (SNB) head Tashtemir Aitbaev for failing to fight organized crime, called the work of the judiciary and prosecutors "extremely unsatisfactory," and concluded that the creeping criminalization of society "directly affects the interests of business and exerts a negative influence on the economy" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2006). The same day, Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov told a parliamentary committee that Aldoyar Ismankulov, an SNB officer detained on 17 January on drug and weapons charges, was a member of an organized crime group. Sutalinov added, "It is a fact that members of organized crime groups work in the SNB."

A political elite that goes beyond disagreement and plunges into discord runs the risk of undermining its own credibility.

Criminalization is a hot-button issue in post-Akaev Kyrgyzstan, where a number of prominent figures, including three members of parliament, have died in apparent contract killings. But Kulov's remarks may have had a more recent trigger. On 24 January, a court in Bishkek acquitted Ryspek Akmatbaev, routinely described in news reports as one of Kyrgyzstan's most feared mob bosses, of multiple murder charges, akipress.org reported. The acquittal was a foregone conclusion, as prosecutors had already dropped charges against Akmatbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006).


Akmatbaev and Kulov had already locked horns in October, when Akmatbaev's brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was brutally killed by inmates during a visit to a prison in an effort to quell a riot. Akmatbaev accused Kulov of involvement in the killing and in late October staged a series of demonstrations in Bishkek calling for Kulov's dismissal. The protests sparked widespread fears that Kyrgyz politics were degenerating into a gangland melee. In his 25 January statement on the criminal menace, Kulov used Akmatbaev's acquittal as a specific example.


Kyrgyzstan's parliament endorsed Kulov's criticism of SNB head Tashtemir Aitbaev, passing a resolution on 26 January calling on President Bakiev to dismiss Aitbaev. Bakiev refused. His office issued a statement saying, "The president said that he has not been provided with evidence on the basis of which he would be able to dismiss the incumbent chief of the SNB." In a disapproving reference to Kulov's 25 January statement, Bakiev said that the "verbal duel" between Aitbaev and Kulov "is not a credit to either of them" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006).


Bakiev Vs. Parliament


The president took on parliament directly in a 3 February address before the legislature, the official agency Kabar reported. Stressing that he had blocked plans to dissolve parliament after disputed elections in spring 2005, Bakiev described parliament's current relations with the executive as a "confrontation" and said that the legislature is "turning into a place for political squabbling, giving rise to an atmosphere of instability in the country." Charging that the parliament is going beyond its mandate, Bakiev asked deputies, "Are you trying to seize power?"


For those who might have had trouble reading between the lines, Bakiev underscored his message on 9 February, telling the Security Council in no uncertain terms that he supports a presidential system of government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006).

President Bakiev is pushing for a governmental head of state (file photo, RFE/RL)

Driving the point home, Bakiev said, "Recent events with parliament have further convinced me that we need to move in the direction of a system of government with an executive head of state." The president also downplayed the prime minister's warnings on crime, calling criminalization a "myth" that is "nothing more than an attempt to create a sense of instability in the country, discredit the new authorities, and discredit -- once and for all -- the law-enforcement organs."


Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev had raised the personal stakes in the aftermath of Bakiev's 3 February criticism of parliament. Tekebaev lashed out at Bakiev, saying, "He's become a disgrace, a dog; if he's a man, he should hang himself," Ferghana.ru reported. The comments caused an uproar and Tekebaev subsequently submitted his resignation, which parliament voted not to accept on 20 February. Tekebaev stopped short of an apology to Bakiev. Addressing parliament on 13 February, the speaker said that the form of his comments was "incorrect [and] unworthy," but he stood by their substance, "for virtually everyone agrees with the content" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). The speaker also defended the legislature, calling it the country's "most transparent branch of government," and expressed disappointment in both Bakiev and Kulov, who agreed in May 2005 to work as a tandem. Tekebaev said, "The participants of the tandem have forgotten about their promises."


Insulting The President


Tekebaev's disparagement of the president prompted a harsh response from Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev, who called Tekebaev's comments a violation of libel and defamation laws. Alluding to a "crisis caused by irreconcilable differences between parliament and the other branches of government," Kongantiev said that under the constitution, the situation could serve as justification for the dissolution of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). President Bakiev made the warning explicit in a 15 February interview with the Russian daily "Kommersant," saying that if parliament chooses the "path of confrontation, I will use my constitutional right to dissolve it."


Three broad issues emerge from the fireworks. The first is a profound disagreement over the appropriate form of government for Kyrgyzstan -- presidential, parliamentary, or some mix of the two. Most of the nations that arose after the breakup of the Soviet Union opted for presidential systems, with constitutions that vested expansive powers in the chief executive. While intended to ensure stability in time of transition, presidential systems have also facilitated authoritarianism. In Kyrgyzstan, where the top-heavy presidential system was seen as a contributing factor in the abuses of the Akaev era, a constitutional-reform referendum is slated for 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2005). As the comments by Bakiev and Tekebaev indicate, the battle lines on this issue are already drawn.


The second issue is what Kulov referred to as "criminalization." But high-profile contract killings and public displays of muscle by organized crime groups are only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem runs deeper: an entire parallel, informal power structure of backroom deals, secret schemes, and outright scams that maintains the prosperity of a tiny, well-connected elite and diminishes the prospects of the impoverished majority. The anger at Akaev that was evident in March 2005 was above all anger at a corrupt status quo. When speaker Tekebaev told parliament on 13 February that he feels "bad that since the March [2005] revolution no changes have taken place in the mentality of officials," he meant that this status quo has endured.


The third issue involves the popular perception of the political class that is fated to play a crucial role in any attempt to reform Kyrgyzstan's system of government and remake its status quo. A political elite that goes beyond disagreement and plunges into discord runs the risk of undermining its own credibility. If the president accuses parliament of trying to seize power, if the speaker of parliament calls the president a "disgrace," and if the prime minister warns that criminals are taking over the state, ordinary Kyrgyz citizens anxious for positive change may well get tired of trying to figure out which of them is right, and decide that all of them are.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report


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