On March 21, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev agreed to yield to opposition demands after two major opposition blocs, “United Front” and “For Reforms,” announced their intentions to stage a demonstration on April 11 against his government. In the coming weeks the president is expected to revamp the constitution adopted in December 2006 and transfer his key powers to the parliament. The opposition insists that any new constitution should be adopted in a national referendum.
Bakiyev’s agreement to cooperate with the opposition came after his March 21 meeting with Almazbek Atambayev, former minister of industry and now leader of For Reforms. According to Atambayev, the president agreed to almost all of the demands listed by For Reforms, including: adopting a consensual constitution, changing the national TV channel KTR from state to public control, curbing large-scale corruption, consulting with the opposition on the new prosecutor general, sacking the chief of Bishkek office of the Ministry of the Interior, Moldomusa Kongantiyev, and establishing a coalition government that would include opposition members (Akipress, March 21). According to Kubatbek Baibolov, a For Reforms member of parliament, a new draft constitution is ready for negotiations between the president and opposition (24.kg, March 21).
Unlike For Reforms, the United Front, led by former prime minister Felix Kulov, is not interested in negotiations with the president or presidential administration. According to United Front press secretary Azamat Kalman, the bloc does not intend to meet with Bakiyev, as its only demand is early presidential elections, which the president is likely to reject (Akipress, March 15). Since Bakiyev was elected president as part of a political alliance with Kulov, the United Front insists that today the president lacks legitimacy, as his electoral partnership fell apart in January. The United Front claims to have opened 51 representative offices across Kyrgyzstan. Previously, Atambayev was Kulov’s close ally in the government. But he criticized Kulov for his poor performance under Bakiyev and therefore did not join the United Front.
Most political observers in Kyrgyzstan doubt that Bakiyev is genuine about his promises to reach a consensus with the opposition. The president is known to have temporarily accommodated the opposition in November 2006 to ease political tensions, but he quickly recoups his losses two months later with another constitutional change. Baibolov, for example, demanded that the president speak about his agreement with the opposition publicly, instead of giving informal promises to individual political leaders. Bakiyev promised to give a public speech on his meeting with Atambayev on Friday, March 23.
If a new government is to be formed, the current parliament should participate in its approval. In December 2006 the parliament showed its strong dependence on Bakiyev by voting in favor of his new constitution. This time, however, the opposition will likely insist on a national referendum and not parliament’s mere endorsement in case a new constitution is to be adopted.
Kyrgyzstan today is going through constant political turbulence and the costs seem to outweigh constructive outcomes. Bakiyev’s effort to prevent the mass demonstrations next month is one of the positive outcomes of the latest tensions between the opposition and the president. Although the Kyrgyz public has developed a degree of skepticism toward the opposition’s numerous demonstrations, the November 2006 mass campaigns and the opposition’s persistent efforts to change the constitution proved that the president prefers to avoid public riots. At the same time, the opposition is showing an improved ability to frame its demands more succinctly and less radically.
If Bakiyev fulfills at least some of the For Reforms’ requirements, the United Front’s demonstrations in April will gather fewer supporters. But both opposition blocs have major flaws as well. Whereas For Reforms includes a number of unpopular members of parliament, the United Front represents an outgrowth of Kulov’s personal ambition against the president. For Reforms’ main political leverage consists of parliament votes, however the parliament enjoys little popularity. The United Front, on the other hand, has a stronger institutional base outside the state, but its demands to stage early presidential elections also have few supporters. Early presidential elections could add up to political and economic uncertainty.
The main common ground between For Reforms and the United Front is their eagerness to change the December 2006 constitution and strip Bakiyev of his extensive powers. The adoption of the November 2006 constitution was an important precedent in the opposition’s attempts to decentralize state power. If the opposition is successful this time, Kyrgyzstan may once again become a Central Asian model of democracy. However, in March 2005, before the collapse of former president Askar Akayev’s government, Bakiyev was also among the most active promoters of a democratic and clean state.