WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 657, September 23, 2011 NEW POLITICAL LANDSCAPE IN KYRGYZSTAN As candidates fight for presidential office, they need to realise power has slipped away from central government. By Pavel Dyatlenko
KAZAK BROADCAST BILL SEEN AS CURBING MEDIA Legislation seeks to tighten controls on broadcast industry, critics say. By Alexandra kazakova PATIENCE WEARING THIN IN KAZAKSTAN Common assumption that Kazakstan's long-suffering people will never grow restive may be wrong. By Saule Mukhametrakhimova **** NEW ************************************************************************************ LATEST PROJECT REVIEWS: http://iwpr.net/make-an-impact/project-reviews VACANCIES: http://iwpr.net/what-we-do/vacancies **** IWPR RESOURCES ****************************************************************** CENTRAL ASIA PROGRAMME HOME: http://www.iwpr.net/programme/central-asia CENTRAL ASIA RADIO: http://iwpr.net/programme/central-asia/central-asia-radio NEWS BRIEFING CENTRAL ASIA: http://iwpr.net/programme/news-briefing-central-asia CENTRAL ASIA HUMAN RIGHTS: http://iwpr.net/programme/central-asia-human-rights-reporting-project STORY BEHIND THE STORY: http://iwpr.net/report-news/the-story-behind-the-story BECOME A FAN OF IWPR ON FACEBOOK http://facebook.com/InstituteforWarandPeaceReporting FOLLOW US ON TWITTER http://twitter.com/iwpr **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** DONATE TO IWPR: http://iwpr.net/donate **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** NEW POLITICAL LANDSCAPE IN KYRGYZSTAN As candidates fight for presidential office, they need to realise power has slipped away from central government. By Pavel Dyatlenko When voters in Kyrgyzstan go to the polls on October 30 to elect a new president, they will do so in a radically changed environment in which the influence of central authority is greatly reduced and local politicians have much more say than before. Two obvious factors make this election a landmark event – it will be the first time Kyrgyzstan has elected a leader since Kurmanbek Bakiev was forced out of presidential office in April 2010, an event that was followed by mass ethnic violence in June the same year. Secondly, thanks to an all-new constitution, the incoming president will be shorn of much of his or her powers, turning Kyrgyzstan into Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy. But behind the headlines, there has been a profound shift in the politics of Kyrgyzstan that will not only change voting patterns and require candidates to adjust their campaigns accordingly; it will also demand that the new president accommodate a whole range of interests in order to stay in control. Effectively, political power in Kyrgyzstan has been substantially decentralised, not as a result of some deliberate policy of devolution, but as a spontaneous trend well beyond the control of national leaders. This is a major change from the situation under Bakiev and his predecessor Askar Akaev, when it was a given that local politicians played a strictly subordinate role in the hierarchy of power. The shift away from a presidential system may have contributed to it, but the major reasons lie in the prolonged period of political turbulence, coupled with the country’s chronic economic problems. This unplanned decentralisation plays out most vividly when regional leaderships ignore or reject decisions issued in Bishkek. Put simply, decision-makers in Bishkek are no longer able to command authority over regional players. One extreme example of this is the position of Melisbek Myrzakmatov, the mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s “southern capital” Osh, who remains firmly ensconced in the job even though the central authorities are clearly unhappy with him. A Bakiev-era appointee, Myrzakmatov remains openly critical of Bishkek and has survived efforts to unseat him, plus allegations that his administration failed to do enough to stop the June 2010 ethnic violence. Attempts to dismiss him have failed, and on one occasion a mere rumour that he was to be sacked drew a couple of thousand supporters onto the streets of central Osh. Ultimately, he has survived because central government fears removing him could spark another wave of instability. This presidential election has seen a record number of candidates putting their names forward – more than 30 have got through the initial nomination phase. Only a handful really have much of a chance, of course. Most of these are high-profile politicians like the current prime minister, Almazbek Atambaev, who heads the Social Democratic Party; Ata Jurt party leader Kamchybek Tashiev, Butun Kyrgyzstan leader Adakhan Madumarov and Ata Meken’s Omurbek Tekebaev. A definitive candidate list will be issued by September 25, the official start date for campaigning. In the context of this election, the decentralisation of power could have some beneficial effects, not least by giving the edge to those candidates who can demonstrate good negotiating skills and a willingness to compromise when needed. Unlike in the Akaev and Bakiev eras, people are not going to put up with a one-man leadership holding a monopoly of power. Instead, the preference is for someone who is able to reach out beyond a particular powerbase or constituency, prevent political crises, and solve conflicts. Both Bakiev and Akiev were able to avail themselves of what people in Kyrgyzstan call the “administrative resource” – using the state-run media, the police, local government, and election officers to assist with campaigning. This time, victory will not be a matter of having the most money and access to state resources. The most appealing characteristic that a candidate can display is that of a consensus-builder with good negotiating skills, someone who can negotiate deals with most of the groupings that form the political elite. Akaev and later Bakiev were overthrown because they allowed too much power to accumulate in the hands of their family members. This excluded other influential groups and alienated the general public. Recent opinion polls suggest people will no longer put up with this model. That does not mean we should be anticipating a complete change in Kyrgyzstan’s politics, which basically consists of between 150 and 200 elite families that control much of the economy as well as dominating the political sphere. But what we can expect to see is a system that prevents power being as narrowly concentrated as before, and ensures there is scope for a range of groups to share in it. It is more than likely that the next president will be a product of the current elite, which – apart from anything else – needs to guarantee its own survival and the preservation of its wealthy and business interests. The forthcoming election campaign is likely to see alliances forged between different elite groups, and weaker candidates lining up behind stronger ones in return for future favours. The shift of power away from the centre to the regions has also led prospective candidates to do more to court the rural voters, who in any case account for at least 65 per cent of the electorate. This growing awareness of the importance of local communities appears to explain a number of recent appointments at subnational level, as a preemptive move to bolster local political support. Since December 2010, the heads of two regions – Chui and Issykkul – and 17 major urban centres have been replaced. As head of government, Prime Minister Atambaev, one of the presidential candidates, is responsible for making appointments of this kind. Members of his Social Democratic party were made governors of Chui region – Atambaev’s own powerbase – and Issykkul, also in northern Kyrgyzstan, as well as mayors of Jalalabad in the south and Kara-Balta, an industrial city in Chui region. Other regional appointments are linked to the Ata Jurt party, whose leader is also standing in the election. Some critics see this pattern of appointments as simply the application of the “administrative resource” in modified form. However, Irina Karamushkina, a Social Democratic member of parliament, rejects such criticisms, saying the pattern of appointments is a fair reflection of all the parties that have seats in the legislature. As a general trend, decentralisation may be good for Kyrgyzstan, allowing local administrations to run their own affairs more freely and engaging a wider range of interest-groups in the decision-making process, which can only be good for stability. It can even be seen as a revival of the traditional Kyrgyz system of governance. Before Tsarist Russia took control in the second half of 19th century, the various Kyrgyz tribes did not have one supreme ruler. Each tribal grouping operated independently, and any issues of common concern were dealt with at gatherings at which each group would be represented. Creeping devolution also has inherent dangers, however. If the balance of power tips too far away from the centre, the lack of a strong hand at the top could leave the country more vulnerable to anyone who wants to stir up trouble. Furthermore, since regional power is associated with specifically Kyrgyz tribes and clans, its consolidation will inevitably strengthen the nationalist streak in politics, and leave non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups in a marginalised position, economically as well as politically. Finally, the dispersal of authority across the country is liable to slow the process of consensus-building after the election, as the new president enters into lengthy negotiations with numerous centres of power. We can only hope that the next president has the skills needed to minimise these risks and make the most of the new political realities. Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with Polis Asia, a think-tank in Bishkek. KAZAK BROADCAST BILL SEEN AS CURBING MEDIA Legislation seeks to tighten controls on broadcast industry, critics say. By Alexandra kazakova Media experts and journalists in Kazakstan are increasingly alarmed about new legislation that they fear will lead to even greater state controls over TV and radio. A round-table debate held in the Kazak capital Astana on September 12 and 13 was the final opportunity for media representatives to argue their case against the new law before it goes before parliament in October. The meeting, organised jointly by Kazakstan’s National Association of TV and Radio Broadcasters, the media support group Adil Soz, the Soros Foundation in Kazakstan and the OSCE, was dominated by talk of what will happen once Kazakstan shifts to digital broadcasting in 2014. The law provides for a monopoly operator that will control all frequencies. This role is to go to the state broadcaster Kazakteleradio, which was merged with telecommunications company Katelco earlier this year in anticipation of the bill. Both broadcasters and media rights groups warn that the result will be a sector completely monopolised by the state, and that this will not only stifle entrepreneurship, undermine competition, and leave consumers with less choice, but will also restrict media freedom. Officials say the bill is designed to support locally-made television and radio broadcasting, promote the production of Kazak-language programming, shield children from adult-content media, and introduce the use of sign-language output. In 2009, Kazakstan’s media law was changed to make internet content subject to the same controls that apply to conventional print and broadcast media. The latest bill will further regulation of TV and radio. The digital switchover is seen as just a convenient pretext to do so. “If this [law] is passed, we will be completely dependent on the Kazteleradio company – technically, financially and editorially,” Sholpan Jaksybaeva, head of the National Association of TV and Radio Broadcasters, said at the meeting. Before they learnt of the bill’s implications, broadcast companies had been hoping the switchover would mean they would inherit the same frequencies as they have now, only in digitised form. Instead, private broadcasters will find that their licenses to use analogue frequencies are redundant, and they will need to apply for new digital rights from Kazteleradio. For many national broadcasters, the licensing fee – averaging 100,000 US dollars – was only the start of a substantial investment programme in technology and infrastructure for their stations. Hardest hit of all will be the regional broadcasters, many of which are likely to face closure. These smaller local stations provide an important source of information for people living outside the main cities. It is doubtful whether they will be able to afford new licensing fees, or the cost of other requirements such as ensuring 50 per cent of their output is in the Kazak language. Many of them currently survive by rebroadcasting foreign TV programmes, mostly Russian. The bigger players, meanwhile, will absorb the costs of the additional requirements envisaged in the bill by passing them on to the customer, according to Olga Didenko, a lawyer with the Internews media development group. Tamara Kaleeva, head of media rights group Adil Soz, notes that commercial satellite and cable TV providers will face additional regulation from local government as part of the new law. “The bill contains a lot of additional obstacles for TV and radio companies, and there is virtually nothing there about the state providing them with support,” she said, adding that the same applied to the way the 50 per cent Kazak-language rule was to be implemented. Didenko said, the process by which digital licenses were awarded had raised questions, given that there are already concerns about corruption and opaque government in Kazakstan. Jaksybaeva said it was worrying that Kazteleradio had failed to respond to requests for information about the process it would be using to allocate digital frequencies. “No one knows how many broadcasting licences will be awarded, how many channels will be placed on these frequencies, what the terms will be or how much it will cost,” she said. Addressing the round-table event, the deputy minister for communications and information, Nuray Urazov, indicated that the ministry was unlikely to accept recommendations for fundamental changes to the major points contained in the bill. But broadcasters and media activists are determined to continue their campaign, including after the bill goes before parliament. Their calls are being backed by international organisations which are concerned about the impact the bill will have on media freedom. In a crittique of the bill, the London-based free expression group Article 19 said it lacked adequate sufficient safeguards to protect the rights of individuals and broadcasters, and noted that it omitted mention of matters such as media pluralism, editorial independence, and equal treatment of broadcasters. Alexandra Kazakova is IWPR country director in Kazakstan. PATIENCE WEARING THIN IN KAZAKSTAN Common assumption that Kazakstan's long-suffering people will never grow restive may be wrong. By Saule Mukhametrakhimova Kazakstan’s population has generally been the least turbulent of any of the Central Asian nations over the last two decades, but analysts say public attitudes are changing due to worsening economic conditions, the prevalence of corruption, and the emergence of scattered protests. Although people are not yet ready to take to the streets and are still largely supportive of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, it is becoming clear that their tolerance has its limits. The authorities used to be able to play to a genuine, widespread aversion to instability – the fear that any sudden change was likely to be for the worse. Over the last year or so, however, many people have abandoned that conservative outlook and taken to the streets in defence of their rights. Analysts interviewed by IWPR point to a combination of political, economic and social factors that have changed people’s expectations, and lowered their level of tolerance. As one analyst put it, the Kazak leadership’s traditional mantra that “as long as there’s peace and stability, the rest can come after” no longer holds water. ECONOMIC PRESSURES Kazakstan has the strongest-performing economy in Central Asia because of its oil revenues, which have helped the country achieve broad economic growth and higher personal incomes while its southern neighbours have become impoverished. Tolgonay Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Fund for Democracy Development, notes that only two or three per cent of the population find it hard to afford basic food items – a low figure compared with other regional states. However, opinion polls conducted by Umbetalieva’s organisation, in which respondents were quizzed about what came top on their list of worries, suggest that things are changing. “We’ve been doing research over the last five years, and food and utilities price rises and the unemployment level have been cited every time,” she said, noting that the change dated from 2007 ,when the effects of global economic crisis first hit Kazakstan. Prior to 2007, people were mainly worried about security threats related to the emergence of Islamic militant groups in Central Asia, and about societal changes such as the perceived erosion in moral values. Maxim Kaznacheev, head of the domestic politics department at the Institute for Political Solutions in Almaty, said people were increasingly unhappy about the government’s failure to rein in inflation. “The problem is that the ongoing price rises on basic foodstuffs and utilities hit the less well-off sections of the population,” he said, noting that this category, which includes pensioners, students and the self-employed, accounts for a substantial proportion of people in Kazakstan, who are reliant on state support. The worsening economic situation has also dealt a blow to owners of small- and medium-size businesses, in other words the emerging middle class. Kaznacheev says many are considering closing down, which would leave their employees without work. He said that while the government had placed support for smaller businesses at the centre of its anti-crisis programme, this had not had the desired effect as much of the funding was either channelled to well-connected businesspeople or simply squandered. He says these business owners might follow the tendency of other disgruntled population groups that have organised themselves into protest movements, for example oil workers and small-time shareholders left with nothing when the construction companies they invested their savings in went bankrupt. “Overall, social tensions are on the increase. There is a sense of [an imminent] second wave of crisis,” he concluded. ANGER AT CORRUPTION Apart from resentment of economic policies, the all-pervasive presence of corruption in Kazakstan is another major cause for complaint. In difficult times like this, the culture of bribery has a particularly stifling effect on business and on ordinary people’s lives. Analysts say this issue – unlike many others – transcends local concerns and provokes similar levels of frustration in every part of the country. According to Umbetalieva, even the simplest things cannot be done without paying a bribe these days. “Previously, a bribe was needed to solve a difficult problem. But now it takes a bribe even to get one’s child a place on a nursery waiting list,” she said. The same applies to the allocation of public contracts, where the winner of a tender is often required to pay a proportion to the official who made it possible. Officials in charge of delivering free public services often create bureaucratic obstacles to force people to pay bribes for them. “There’s an impression that they do it on purpose so that they’ll be offered a bribe,” Umbetalieva said. All this fuels a sense of injustice and powerlessness that is shared by people all across Kazakstan. Umbetalieva said interviews that her organisition carried out for a research project showed uniform results – “Whether in the north, the south or in the western regions, people were saying they’d had enough.” Anti-corruption campaigns by government have failed to bring real change as they are often misused as “an instrument to pressure or to dismiss someone”, she added. Adil Kaukenov, head of Quorum.kz, a news analysis website, said corruption had crept into every corner of life, but was not yet a focal point for public protests. “Although irritated by it, the public has learned to live with it,” he said. LOCAL PROTESTS, REGIONAL DIFFERENCES One factor that has prevented localised protests growing into something larger is the fact that Kazakstan is a huge country in which people in one area may face quite different problems to those in another. “Social and economic differences between the regions effectively play a stabilising role, as each province has its own issues, and the problems in other parts of the country are of little concern to it,” Kaukenov said. “Although each social group has its own pressing problems, these have not risen to the critical level where all sections of society would be ready to unite in large-scale protests.” Taking the wave of oil-industry strikes in western Kazakstan as an example, Kaukenov said they had sparked few expressions of popular support in other parts of the country. “Large-scale unrest is possible only if it takes place in Almaty or Astana, in any other case, it is a localised event and does not influence the overall situation in the country,” he said. A recent opinion poll conducted in July by the Almaty-based Institute for Political Solutions confirms this view. Of the 2,300 respondents in 14 regions, the capital Astana and the financial centre Almaty, one-third believed the strike action was justified, and the rest either felt untouched by the issue, or that oil-sector employees had no business going on strike as they were the best-paid workers in the country. (For more on the strikes, see Kazakstan's Unhappy Oil Workers) Almaty-based economist Galina Nakhmanovich said direct wage comparisons were unfair, given that prices in western Kazakstan were also higher, and the harsh climate there made it harder to live off farming than, say in the warmer south of the country. Umbetalieva said southern Kazakstan continued to be the poorest part of the country, and although protest have traditionally been muted there, they are gradually becoming louder. People in northern regions along the border with Russia feel close to that country, and somewhat alienated from the rest of Kazakstan, according to Umbetalieva, who said, they “do not feel that life in Kazakstan concerns them”. Aiman Jusupova, head of Kazakstan Institute for Socioeconomic Information and Prognosis, said that when people were asked which institution they trusted, President Nazarbaev still comes out on top – but that support is falling. PEOPLE MORE WILLING TO STAND UP AND PROTEST While unhappiness with the government is still fragmented and differs in focus from region to region, many analysts say the idea that people in Kazakstan will put up with anything is no longer a given. “I realise that people now [feel] they have nothing to lose – what’s the point of having security and stability if they can’t live like a normal person?” Umbetalieva said. As Kaukenov noted, one of the triggers for anger to turn into open protest comes when people feel no one is listening to their concerns. “I’ve witnessed a lot of cases where people have defended their point of view robustly, with no fear of clashing with the police or of other consequences,” he said, citing the example of car owners who gathered nationwide support when they fought plans to ban the use of imported right-hand drive vehicles. Umbetalieva said what was new about this defiance was that it was being articulated by people of some influence and authority in their own communities, like teachers and the elderly. She said the people she had come across had a clear vision of the need to challenge the way things were, even though they were fully aware of the consequences. “It was clear to them that in order to change the situation, they would have to stand up until the end,” she said. AUTHORITIES FAILING TO RESPOND Nakhmanovich said that the authorities were compounding the problem by failing to address people’s concerns, offer solutions, and generally prevent things getting out of hand. Once again, this was demonstrated during the oil-industry protests, where the government could have attempted to clarify disputed issues and to mediate with the oil companies to find workable compromises. That did not happen. “I was struck that no one from the top leadership went there; they didn’t listen to people,” Nakhmanovich said. Instead, the official response – harassing strikers and jailing union activists – merely served to turn an industrial dispute into a political protest. Left unaddressed, the trouble in the oil sector could lead to wider unrest in western regions of Kazakstan, she said. Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London. **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across Central Asia on a weekly basis. The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent and London, which supports media development and encourages better local and international understanding of the region. IWPR's Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Community Fund. The service is published online in English and Russian. The opinions expressed in Reporting Central Asia are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the publication or of IWPR. REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA: Editor-in-Chief: Anthony Borden; Managing Editor: Yigal Chazan; Senior Editor and Acting Central Asia Director: John MacLeod; Central Asia Editor: Saule Mukhametrakhimova. 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