Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev exuded optimism as he greeted the New Year. In sharp contrast, many citizens in the Central Asian nation seem skeptical about the chances for change in 2006.
In a televised address December 31, Bakiyev glossed over Kyrgyzstan's tumultuous political transition since the March revolution toppled the old regime headed by Askar Akayev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Instead, Bakiyev attempted to focus public attention on the future. "Let hardships and sorrows go with the outgoing year and let the new year bring harmony and prosperity," he said.
The rapidly accumulating difficulties of the past nine months, however, will not be easily forgotten, some regional analysts say. Temirlan Moldogaziev -- the Co-Chair of the International and Comparative Politics Department at the American University-Central Asia ö now characterizes the March revolution as a mere "re-shuffling of the cards."
"All that has happened is a re-division of resources," Moldogaziev added. "Power in Kyrgyzstan is just about maximizing personal wealth. People just hope that the Bakiyev family will steal less [that the Akayev's]."
Pressing economic issues continue to create uncertainty for many Kyrgyz. Few people are hopeful that life will improve in this tiny republic, where, according to the World Bank, the average citizen lives on an income of less than $400 a year. One woman selling tea recently at a bazaar stall in Bishkek said: "The living was bad, and it will be bad."
A sense of disillusionment could be detected as far back as the summer of 2005. For example, Rushiad, a 33-year old woman from Bishkek, described Independence Day festivities on August 31, as being "like Soviet times." She then added with a glib smile, "At least, there were no pickpockets."
Among the top problems facing Kyrgyzstan at present are burgeoning corruption and the growing influence of organized criminal groups. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The country is also grappling with simmering regional tension. Northerners, especially Bishkek residents, have been unsettled by the rapid influx of southerners, who have spontaneously seized land on the outskirts of the capital.
Southerners, including members of the region's large Uzbek community, have long complained about unfair treatment at the hands of northerners. Even though Bakiyev is a southerner, many residents in the Osh and Jalal-abad remain disgruntled and skeptical that conditions will show marked improvement in the coming months. Emil, a college-educated 24-year-old cab driver in Osh, said he saw "no signs of change."
Bakiyev's personnel policy has been a major source of discontent. For example, the president in September nominated his brother, Marat Bakiyev, to serve as Kyrgyzstan's Ambassador to Germany, provoking an outcry over nepotism. Daniyar Derkembayev, leader of the Germany-based Manas-Kyrgyz Community of Europe, announced that his organization would refuse to recognize Marat Bakiyev, who had no previous political or diplomatic experience. Kyrgyzstan's Ombudsman, Tursunbay Bakir uulu, in a clear reference to Marat Bakiyev's appointment, publicly reproached the new government for handing out important diplomatic posts to those who "don't know how to hold a knife and a fork and don't know a single foreign language."
Beyond purely domestic issues, Kyrgyzstan stands to experience an intensification of an already evident geopolitical struggle between the United States and Russia. Both powers operate military bases in Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Washington has been on the defensive since mid 2005, when Uzbekistan evicted US troops from a base there, and speculation has mounted in recent months that Russia would attempt to pressure the Bakiyev administration into cutting off US access to the Manas air base outside Bishkek. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Local analysts believe it is highly unlikely that Bakiyev will ask the Americans to leave. According to a report recently broadcast by the Independent Bishkek television channel, the income generated by the American base leasing arrangement totals $200 million, or roughly 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP. "For this reason, the Americans can be sure that nobody is going to throw them out of Kyrgyzstan anytime soon," the television commentary said.
Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in sending New Year's greetings to Bakiyev, left no doubt that Moscow will seek to increase its influence in Bishkek in 2006. Putin "expressed confidence that in the coming year, Russian-Kyrgyz strategic cooperation, which meets the interests of the two countries and peoples, and the tasks of ensuring stability and security in Central Asia, would further expand," the Kabar news agency reported.
Nicholas Schmidle is a freelance reporter who focuses on Central Asian security issues.