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Kyrgyz Alliance Highlights North-South Relations

Kurmanbek Bakiev (file photo) Prague, 21 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's two leading politicians, Kurmanbek Bakiev and Feliks Kulov, have suspended their duties as interim prime minister and first deputy prime minister as part of an alliance the two leaders have agreed to form in the runup to the 10 July presidential vote.

If Bakiev wins, Kulov will serve as his prime minister. Kulov dropped out of the presidential race as part of the deal. They say their alliance is aimed at ensuring free and fair elections, stifling regional and factional splits, and strengthening the unity of the country.

After the ouster of President Askar Akaev in March, one of the leaders of the uprising, Kurmanbek Bakiev, and former political prisoner Feliks Kulov were seen as leading candidates to replace Akaev. (For a slide show of Akaev's ouster on 24 March, click here. Flash required.)

But the two men reached an agreement in May that Kulov would drop out of the presidential race and support Bakiev in exchange for the premiership in Bakiev's government in case of his victory.

To 'Unite' The Country

Yesterday, Bakiev and Kulov suspended their duties as interim prime minister and first deputy prime minister, respectively, until the 10 July vote.

Kulov said he is stepping down in an effort to unite the country. "The law says that a government official has no right to carry on an election campaign while in office, so I am suspending my duties," he said. "Bakiev and I discussed this and made this decision together in order to make our goals clear to the people and to show unity between the north and the south. Unfortunately, there is a necessity to do so these days. Therefore, I decided to participate in the election campaign together with Mr. Bakiev."

Kyrgyzstan's north-south division plays an important role in the country's politics.
While the Bakiev-Kulov alliance looks to have increased Bakiev's chances of winning, has it done anything to help erase the north-south divide and decrease tensions?

Bakiev represents the south, which used to be the core of the opposition during Akaev's rule. Southerners also led the protests during the March revolt. Kyrgyzstan's southern regions are more populous and generally poorer.

Kulov is from the north. He enjoys the support of many northerners, despite the fact that ousted President Askar Akaev was also a northerner. Akaev's relatives and associates from the north dominated state politics and the country's economy during his rule.

Kulov said he believes that throwing his support behind Bakiev should help close this north-south divide.

But many analysts said the alliance, while unlikely to close the gap, should help keep regional tensions under control. Kulov is an influential and popular politician and can play a significant role in stabilizing the situation.

Kulov himself said yesterday that the situation in Kyrgyzstan is worsening. "Lately, there have been some factors that led to a worsening of the sociopolitical situation in the country," he said. "Intraregional tensions are rising. There are some reasons to say that certain forces will try to hamper the elections."

'Free Ticket' Into Government

Eugene Huskey, a professor of political science at Stetson University in Florida and an expert on Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL that Kulov made a wise decision by backing Bakiev. He said the country will benefit, as will Kulov himself, since he will get a "free ticket" into the government.

"I think both of the factors were at play here. I would like to think that Kulov was thinking about the best of the country. He is, overall, a principled man, a principled politician. And he understood the political realities of Kyrgyz politics, which is that the revolution, in a way, was made in the south, was brought from the south to the north. And that without having a politician at the top of the ticket who represented this long simmering disillusionment of southerners with the northern-dominated government in Kyrgyzstan, you would not have stability after the presidential election," Huskey said.

Some analysts suggest Kulov -- who is not fluent in Kyrgyz -- based his decision on the fact that he knew he couldn't pass the state language exam, as the law requires for all presidential candidates.

In addition, Kulov's popularity ratings were on the decline. A survey conducted by the Bishkek-based Agency for Sociological and Marketing Research, M-Vektor, in early June showed that 42 percent of voters supported Kulov, compared with 51 percent for Bakiev.

At present, according to M-Vektor, Bakiev's popularity rating stands at 82 percent. This leaves other candidates, such as current ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, far behind. Bakir-uulu's popularity rating is some 3 percent.

While the Bakiev-Kulov alliance looks to have increased Bakiev's chances of winning, has it done anything to help erase the north-south divide and decrease tensions?

Not Without Rivals

Supporters of Urmatbek Baryktabasov claim he is the only politician who truly represents the interests of the north. Baryktabasov, a northerner, is believed by many to have been behind the 17 June demonstration and attack on the main government building in Bishkek. Some 300 protesters were reportedly arrested and 40 injured during clashes with police. Baryktabasov was denied registration as a presidential candidate because authorities say he is a citizen of Kazakhstan, which Baryktabasov denies.

Huskey said the use of reasonable force against the protesters sent a signal about the government's resolute stand in the face of such unrest. But he said the actions do not indicate a consolidation of power within the government.

"I don't necessarily think that the government is getting stronger. I think that that's not going to happen until we get through the presidential campaign, until the election results are in, and they are affirmed and accepted by the population. And so I would probably say it's much too early to say that they have been able to really consolidate their power, or even that they are getting that much stronger," Huskey said.

The effects of the Bakiev-Kulov alliance remain to be seen. They are two charismatic and popular politicians who enjoy strong bases of support from different regions. They each wield significant influence but have different styles of management. Huskey believes they would be unlikely to have a harmonious relationship as president and prime minister.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)