At a February 14 press conference, former Kyrgyz prime minister Felix Kulov announced his decision to join the forces opposed to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Following the Kyrgyz government’s December 2006 resignation, Kulov’s move was predictable. However, many people doubt his ability to lead the opposition after his weak performance in the government over the last two years. Under Kulov’s leadership, his political party, Ar-Namys, was not able to dominate the government.
At the press conference Kulov talked about corruption, tribalism, the criminalization of state power, and the government’s usurpation of free mass media. However, his allegations were rather general, lacking more precise assessments of the current political situation and potential developments. Kulov said that he had evidence of Bakiyev’s intrigues, but he had tried to remain a trustful ally to save their political partnership. Kulov commented that at times he had to consider: “What is more important, confrontation, even in the name of good intentions, or the atmosphere of stability inside the country and its image abroad?”
Kulov also mentioned that whoever decides to join his team should be ready to face dirty tricks from the government, thus hinting that Bakiyev has become his political rival. Kulov’s press conference was attended by other former government members who were ejected from the cabinet in the recent reappointments.
Kulov had been in a similar situation in 2000, when he joined the opposition to then-president Askar Akayev. At that time he was jailed for five years by the Akayev regime for accusations of large-scale corruption. However, as many Kyrgyz analysts note, the real reason for Kulov’s persecution was that his rising popularity had begun to eclipse Akayev. Starting in the early 1990s Kulov was able to consolidate a number of leading businessmen around his political agenda. He also always retained a high degree of influence over Kyrgyz mass media outlets. His combined clout from business circles and the media helped Kulov to build a favorable public image in the late 1990s that represented a challenge to Akayev. Moreover, Kulov also had occupied various positions in security structures from 1967 to 1998, giving him tight links with military and paramilitary institutions.
On March 24, 2005, the day Akayev’s government fell in the face of popular protests, Kulov’s allies released him from prison. Kulov quickly regained his popularity and became an active rival to Bakiyev, then interim president. The two politicians managed to form an alliance ahead of the July 2005 presidential elections. Bakiyev won almost 90% of the vote, largely thanks to his political union with Kulov.
The Bakiyev-Kulov political partnership fell apart in January 2007, after the Kyrgyz parliament denied Kulov the right to regain his position as prime minister. According to Bakiyev supporters, with Kulov in the government, there was a clear lack of synergy between pro-presidential ministers and members of Kulov’s camp. But Kulov’s supporters argued that he was the only person who could tackle top-level corruption. In particular, Kulov’s team included the former interior minister, Omurbek Suvanaliyev, who was considered a watchdog against corruption by the president’s team.
Today, neither Bakiyev nor Kulov enjoy the same level of popularity as they did two years ago. Many Kyrgyz argue that since the majority supported the Bakiyev-Kulov union in the July 2006 presidential elections, the president must also resign.
It is possible that the For Reforms opposition bloc, comprised of MPs and civil society activists, might embrace Kulov’s Ar-Namys party, but it is unlikely that he will be appointed to lead the entire opposition movement. For Reforms leaders were largely disappointed with Kulov’s failure to support the opposition in their November 2006 efforts to adopt a new constitution.
Shortly before the February 14 press conference, Kulov reportedly visited Moscow to seek support from Russian politicians and businessmen. Although no official confirmations are available, reports suggest that Kulov is rebuilding his ties with Akayev. Furthermore, Akayev’s daughter, Bermet Akayeva, is allegedly planning to reenter Kyrgyz politics before the next parliamentary elections. This suggests that Kulov might now be short of domestic support and need stronger backup.
Against the background of Kulov’s weak performance under both Akayev and Bakiyev, he is unlikely to play a leading role as an opposition member in the future. Kulov was not able to make any visible strikes against corruption in the government or to enhance the work of the ministerial cabinet. But his party’s activists fervently insist that today Ar-Namys is a strong machine that will no doubt be able to mobilize before the next parliamentary and presidential elections, and secure a major role for Kulov.
Meanwhile, Bakiyev’s current government is often described as “faceless” and “catastrophically unprofessional,” accused of lacking independence and will. Kyrgyzstan is likely to face new tensions in the wake of the Tulip Revolution’s second anniversary this March. Although no political force in Kyrgyzstan seems to be interested in instability, state institutions, individuals, and opposition groups will likely continue to vie for power in the coming months.
(Akipress, Bely parohod, 24.kg, KTR, February 13-14)