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Kyrgyzstan: New Prime Minister Makes Economy A Priority

(RFE/RL) New Prime Minister Igor Chudinov, with a career spent in energy and industry, has vowed to boost Kyrgyzstan's stagnant economy -- particularly in key sectors such as farming, minerals and gold, and a fledgling tourism industry that has recently dubbed the country "the land of Santa Claus."

President Kurmanbek Bakiev's Ak-Jol (Best Path) Party appointed Chudinov, a former industry and trade minister, as prime minister on December 24. The party stormed to victory in parliamentary polls on December 16 that were criticized by both the opposition and Western monitors as falling short of international standards.

Following widespread outrage and post-poll protests, the election dust has now settled, leaving the new prime minister with a major challenge: bringing stability to one of the more restive states of Central Asia, where Bakiev himself was swept to power on the wave of a popular revolt in March 2005. For now, that means no changes at the top. "I have tried to keep the government as it was appointed in April," Chudinov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in an exclusive interview. "A lot has been achieved this year, so in my opinion changing people just for the sake of change is not exactly right."

Kyrgyzstan has had a presidential form of government for more than a decade. But a new constitution has shifted some powers from the executive to the legislative branch -- so in theory Chudinov should be the first Kyrgyz prime minister in years to have the ability to make policy.

Domestic critics have already voiced concern, saying Chudinov lacks the experience needed to lead the government -- and that, moreover, he appears to have been appointed partly because he simply cannot challenge Bakiev, as constitutionally the president must speak Kyrgyz. Chudinov, an ethnic Russian, does not speak Kyrgyz, although he says he has begun learning the country's state language.

"I have not witnessed [Chudinov] do anything good for Kyrgyzstan before," opposition politician Naken Kasiev, a former health minister and Osh region governor, told RFE/RL. "He was only involved in the energy sector. And I don't think that simply because of his appointment, relations with Russia will be strengthened."

Chudinov, 46, was once a high-placed official in Komsomol, the Soviet-era youth organization. After Kyrgyz independence in 1991, he worked in business until 2005, when he was named director-general of Kyrgyzgaz, the state company that procures gas supplies for Kyrgyzstan.

Trying To Keep Pace

Burnishing his business background, Chudinov vowed to help Kyrgyzstan -- which lacks the fossil-fuel resources of its behemoth neighbors -- better compete in a region dominated by the booming economies of China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. He said he would focus on improving core sectors such as agriculture, minerals, and mining, and better exploiting the country's natural resources to expand its tourism industry.

"We will work in several areas, primarily intensifying our work in agriculture," Chudinov said in the interview, conducted on December 28 in the Kyrgyz capital. "Without the agrarian sector, it is impossible to develop our country any further. We will focus on specialization and processing capacities and that is how I think we will be able to salvage our agriculture."

Kyrgyz argiculture is focused on produce -- melons, apricots, apples -- as well as livestock such as cattle, horses, and sheep. But while it's vital, Chudinov is aware that farming alone will not propel Kyrgyz economic growth, which in recent years has been the lowest in Central Asia -- even lower than in poverty-stricken Tajikistan, whose growth in gross domestic product of 7 percent in 2006 compared favorably with Kyrgyzstan's 2.7 percent.

"Naturally, we will also emphasize the development of the mining industry and the processing of mineral resources, which are in abundance [in Kyrgyzstan]. We have large reserves of limestone, which we export and then import various construction materials from neighboring countries. I don't think it's right and we will make efforts in this regard," Chudinov said, suggesting that the country should process more of its raw materials into finished products.

Chudinov also spoke about the gold-mining industry as one sector where the country can boost revenues. He said work at some of the key sites in Kyrgyzstan will be intensified now that the world price for gold is at an all-time high, and that profits from sales of gold will be placed in a new state reserve fund for use in improving the socioeconomic situation in the country.

Chudinov also noted that work needs to be done to increase Kyrgyzstan's hydroelectric power capabilities, both for domestic consumption and export to neighboring states.

And with more than 90 percent of the country covered by mountains and spectacular alpine lakes, Chudinov said promoting tourism would be another priority. To that end, Bishkek got a boost from a Swedish engineering firm that determined Kyrgyzstan was the ideal spot for Santa Claus's global toy-delivery hub. Tourism officials in the predominantly Muslim country quickly moved to capitalize on that finding by naming a mountain peak after the Christmas icon and declaring Kyrgyzstan "the land of Santa Claus."

"Of course, we will pay close attention to the development of tourism," Chudinov said. "It is also very important for our country. We are an ecological oasis in Central Asia, if you will. We have amazing natural resources."

Regarding foreign policy, Chudinov said Kyrgyzstan welcomes good relations with all countries, but he said that realistically there are two countries Kyrgyzstan needs as partners. "Kazakhstan and Russia certainly remain our main partners today," he said. "These are big markets that need our products, our agricultural produce."

But he also said Bishkek remains hopeful of improving relations with Uzbekistan, its biggest supplier of gas. Chudinov has experience dealing with Uzbekistan, as he headed up negotiations to purchase natural gas from Tashkent.

(RFE/RL Bishkek bureau chief Kubat Otorbaev conducted the interview.)

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RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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