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Introducing Kyrgyzstan’s New Prime Minister, Joomart Otorbaev

On March 26 a new prime minister was appointed in Kyrgyzstan, a familiar figure who has been a top figure in previous governments going back more than a decade: Joomart Otorbaev.

Otobaev spoke with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Azattyk, about priority issues for Kyrgyzstan; his interview, in English, is available here:
Interview: Kyrgyzstan's New Prime Minister
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But he also gave an interview to Azattyk in Kyrgyz and he touched on other issues and elaborated more on some of the topics cursorily addressed in the English-language interview.

First, a little bit about Joomart Otorbaev.

A decade ago, some saw Otorbaev as a successor to then-Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev. The two share a background in academics, not politics. Both studied physics. Otorbaev was a visiting professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology from 1993 to 1996. Otorbaev rose to become deputy prime minister the last three years that Akaev was president.

When Akaev was chased from office by widespread protests in March 2005, Otorbaev left Kyrgyzstan’s political scene and for a while was a senior consultant for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on matters of investment climate.

Otorbaev returned to politics after Akaev’s replacement, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was chased from power amid protests in April 2010. He won a seat in parliament in October 2010 as a candidate from the Ata-Meken party. He served as deputy prime minister in charge of the economy and investment from December 2011 until September 2012, when he became first deputy prime minister, a post he kept until parliament elected him prime minister last month.

Otorbaev commented on the performances of previous governments in Kyrgyzstan, crediting them for "trying to do good work." The new prime minister said "there were mistakes but there was also progress in reforms."

Otorbaev gave an optimistic appraisal of Kyrgyzstan’s economy, claiming that even without revenues from the Kumtor gold-mining project, the country’s economic growth was some 10.5 percent in 2013 against inflation of only about 4 percent.

Otorbaev spoke about Kumtor in the English-language interview, but he spoke at greater length about investment in the mining industry in general in his Kyrgyz interview.

Azattyk noted that local residents in other areas where mining concessions have been granted often oppose the projects and that conflicts have sometimes erupted at these sites and asked what could be done to improvement the investment climate in Kyrgyzstan.

Otorbaev conceded there have been problems, but he said there were two factors that fueled this popular resistance to mining projects.

The first is a legacy of corruption surrounding the mining industry. Otorbaev said that in some 20 years there have been many projects but only one -- Kumtor -- is currently operating. Otorbaev said the people of Kyrgyzstan believe that any foreign investor doing business in Kyrgyzstan’s mineral deposits has used corrupt means to obtain licenses for the sites.

The second factor, according to Otorbaev, is the Kyrgyz people’s closeness to nature. “People regard the land and the sky very jealously,” he said. So there is a natural tendency for Kyrgyzstan’s people to be suspicious of projects that involve excavation and might pollute the environment.

Otorbaev said an investor who starts projects in Kyrgyzstan should be prepared to work closely with the central authorities, local officials, and with the people of the areas where the projects are located.

Opposition groups have been active in Kyrgyzstan since the country became independent, at times more active and more critical than the Kyrgyz government wished. And with more than 100 registered opposition parties and movements, there is a very wide range of interests represented, guaranteeing it's nearly impossible to satisfy everyone in Kyrgyzstan.

There have even been occasions when key roads have been blocked, protesters and police have clashed, and when opposition groups have called for the ouster of the president and/or the government -- incidents all the more sensitive now after two previously leaders have been chased from office.

Otorbaev said, "Our society needs an opposition," and added that he supports a "constructive" opposition and is ready to meet with any such group. Otorbaev went so far as to say the more criticism he hears from the opposition, the happier he will be.

But he cautioned against "loud slogans" and noted that the rights of the opposition are clearly defined in the country's constitution.

He alluded to past unrest during demonstrations by recalling that when an opposition group held a sanctioned rally in Bishkek on April 10, some shop owners closed their businesses for the day.

Otorbaev said the people should not be concerned when they hear a rally or demonstration is scheduled, claiming that last year there almost 900 "meetings" around Kyrgyzstan, most of them peaceful.

He said the "real political battle won't be fought in meetings but in future parliamentary elections."
-- Bruce Pannier. Based on an interview done by Venera Djumataeva and Burulkan Sarygulova and with help from Gulaiym Ashekeeva, Ulan Eshmatov, and Amirbek Usmonov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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