Kyrgyzstan has a new Prime Minister, Jantoro Satybaldiev, and renewed hope for stability after former prime minister Omurbek Babanov’s government fell on charges of official corruption. Satybaldiev is seen as a compromise candidate that could bridge the divide between regional, ethnic, and political factions in the mineral-rich, mountainous Central Asian nation.
Satybaldiev is an experienced political hand in Bishkek, serving in the administrations of four Kyrgyz presidents since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet, Satybaldiev himself is not a member of any political party, a fact which some observers say will be crucial to his ability to navigate tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the country’s north and south respectively.
Those tensions boiled over in the spring of 2010, threatening to devolve into a civil war. An earlier popular revolt had forced president Kurmanbek Bakiyev from office in April. Bakiyev’s and previous authoritative governments had managed to keep a tight lid on long simmering disputes between the groups, often at the expense of minority Uzbeks. The interim government of Roza Otunbayeva was not perceived to be as strong.
Riots broke out in the south, sparked by ethnic Uzbeks’ calls for greater protection and inclusion in the government. Uzbekistan briefly sent troops to occupy positions in southern Kyrgyzstan, withdrawing after about a month and opening the border to refugees. Otunbayeva called on Moscow to send troops to help keep the peace, which Russia refused to provide. Inter-ethnic clashes in the southern Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad left as many as 2,000 dead, mostly Uzbeks.
Kyrgyzstan has since moved to strengthen its democratic institutions. A new constitution vested more authority in parliament, transferring powers exercised by the strong presidents of the previous charter to the prime minister. The new constitution Otunbayeva’s rule was term limited, resulting in the election of president Almazbek Atambayev – which the US State Department counts as the “first peaceful and democratic transfer of presidential power in Central Asia.” Official corruption and organized crime remain concerns, as evidenced by the most recent government’s collapse, the fourth since Bakiyev’s ouster.
Satybaldiev will have his work cut out for him. Aside from the ethnic strife, instability has thrown Kyrgyzstan’s economy on hard times. A report in the Economist documented locally directed mobs carrying out attacks on foreign companies operating in the country, as with the interruption of an August mining lease auction by nationalists. Mining is vitally important to Kyrgyzstan’s economy. The Economist estimates that just one gold mine, operated by a Canadian company, accounted for 12% of Kyrgyzstan’s total GDP in 2011, and half of its industrial output.
Satybaldiev is given high marks for his leadership during the 2010 riots. A former mayor of Osh, he has earned credibility for his work. The leader of one of the minor parties in the governing coalition calls him, “an experienced, agile, even clever, diplomatic politician.” Kyrgyz commentator Turat Akimov describes him as “…a person who carried out the necessary directives after the events in the south — and he did this well. [He] solved some big problems in the south. He is from the south himself. And this is really important for [President] Atambaev in order to stabilize the current situation so that parliament does not collapse.”
That hoped-for outcome is critical to Kyrgyzstan’s future as a democratic state. Bishkek must first demonstrate that it is able to capably and reliably govern if it wants the nation as a whole to prosper. In a system seen by many Kyrgyz citizens as rigged to benefit the powerful and influential, Satybaldiev must practice openness and transparency. Lacking the technical capacity to develop its own vast mineral wealth, including significant deposits of gold and increasingly valuable rare-earth elements, foreign investment is crucial. After stepping back from the brink in 2010, Kyrgyzstan’s political leadership appears to have chosen an honest broker as prime minister. It is now up to him to confirm the faith they have shown, and fulfill the hopes of a nation.
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