Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 87

Worries about Kyrgyzstan’s north-south divide have increased following Felix Kulov’s April 25 announcement of his intention to run for the presidency. Although there are ten potential presidential candidates, acting president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Kulov will be the two major competitors in the elections scheduled for July 10. Many voters associate both candidates with the rival political factions pitting the two halves of the country, the poorer south and the more prosperous north against each other.

Kulov, a northerner, rapidly gained wide public support after he managed to stop the looting that swept Bishkek in the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution. Despite serving five years in prison on politically motivated charges, Kulov was not forgotten by the Kyrgyz public, thanks to his political party Ar-Namys (Dignity), which continued to function. In addition, opposition newspapers such as Res publica and Moya stolitsa novosti closely monitored developments around his case. But Kulov has polled lower numbers in recent weeks as he remained suspiciously muted about former president Askar Akayev’s politics, explaining that he believes in the “never strike a man when he’s down” principle. Kulov has not met his potential voters’ expectation that he would become Akayev’s strongest antagonist after the collapse of his regime. Kulov’s rather gentle condemnation of the former government is perceived as ambiguous.

As dissatisfaction with Kulov grows, Moya stolitsa novosti (April 29) published a damning article accusing Kulov of secretly contacting Akayev during his recent trip to Moscow. According to the newspaper, northern candidates are likely to be informally backed by members of the former regime because Kyrgyzstan’s largest television stations, KOORT and Piramida, formerly controlled by Akayev, are intensively promoting Kulov. The newspaper warns that if Kulov is elected a president, his rule will be a continuation of the Akayev regime and former government members will retain political and economic influence. Kulov’s military background is another disturbing factor for locals, many of whom worry about his noticeable respect from the national security structures.

Bakiyev, in turn, has been criticized for being a weak and ineffective politician, unable to face the challenges of the post-Akayev era. The north-south divide is also evident in his cadre politics. The local mass media are closely monitoring Bakiyev’s attempts to balance geographic representation in the government. As he stated in a recent speech on the national television channel: “It is clear that Akayev, while escaping from Kyrgyzstan, did not take along the problems he created” (KTR, April 30).

While southern residents support Bakiyev as a leader who will encourage development to help the poor, some northerners see him as the only alternative to Kulov. Bakiyev also scores some support for the fact that northern candidates have occupied key state positions for over four decades, including the fourteen years of Akayev’s regime. But many see an optimal solution only if the two most popular candidates, Bakiyev and Kulov, work in tandem, as president and prime minister. Bakiyev has commented that both leaders would remain partners whatever the outcome of the elections (Vecherny Bishkek, May 1).

Other presidential candidates, depending on their geographical origin, will likely pull some votes away from Bakiyev or Kulov. For example, Jenishbek Nazaraliyev, a candidate from Bishkek and a well-known businessman and doctor, could take away some of Kulov’s votes. The failed April 29 contract murder of Bayaman Erkinbayev, a parliamentarian and successful businessman from the south, damaged Bakiyev’s political image. Erkinbayev, also running for the presidency, insists that the assassination attempt had political and not economic motives.

Meanwhile, the list of businesses revealed to be controlled by members of Akayev’s family has grown from 42 to 75. Akipress (April 26) continues to disclose the content of Akayev’s personal diaries, which shed light on the extent of corruption in the government. Recent reports trace payments made by parliamentary candidates, state employees, and foreign service workers in order to receive government positions. Fees ranged from $30,000 to $200,000, depending on the desired position. The “shame list” includes Kyrgyz ambassadors, parliamentarians, former ministers, and deputy ministers. Based on these findings and other investigations, more members of the Kyrgyz foreign service, including diplomats in the United States, Turkey, and Russia — including several Akayev relatives — are being recalled by the interim government. Bakiyev confirmed that the government has sought additional resources to increase the salaries of public workers by up to 50% and that the state budget will continue to rise in the coming months.

In the midst of intra-ethnic rivalries, several thousand non-titular nationalities, mostly Russians and Germans, are opting to leave Kyrgyzstan. A number of local German businessmen have asked for political asylum at the German consulate in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz government is urging ethnic minorities not to rush decisions to leave the country. This trend, if it continues at the same pace, will signify the third sizable wave of out-migration from Kyrgyzstan, with the first one in the early 1990s and second after conflicts in Batken in late 1990s.