- - Thursday, September 6, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — The Kyrgyz parliament approved a new coalition government this week, choosing a prime minister lawmakers hope will be able to soothe the volatile nation’s glaring north-south political divide while holding together the shaky alliances of the new administration.

Southerner Zhantro Satybaldiyev becomes prime minister two weeks after the previous ruling alliance fell apart amid corruption allegations and fears over the health of the impoverished nation’s shrinking economy. The collapse was the third time a government has fallen since a revolution in April 2010 ushered in Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy

“Choosing a technocrat prime minister is a good move which will help to stabilize the new government and concentrate on policy issues rather than internal politics,”said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight.

Others warn that the failing economy, pervasive corruption and simmering ethnic tensions mean the country’s new leader is facing an impossible task.

Seething north-south tensions exploded in June 2010, when the south of the country — a major smuggling area for Afghan heroin trafficking — was devastated by deadly ethnic violence that left 500 people dead, mainly ethnic Uzbeks.

Observers say the ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks fuelled nationalist sentiments in the unstable region and resulted in southerners feeling abandoned by the north, which holds the keys to the country’s financial resources.

Analysts say that since the bloody crisis of 2010, the north has been unable to impose control on the decentralized south.

As a result, Mr. Satybaldiyev’s appointment is seen by some as a sensible compromise.

A former mayor and governor of the southern province of Osh, he has been supervising the program of reconstruction of the region following the ethnic clashes in 2010. Mr. Satybaldiyev has also served as an aide to President Alamzbek Atambayev, and analysts say he can be trusted to uphold the status quo.

However, Ms. Gevorgyan warns that Mr. Satybaldiyev’s appointment will not be universally welcomed in the south of Kyrgyzstan.

“The fact that Mr. Satybaldiyev has strong previous links with the south will help but not resolve the current problems — mainly mistrust toward the northern reformist government,” Ms. Gevorgyan said. “His efforts [following the clashes] have proven unpopular among some of the ethnic Kyrgyz in the south.”

Analysts say growing alienation from the seat of power in the capital, Bishkek, has contributed to the rapid rise in south of the populist Ata Zhurt party, which has promised a return to the previous autocratic system.

Ata Zhurt — along with Republica, the party of outgoing Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov — has been excluded from new coalition, which consists of the Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys political parties as well as the Social Democrat Party of Kyrgyzstan of which Mr. Atambayev and Mr. Satybaldiyev are members.

All three parties are seen as liberal and reformist, which may help Mr. Satybaldiyev hold the new coalition together. Yet analysts warn that the new alignment has also strengthened the now-united populist opposition, a further boost for anti-establishment Ata Zhurt.

Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary democracy is entering a crucial phase, observers say. Mr. Satybaldiyev’s administration must urgently address the concerns of southern Kyrgyz to keep the nation’s fledgling parliamentary system from collapsing.

“The prime interest of the new-born coalition is to survive long enough under the increasing pressure to dissolve parliament,” said Bakyt Beshimov, former campaign manager for Mr. Atambayev and now a visiting scholar at Harvard University.

The pressure is increasingly coming from below.

“The call for change is very strong in the regions because the poverty is so bad. They are the ones who are suffering,” said Asel Doolotkeldieva, a researcher specializing in Kyrgyz politics based in Bishkek.

“If you go to the villages, the [anti-democratic] trend is already there,” Ms. Doolotkeldieva added.

Compounding this growing anti-democratic feeling is the looming threat of economic collapse and mounting fears that Kyrgyzstan will default on its $2.8 billion foreign debt.

Kyrgyzstan’s economy relies heavily on the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine, and money sent home by migrant workers, while per capita GDP amounts to less than a 10th of neighboring Kazakhstan.

Ultimately, say observers, it will be the new government’s ability to shore up the economy, attract investment and raise living standards that will determine whether it survives the harsh Kyrgyz winter — the season analysts say is most prone to unrest in the agricultural regions.

“The [timing] is really bad,” Ms. Doolotkeldieva said. “The harsh winter is coming, when livestock die and there are electricity cuts. If this coalition falls, there is a major risk of popular dissent against the parliamentary republic.”

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