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Kyrgyz government collapses, increasing political instability

- - Wednesday, August 22, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Kyrgyzstan's coalition government disintegrated Wednesday, creating fresh uncertainty for an impoverished Central Asian country rife with corruption and a recent history of two revolutions.

Coalition Chairman Kanatbek Isayev said the Cabinet, including Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, would carry on its duties in a caretaker government until elections can be held.

Trouble had been brewing in the coalition for weeks, as the Ata-Meken party, a junior partner, accused Mr. Babanov of accepting a $1.5 million racehorse from a Turkish company in exchange for a building contract.

Ata-Meken threatened Mr. Babnov with a no-confidence vote, despite his insistence that he had bought the animal himself for $20,000.

"This is symbolic of the fact that Kyrgyzstan's political system is so fragile that you can challenge it with a simple horse," said Asel Doolotkeldieva, a researcher specializing in Kyrgyz politics based in Bishkek. "But it's not only the horse, of course. It's the culmination of other, much more serious allegations of corruption against the prime minister."

Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a U.S. air base used for operations in nearby Afghanistan, has been beset by political instability since a popular uprising in 2010 led to the overthrow of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and the introduction of a new constitution that handed more powers to parliament.

Explaining his party's decision to leave the coalition, Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev cited poor economic growth over the past year.

There has been a stream of such accusations against the prime minister since he took office in December, but analysts say that moves to unseat him say more about political rivalries that any party's defense of democracy.

Kyrgyzstan is "easily, by a long stretch, the most politicized society in Central Asia," said John Heathershaw, senior lecturer in international relations at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. "And [while] that's a positive thing, at the moment, it doesn't look positive because there is so much instability."

Ata-Meken has long opposed Mr. Babanov's attempts for political reform, and his support from other coalition partners has depended on loyalties bought by appointing their members to key posts.

The turmoil has left locals once again feeling that their politicians have let them down.

"Babanov is [said] to be corrupt," said Erkin Kushbakov, 33, from the southern city of Osh "But who isn't? All of them are deeply involved in corruption. This may lead to change of the government, of all ministers. But will the new ones make changes? People are getting quite tired of empty promises."

"Our politicians are very busy criticizing each other, dividing the high positions," Mr. Kushbakov added. "But can they assure people that this winter we will not have blackouts like the year before?"

Many observers had expected a no-confidence vote to take place when the parliament returned from the summer recess in September.

But Ata-Meken joined with the Ar-Namys party Wednesday in abandoning the coalition and calling for Mr. Babanov to step down and for fresh elections.

"I think its unlikely that there will be new elections, simply because the national budget will not allow for it," said Ms. Doolotkeldieva. "We have been having elections almost every year, and this is unbearable for a very modest national budget."

Many expect the various parties to try to form a new coalition, how they will align themselves is unclear.

Ms. Doolotkeldieva said that President Almazbek Atambayev, who will play a key role in selecting a new prime minister, would be happy to see the ouster of Mr. Babanov, who is seen as having gained his post by having helped Mr. Atambayev win last year's parliamentary elections.

Analysts say that efforts to unify the heavily divided north and south of the country could see the president appoint Kamchybek Tashiev, a longtime rival and head of the nationalistic Ata-Jurt party. Mr. Tashiev enjoys considerable support in the south, and could help the central government in Bishkek regain control of the region.

Still, others say that reformist parties would be unable to work with Ata-Jurt, which favors a return to the authoritarian presidential model that existed before Mr. Bakiyev's overthrow in 2010 ushered in a new parliamentary government.

"I would be surprised if they made Tashiev prime minister because Ata-Jurt stands for something completely different than the reformist parties," said Lilit Gevorgyan of the economic analysis firm IHS Global Insight in London. "Voters may question their choice to give this very important post to the opponents. I don't think they would bring on someone who is openly against the parliamentary democracy."

Reformist parties likely will be forced to muddle along in a minority government, "which will mean more instability because they will have to win the support of other parties to push each piece of important legislation through," Ms. Gevorgyan said. "But that's the nature of a parliamentary democracy where you have to learn to reach consensus with your opponents rather than trying to oppress them."

Observers will be watching to see if Kyrgyz politicians can do just that.

"Kyrgyzstan has been portrayed in neighboring Kazakhstan as a weird, crazy country which experiments with its own system " Ms. Doolotkeldieva said. "But the people of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan are envious of our experiments because these countries have stability, but that stability is more like stagnation. New leadership would mean more instability, but also more opportunities for ordinary people and more civil rights."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.