Little change likely in Kyrgyzstan after election of Kurmanbek Bakayev

The Muslims who had the courage to storm government offices and force president Askar Aliyev to flee Kyrgyzstan in March deserve better leaders than those replacing him after the election held on July 10. Both the new president, Kurmanbek Bakayev, and the prime minister, Felix Kulov, a former KGB officer, served as times in the Akayev government–”sharing Akayev’s subservience to Russia and animosity to Islam and Islamic activists, and displaying their readiness to live with corruption and practise it. The fact that Bakayev is from the south of the country and Kulov from the north could have helped bring the two antagonistic regions closer if their other qualities had not disqualified them from leading a country mired in corruption, political unrest and civil strife.

Bakayev, a former prime minister and one of the leading figures in the protests that removed Akayev from power, emerged as a front runner in the presidential poll when he was named interim president. Previously divided opposition forces rallied round him, enabling him to enlist the backing of Kulov (who had been his chief rival) by offering him the post of prime minister. His readiness to offer a former KGB officer the premiership of a country that has recently emerged from Soviet control underlines his willingness to pay any price to gain (or stay in) power. But he himself was close to the Soviet leaders and KGB chiefs (still is, for that matter) and is expected to cooperate with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, not only in his war on Chechens but also on Islam and Islamic activists. He has already shown his willingness to side with Russia against the US in the competition for control of Kyrgyzstan by calling on Washington to close its military bases in the region but failing to make a similar demand on Russia, which also maintains military bases in his country.

Bakayev believes that the landslide victory he won on July 10 (only four months after Akayev fled), and the approval of the monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of its legality, have given him an unshakeable mandate to consolidate his powers as president. He is expected to introduce constitutional changes that will give him and the security forces even greater powers to wage war on "terrorism". This will give him an unchallengeable opportunity to cooperate even more closely with the Russian president (who is also amending Russian law to enhance his position) and indeed with the US president’s ‘war on terrorism’. Putin, who is also cooperating with the US’s war, will not object to Bakayev’s backing for Washington’s anti-Islam strategy.

Bakayev, one of six candidates, ‘won’ more than 88 percent of the votes cast. The OSCE said that freedom of assembly and freedom of expression were respected throughout the election-campaign period. Observers from the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) also declared the poll valid. According to Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian representative, "the shortcomings…noticed [were] not massive and did not have any serious impact on the results." But Kimmo Kiljunen, a member of the OSCE’s delegation to Kyrgyzstan, said that he hoped the improvement seen at the election would lead to changes in the republic’s political culture. "Only in this way can Kyrgyzstan be seen as a model for democratic change in Central Asia," he said. But Bakayev, and the Russian and Western leaders who are keen to develop close relations with Central Asian states for strategic and economic reasons, will not be motivated by the need for such cultural change and are likely to credit the OSCE’s hasty approval of Bakayev’s election victory to desire for the development of relations with a potential dictator.

But legitimising the new regime or wooing it will not enable it to solve Kyrgyzstan’s serious problems. Even those who voted for it are very likely to turn against it in a short while, as the people’s main preoccupations are poverty, high unemployment and corruption, which increased rapidly during the last years of Akayev’s 15-year rule and hampered the development of even the smallest businesses. Not surprisingly, at least 500,000 people, out of a population of just over 5 million (which is to say 10 percent or more) have been forced to seek work in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Russia. Not surprisingly, either, the new president has vowed to create jobs and to eliminate corruption. But he has not said how he will go about either task, let alone achieve it. Members of the interim government are saying different things, adding to the confusion.

The same confusion also dogs Bakayev’s remarks since his election as president –” particularly on his position vis a vis Uzbekistan’s demand for the return of Uzbek refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan in May after the Andijan massacre, where Uzbek authorities shot and killed hundreds of demonstrators. According to the foreign minister, international conventions will be observed but the acting procurator general is on record as having said the opposite. Significantly, four asylum-seekers have already been deported.

One pledge, which Bakayev clearly made, is related to the reduction of his presidential powers. He has undertaken to transfer some of them to the prime minister. According to analysts, the concentration of so many powers in the president has been responsible for the endemic economic and political corruption. The former president not only enriched his clan but also put members of his family in parliament and other public forums. However, Bakayev is not believed when he says that he will give up many of his presidential powers. In any case, transferring them to a prime minister who is a former member of the KGB is ridiculous.

The Kyrgyz people are fed up with unrest and political strife, and are hoping that things might turn out for the better. But it will probably be only a matter of a few months before they take to the streets again if Bakayev fails to address the problems that preoccupy them. And the signs that he will rise to the occasion do not look promising.