Kyrgyzstan – Another Year, Another Prime Minister

Temir Sariev, the former Minister of Economics, assumed the post of head of government in Kyrgyzstan on April 30, a week after the resignation of Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev. Sariev is the fifth prime minister since Kyrgyzstan became a self-styled “parliamentary republic” in June 2010 and the 26th prime minister since the emergence of an independent Kyrgyzstan at the end of 1991. On departing office, Otorbaev noted that the cabinet needed to be “shaken up,” but Sariev will lead a government with only three new members, and they fill existing vacancies in the portfolios for finance, transport and communications, and economics.

Unlike the previous two prime ministers, who were technocrats, Temir Sariev is a prominent politician who has served as a parliamentary deputy, minister, deputy prime minister, and founder and head of a political party, Ak Shumkar (White Falcon).   He ran unsuccessfully for the presidency against Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2009. Associated with northern politicians who vigorously opposed Bakiev’s rule–and helped to overthrow it in April 2010–Sariev is one of the few Kyrgyzstani politicians who has sought to build a base of support in the nascent middle class. An entrepreneur who achieved considerable success in business in the 1990s, Sariev combines an understanding of, and degree of sympathy toward, market-based economics with a pro-Russian orientation in foreign affairs. He is also an astute observer of Kyrygzstani politics and the author of one of the best political memoirs of the post-communist era.[i]

Because he was brought in from outside the ranks of the three parties in the ruling parliamentary coalition, and because parliamentary elections are scheduled for October of this year, Sariev had to agree as a condition of his appointment that neither he nor his party would contest the forthcoming elections. Facing a term of less than six months as prime minister, Sariev’s willingness to assume the post may appear puzzling. However, his party, Ak Shumkar, stood little chance of crossing the relatively high threshold of seven percent in national list voting, and a successful stint as prime minister could position Sariev to reclaim the prime minister’s office after the election or to run for the presidency in 2017, when President Atambaev’s single six-year term expires.[ii]

Sariev will certainly have every opportunity to prove his mettle as prime minister in the coming months.[iii] Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of a legal and political battle over Kumtor, the foreign-owned gold mine that provides the country with much of its revenue, and it is on the verge of accession to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.[iv] Having overseen much of the preparatory work for admission to the Eurasian Economic Union, and having enjoyed good relations with the political leadership in Moscow, Sariev is in many respects a logical choice for the post of prime minister.

Kyrgyzstan’s constitution limits the president’s formal role in government formation to the nomination of the party that seeks to form a ruling coalition, but the politics of Sariev’s appointment provides evidence that Kyrgyzstan’s president exercises a degree of patronage influence not normally associated with a head of state in a “parliamentary republic.” For example, after Prime Minister Otorbaev’s resignation, a leader of the ruling coalition in parliament, Felix Kulov, stated that “the coalition will only propose its [replacement] candidate with the approval of the President.”[v] In fact, both the formal and informal powers of Kyrgyzstan’s president suggest that the country has something closer to a semi-presidential rather than a parliamentary model of government.

Designed by a politician who was opposed to the strong presidencies characteristic of the post-communist world, the 2010 constitution sought to limit the accumulation of presidential power in two primary ways: by making the prime minister’s selection and survival dependent on the parliament and by preventing the creation of a pro-presidential “party of power” that could amass a supermajority capable of amending the constitution. The 2010 constitution’s unusual protections for the opposition included not only a restriction on the number of seats held by any single party–65 out of a total of 120 in the unicameral legislature–but also the allocation of the chairs of the Budget and Law and Order Committees to opposition parties.

The 2010 constitution left in place, however, many of the features of the previous semi-presidential order in Kyrgyzstan. Besides enjoying a direct popular mandate, the president of Kyrgyzstan continues to exercise direct control and appointment authority over the “power bloc” in the cabinet, which includes ministers and their deputies in the fields of defense and national security. An indication of the relative ranking of the offices of president and prime minister in Kyrgyzstan was the decision by an incumbent prime minister, Almazbek Atambaev, to run for the single six-year term as president in the fall of 2011 rather than remain as head of government. Thus, whereas the prime minister is traditionally the center of political gravity in a parliamentary system, in Kyrgyzstan the president continues to be the executive figure that exercises greater pull.

Notes

[i] Temir Sariev, Shakh kyrgyzskoi demokratii (Kyrgyz Democracy under Threat). Bishkek: Salam, 2008. Speaking to me in the summer of 2010, Sariev argued that even under favorable conditions it would take 15-20 years to develop genuine political parties in Kyrgyzstan. Interview with Temir Sariev, Bishkek, 20 July 2010.

[ii] Ak Shumkar received 2.6 percent of the votes of registered voters and 4.7 percent of those voting in the previous parliamentary election, in October 2010. Eugene Huskey and David Hill, “The 2010 Referendum and Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan,” Electoral Studies, vol. 30, no. 3 (2011). The recent shift of the threshold from five percent of registered voters to seven percent of actual voters seemed unlikely to increase Ak Shumkar’s chances of success in the October 2015 elections.

[iii] An indication of the punishing schedule facing the new prime minister was his comment on assuming office that government officials would be working weekends and holidays. Grigorii Mikhailov, “V Kirgizii–integratsionnyi shok” (The Shock of Integration in Kyrgyzstan), Nezavisimaia gazeta, 13 May 2015, p. 7. http://www.ng.ru/cis/2015-05-13/7_kirgizia.html

[iv] Accession documents for Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union were signed by the heads of state of member countries in Moscow on 8 May 2015, but formal admission awaits ratification by the parliaments of member states. Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Union poses serious political, technical, and economic challenges for the country, which has been divided over the move.

[v] “Koalitsiia bol’shinstva predlozhit Atambaevu nazvat’ kandidata v prem’ery” (The Ruling Coalition invites Atambaev to name the candidate for Premier), Vechernyi Bishkek, 24 April 2015. http://www.vb.kg/doc/311246_koaliciia_bolshinstva_predlojit_atambaevy_nazvat_kandidata_v_premery.html

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