A series of contradictory statements about international politics, delayed responses to domestic crises, and awkward jokes about his own political views have visibly harmed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his political image at home. However, amid growing disappointment with Bakiyev, Prime Minister Felix Kulov is not rushing to challenge the president’s policies. Part of the reason why Kulov stays mute about the president is the fact that he still has not gained sufficient support in the government and parliament to act autonomously. Only Almazbek Atambayev, minister of industry, trade, and tourism, and Turusbek Koenaliyev, chief of the prime minister’s office, can be considered Kulov’s cadres among the mostly pro-presidential team.
But despite Kulov’s tenuous position in the government, his public support is substantially stronger than Bakiyev’s. The majority of the population trusts Kulov for his reputation as a strong leader with an allegedly uncorrupt background. An Internet survey on Kulov’s personal website (Kulov.kg) shows that 64% of respondents believe that the prime minister is constrained in his actions because of the president’s low support.
In contrast, Bakiyev is confronted with criticism for being an unprofessional politician suspected of corruption and having connections with the criminal world. For example, as interim president this summer Bakiyev made several incongruous statements concerning the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana he promised to limit U.S. military influence, explaining that the regional security situation no longer required foreign assistance. Yet while meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in late July, he assured the U.S. representative that his government is ready to support humanitarian missions in Afghanistan. But Kulov has so far refrained from criticizing the president for his anti-American stance or unbalanced foreign policies, although he had previously condemned former president Askar Akayev for similar views.
Since Bakiyev is in charge of the security forces, he is blamed for the slow government response to emergency situations. In particular, the president was barraged with criticism for not taking urgent actions when a known mafia boss, Rysbek Akmatbayev, rallied several hundred people to demand Kulov’s dismissal. The president also received disapproving comments from Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir for using armed law-enforcement agents to supress simultaneous riots in seven different prisons after the assassination of parliamentarian Tynychbek Akmatbayev. According to various reports, between two and 20 inmates were shot dead as a result of armed operations (Akipress, November 9). At the same, journalists praised Kulov for managing to stop the riots temporarily (see EDM, October 25).
Bakiyev has also been inconsistent with cadre politics. But despite criticism from civil society organizations and local mass media, Kulov did not oppose the president’s decision to dismiss Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov. The prime minister also made little effort to encourage parliament to support Roza Otunbayeva’s nomination as minister of foreign affairs. Left without official government jobs, Beknazarov and Otunbayeva declared that they would continue to fight for the principles of the Tulip Revolution, which, according to them, are being neglected by the new government.
Beknazarov’s supporters have called upon Bakiyev to resign from the presidency. On November 6, some 2,000 of them gathered in Aksy region to protest Bakiyev’s presidency. But as Edil Baisalov, leader of the NGO coalition “For Democracy and Civil Society,” pointed out, Bakiyev was elected through free and fair elections, a fact that rioting mobs cannot change (November 7).
The only time Kulov has publicly opposed the president was on the issue of incorporating electoral regulations on party lists in the new constitution: “I never objected to the president, but on this matter I have another opinion,” he said (Kabar, November 2).
When questioned about the stability of his political union with Kulov, the president recently joked: “If we are not kissing each other in public, this does not mean that our relations have worsened. In the end, we are of a traditional orientation – we don’t need to kiss, otherwise one will think that we are gay”(Akipress, November 2). Some Kyrgyz experts believe that since Kulov is rapidly gaining popularity, Bakiyev will be the first to break the political union between them. However, should Bakiyev sack Kulov, he would only create another prominent opposition figure to challenge his regime. At the same time, it is also evident that Kulov, although supported by the masses, would be devoid of reliable allies within the government.
Former president Askar Akayev’s prime ministers were rather submissive and loyal figures who usually posed no direct challenge to the president’s authority. Bakiyev, however, is surrounded by politicians who were either active participants in the movement against Akayev or are representatives of the previous regime who rapidly changed political positions after the Tulip Revolution in order to join the new government. Kulov is indeed one of the strongest political figures, capable of overshadowing the president. As Baisalov noted in a November 7 speech at Virginia’s George Mason University: “Bakiyev is not yet established in the people’s minds as a representative of a presidential institution… he is surrounded in the government by people who expect him to act similar to Akayev, to use autocratic means.”