KYRGYZSTAN’S PRESIDENT ASKAR AKAEV: A POLITICAL PORTRAIT
Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 11
Askar Akaev has been president of Kyrgyzstan for more than seven years. People still argue over whether his coming to power was an accident or the result of a logical process. Answering this question is very important, because without such an answer, any political portrait would be incomplete and unreliable.
Akaev was born on November 10, 1944, in the village of Kyzyl-Bairak in the Kemin district. He graduated from high school with a gold medal in 1961. That same year, he enrolled in the mechanics department of Frunze Polytechnic Institute. But before he had been in school a year, he dropped out, and got a job in the Kyrgyzavtomash factory. In 1962, he enrolled in the Leningrad Institute of Precision Mechanics and Optics, and graduated with honors. He got his candidate’s degree from that institute at the age of 27, and his doctorate, at the age of 37. From 1972 through 1986, he worked at the Frunze Polytechnic Institute as an engineer, an assistant, a senior teacher, a lecturer, and finally, as a department chairman. In 1986, he was named the chief of the department on the sciences and educational institutions of Soviet Kirgizia’s Communist Party Central Committee. In 1987, he was elected vice president of the republic’s Academy of Sciences, and in 1988, he was elected its president.
But as a result of the political crisis which had arisen due to the bloody ethnic confrontations in Osh Region in southern Kyrgyzstan, unexpectedly, at the October 27, 1990 session of the republic’s Supreme Soviet, he was elected president.
Those who argue that Akaev’s rise to power is the result of an accident say that Akaev, a scholar, not a professional politician, was elected under the protection of well-known writer Chingiz Aitmatov, who was at that time a member of the USSR’s Presidential Council. In recommending Akaev, Aitmatov was pursuing his own interests: if Akaev left the post of President of the Academy of Sciences, his place could be taken by the writer’s brother, Ilgiz Aitmatov, who had worked there for a long time as director of the Institute of Physics and Rock Mechanics. After Akaev’s election as head of state, the writer’s brother actually did become President of the Academy of Sciences.
The fact that Aitmatov recommended Akaev is confirmed by a number of deputies of that parliament. They had asked the writer himself to agree to become the republic’s president. But Aitmatov refused and advised them to examine Akaev’s candidacy at the session.
Others, Akaev’s biographers in particular, say that his coming to power was the result of a logical process. They argue that his scientific accomplishments and his naturally democratic character qualified him for the job. Supporters of this version usually end up concluding that Akaev’s coming to power was, in fact, dictated by historical necessity.
With all due respect to both opinions, it is hard to agree with either of them completely, for both rely on a subjective approach to the question. No individual, no matter how eminent, could become head of state at the whim or desire of even a great man. And it is hard to take the opinions of the opportunists seriously: if Akaev left office tomorrow, they would all be saying the exact opposite.
For a serious explanation, it would be better to proceed from objective realities. And in Kyrgyzstan, they are as follows: the native population has not yet freed itself from tribal psychology and the division of people by clan, tribe and region. In the presidential election, the two candidates–Absamat Masaliev and Chairman of the Council of Ministers Apas Jumagulov–could not collect the necessary amount of votes and were knocked out of the race. The explanation for this is quite simple: Masaliev came from the south of the republic and Jumagulov–from the north. In such situations, the two sides usually look for a compromise figure.
But they neglected one important fact: by their actions, they had created a third force, which grew, not by the day, but by the hour.
Akaev was, above all, a compromise figure. Both sides were won over by the fact that he was not an experienced politician. Each side thought that when the time was right, it could play its political cards and remove him from the presidency. Moreover, since the Party still confidently controlled the government in the republic, the president was considered to be a symbolic figure, and was not taken seriously by the party nomenklatura. To confirm this, it is enough to cite one interesting fact. Although the president and his staff were housed in the same building as the republican Central Committee, the Central Committee’s employees did not allow the president’s staff into their special cafeteria.
It would be absolutely unfair to explain Akaev’s rapid rise to Kyrgyzstan’s political Olympus by objective reasons alone. It is also necessary to note his personal qualities, and above all, his talent as a mathematician, so necessary in any branch of science. Thanks to his mathematical ability, Akaev succeeded in brilliantly solving a number of practical problems in the area of holography.
In the former USSR, holographic research was part of the defense sphere, which had long been the special province of the KGB. Therefore, the scholar Akaev was frequently accompanied by armed guards, even on trips to his native village. This shows that he was under the patronage of the KGB. Such people had broad opportunities to implement their plans in any direction, including politics.
Only thus can one explain his rapid rise from department chairman at a local institute to the responsible post of department chief for the party’s Central Committee, bypassing the intermediate steps of instructor, inspector, and section chief. Moreover, to become president of a union republic at that time, one had to have not just the approval of the KGB, but its active support.
The natural question comes to mind: “Why would the KGB support a scholar instead of a professional politician?” In those uneasy days of perestroika, it was hard to exert influence on an experienced politician whose views changed kaleidoscopically. Therefore, they needed a person who needed advice from Moscow, even if that need grew weaker every day. And Akaev fit that role like no one else. All they needed was his consent.
On this topic, the prominent Soviet scholar Professor Simon Gurevich wrote: “Einstein refused the Presidency, which was offered to him [sic], because solving the problems which a politician has to face is much harder than even the most complex, seemingly insoluble, problems in physics. Perhaps Askar Akaevich would also have refused this difficult post, if it were not for his passionate love for his people and his desire to make his people independent and happy.”
But desires can be sincere or insincere. Moreover, to be realistic, any desire must be commensurate with one’s individual capabilities. Akaev had neither the inborn qualities nor sufficient government experience necessary for a head of state. One may judge this from the following passage from the book Askar Akaev, published in the Kyrgyz language in 1993.
In an interview with Kanybek Imanaliev, then a correspondent from the newspaper Asaba, and now presidential press secretary, Akaev’s wife, Mayram Akaeva, said that “when our driver came in and told me that they intended to nominate my husband for president, I couldn’t help laughing.”
Any woman who has lived with her husband for even a short time knows his strengths and shortcomings. Akaev, a typical scholar, absorbed in his research, took virtually no part in the everyday managing of his household. All the burden in that area fell on the shoulders of his wife. Therefore, when Akaev’s wife was told that they intended to elect her husband president, a job in which his main duty would be to manage the whole country’s economy, it made her laugh; the very idea seemed illogical to her.
Akaev’s dilettantism in the area of economics and political administration soon began to appear in all its glory, eliciting irony and laughter from the republic’s residents. As an example, one may cite his desire to turn Kyrgyzstan into a second Switzerland, and, moreover, in a very short time: three years. Seven years have passed, and there are still no signs of economic growth. On the contrary, production has fallen by 34 percent from 1990. More than 60 percent of the republic’s population, by the president’s own admission, falls beneath the poverty line. Akaev promised to reduce the number of provinces, but in fact, has increased them from four to six. After the adoption of the new constitution in 1993, Akaev called for a unicameral parliament, but just a year later, began to argue the exact opposite: that the country needed a bicameral parliament. As the result of pressure from the president’s administration, a new constitution was adopted. And the question arose: “How can one explain these extremes in Akaev’s behavior?”
As is well known, in any sphere of life, people can be divided into strategists and executors. In connection with this, the advice of Akaev’s scientific advisor, the eminent physicist Sergei Maiorov, which is cited in the biography quoted above, is of interest. Maiorov wrote: “I have been let down by journalists more than once. They’re always in a hurry. Without having time for checking their facts, they often publish something other than what the author actually said. My advice is always to demand to see the text before publication. Next: don’t take all issues on yourself. Delegate to your assistants; help them, but don’t do the work for them. Then you’ll have more time to think of the possible consequences of your actions. And don’t hurry to make promises if a request is difficult or even if it isn’t clear how it can be carried out.”
Such advice is quite suitable for a university graduate who has received a responsible government post. But it was given to a Doctor of Sciences, a professor, an Academician. Only one conclusion can be drawn: Maiorov knew Akaev only as a good executor, not as an independently-thinking strategist. Executors need a strategist-patron. Without one, they swing from extreme to extreme, as often happens with President Akaev.
People who are “born executors” cannot formulate a core idea in their work. As his country’s leader, Akaev has not yet formulated a national idea around which the people could rally. For this reason, he has borrowed everything from Russia that he could: a bicameral parliament, the rule of governors in the provinces. He is now trying to impose the Russian electoral system. Even the name of the party “Russia is Our Home” has been turned into an Akaev slogan: “Kyrgyzstan–our common home.”
Akaev’s tendency to be an executor makes it impossible for him to implement his desire to “make his people happy.” On the contrary, it has led to negative consequences: the impoverishment of most of the population.
Any reasonable and conscientious head of state who had achieved such dismal results would resign. But Akaev isn’t even thinking about resigning. And this forces one to conclude that he did not agree to become president out of a sincere desire to help his people in a crisis. So why did he do it?
In my view–and this is just my personal opinion–in Akaev, such human vices as vanity and ambition are painfully well-developed. His academic successes developed in him a taste for being the center of attention. And presidential power, for him, is the inexhaustible well of public attention. Losing it would be like death for him. Therefore, Akaev works miracles of inventiveness and guile to hold onto and consolidate his power, not shrinking even from crude violations of constitutional norms.
The “gold scandal” which broke out at the end of 1993 demonstrated to Akaev that the parliament was capable of removing him from power. That time, the parliament succeeded in forcing the prime minister out. Akaev understood that next time, it would be his turn. He decided to make a pre-emptive strike against the parliament.
In order to reduce the threat from the parliament, Akaev, in creating the new parliament, decided to use the ancient principle of “divide and rule.” He began to insist on the creation of a bicameral parliament, and, in order to make his opinion look more “democratic,” proposed holding a referendum on the issue. As expected, the authorities had little trouble with the referendum, which was held on October 22, 1994, and Akaev’s proposal became the law of the land. As a result, a bicameral parliament was created, consisting of a Legislative Assembly, with 35 deputies, and a Assembly of People’s Representatives, with 70 deputies.
In February and March, the first elections to the new parliament were held. The overwhelming majority of the new deputies were independent of the president. Therefore, no one was surprised that Akaev’s supporters in parliament soon came forward with an initiative to extend Akaev’s term until 2001 “so that he can complete the reforms he started.” The Legislative Assembly rejected the idea, whose absurdity was obvious even to some of the president’s supporters. So presidential elections were set for December 24, 1995. This decision significantly complicated efforts to collect the 50,000 signatures necessary to register a presidential candidate. Moreover, the Central Election Commission demanded that candidates collect an equal amount signatures from all seven electoral districts, which is very difficult to do in the mountainous and multi-ethnic republic. At the same time, ideal conditions were created for Akaev, who remained in office during the campaign, by local governments.
As the result of such unconstitutional activities, Akaev won a dubious victory. Many to this day consider the election results to have been falsified. For example, Akaev’s main rival, Communist leader Absamat Masaliev, thinks that 57 percent of the electorate voted for him. And there are reasons for such doubts.
Right after the vote count, the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Mambetzhunus Abylov, announced that Akaev had gotten 60 percent of the vote. But literally after a few days, he reported that Akaev had gotten 73 percent of the vote. And shortly thereafter, the final count came out–71.5 percent. The discrepancy in the vote count is suspicious, especially since it came after the elections were already completed.
The dubious nature of his victory clearly worried Akaev, and, again on his initiative, a referendum was held on February 15, 1996: “On the Introduction of Changes and Additions to the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic.”
The referendum was held in violation of the Constitution, and in the worst traditions of Soviet authoritarianism: it was reported that 98 percent of the voters had taken part, and that 96.62 percent had voted for the proposed changes and additions.
The changes and additions significantly broadened and strengthened the president’s power. To best understand Akaev’s dictatorial powers, it is enough to enumerate just a few of them. The president may:
* define the composition and structure of parliament at his own discretion;