Kyrgyzstan faces 'hard winter'

Kyrgyzstan faces 'hard winter'

Kyrgyzstan on Friday caps a tumultuous 12 months since President Sadyr Japarov took the reins of power, and the convulsions that have strained the country's social and political fabric show no sign of abating. As Nikkei Asia writes, in a move widely seen as another step to consolidate his power, Japarov on Wednesday appointed a new cabinet of ministers led by a prime minister-like chairman. Legislative changes signed into law the previous day placed the president at the top of the executive branch.

The overhaul of the government is the latest twist since last October, when the impoverished Central Asian country was rocked by a wave of protests following a contentious, rigged parliamentary election. The unrest led to Japarov being sprung from jail and elevated to the presidency in a matter of days.

In the last year, Japarov and his administration have pushed through wide-reaching changes -- ripping up the old constitution, slimming down parliament and detaining foes, often on spurious charges.

The revised constitution abolished the post of prime minister. Instead, it will be the new chair of the cabinet who is responsible for the day-to-day running of the government -- Akylbek Japarov, no relation the president. His appointment came as no surprise to political commentator Azim Azimov, who is based in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek.

Despite being one of many ministers, "for a long time [Akylbek Japarov] has been the source of leadership and de facto leader of this cabinet," Azimov told Nikkei Asia. "This is mostly his cabinet, where he is going to execute his power and authority."

Azimov told Nikkei that President Japarov has "so far not expressed any interest in running the executive branch of power. He just wants the cabinet to work for him so he can enjoy the results."

Indeed, the president took to Instagram on Wednesday to explain that he will be keeping a watchful eye on the cabinet chair, who has been tasked with increasing the state budget by 40% from $3.3 billion to $4.7 billion over the next year.

"If he cannot do it, then I will take action," Japarov posted. "His every step, his every action will be under my personal control."

No one has explained how the budget will be boosted in an economy that has struggled to gain traction in recent years, with political turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic both taking a serious toll. The World Bank projects gross domestic product to grow 2.3% in 2021, after 2020's 8.6% plunge.

Kyrgyzstan watchers, meanwhile, are concerned that too much power now rests in the president's hands, and that state institutions have been weakened.

"The new constitution, that was adopted at the April referendum, includes threats to the checks and balances in the Kyrgyz political system, allowing the president opportunities for inference in the judiciary by appointing judges, for example, as well as having influence over the parliament," said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

There are also worries over freedom of expression and government snooping. During the presidential election in January, more than 100 civil society activists, lawyers and journalists were wiretapped by the authorities.

Yet the events of Japarov's first year as president do not seem to have dented his popularity. In an International Republican Institute poll conducted in July, a leading 32% of respondents named him Kyrgyzstan's most trusted politician, with his sidekick, national security chief Kamchybek Tashiev, getting 24%.

"What's most striking about Japarov is that he is actually delivering on what he promised," Azimov argued.

Following a deadly border skirmish with Tajikistan in April, the government in May nationalized the Kumtor gold mine -- the country's biggest foreign currency earner. This played well with Japarov's base, as did a crackdown on "corrupt" politicians and the seizure of their assets.

However, the consequences of these actions -- a sluggish economy, a collapse in investor confidence and the worsening of the political climate -- have left Azimov, and many other Kyrgyz citizens, "horrified."

With long-delayed parliamentary elections taking place in November, many in Kyrgyzstan are hoping for greater stability in the second year of Japarov's presidency.

Azimov told Nikkei that his "crystal ball, pretty much like everyone else's, is very blurred right now." However, stability could still be some way off, given "a perfect storm of crises that are now headed toward Kyrgyzstan," he added.

Surging living costs, as the prices of everyday foodstuffs skyrocket, and a looming energy crisis, with fuel shortages and electricity blackouts on the cards, paint an ominous picture heading into the winter months. "Twelve-month inflation rose to 14% in August, up from 9.7% in December 2020, driven by prices for imported food and fuel," according to the World Bank's country report.

Azimov also sees the ongoing spat over control of the Kumtor mine with Canadian former operator Centerra Gold, which is currently subject to international arbitration, as a potential "time bomb" for the state budget.

For now, with Kyrgyzstan's opposition fractured and demoralized, Japarov's regime seems to be in a strong position. But Azimov warned, "There's a very hard winter ahead of them and the whole of the country, and that's going to be the main test whether this regime will sustain and whether their political opponents will have a chance to capitalize on their failures next year."

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