On December 1, 2011, in a ceremony replete with medieval references, Almasbek Atambayev was sworn in as Kyrgyzstan's fourth president, with cannons sounding a peaceful transition between two heads of state for the first time in over 20 years of independence.
That his predecessor and political ally, Rosa Otunbayeva, left office to the noise of ceremonial artillery rather than automatic rifle-fire is in itself a marker of political progress in the country. But as Atambayev kissed the Kyrgyz flag and spoke warmly of Manas, the horse-riding, sword-wielding hero of Kyrgyz folklore, question marks over the country's future loomed large.
Will Atambayev be a knight or a dragon? That was the puzzle posed by MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu, in an obtuse, open letter addressed the new president:
You were talking a lot about knights who defeated dragons, but later they all became dragons. The knights couldn’t resist the gold in the dragons’ dungeons. I sincerely don’t want You to become a new dragon in the history of Kyrgyzstan.
A former ombudsman, Bakir uulu is an eccentric, pious personality famous for swearing his own oath as a lawmaker on the Koran, rather than the Kyrgyz constitution. Moreover, in Kyrgyzstan's fraught political landscape, he is one of a number of prominent southern politicians unhappy with Atambayev's recent electoral victory, a victory tarnished by accusations that the former prime minister used administrative resources both in the build up to, and during, the vote on October 30.
With the ever-present threat offered by Kyrgyzstan's regional divide, Atambayev, a northerner, would do well to befriend Bakir uulu, as well as significant others who have yet to offer any formal recognition of his victory.
Perhaps in lieu of this, the veteran politician urged unity in the face of ethnic schisms and factionalism during an upbeat inaugral speech. But with the gap between good words and good deeds a commanding feature of Kyrgyz politics, EurasiaNet blogger Nate Schenkkan wondered whether or not he could “make good on this half extended olive branch.”
Crucially, some things may prove beyond Atambayev's direct control. This blog has already noted the animal spirits involved in Kyrgyz coalition-building, and that torturous process is set to start over, with the three-party government collapsing [ru] the day after the new president took his oath.
According to Kyrgyzstan's constitution, a document many analysts argue is destined to be short-lived, three attempts to form a coalition may be made before parliament is dissolved and fresh parliamentary elections are announced. With two of those having ended in failure, the pressure to create a viable alliance is now on, with the Ata-Meken socialist party playing powder-keg politics by issuing a vote of no-confidence in the house speaker, southerner Akhmatbek Keldibekov.
Whether Atambayev will be able to use his limited powers to influence the situation in the fractured legislature remains unclear. What is more certain is that regional support for Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary democracy is limited, as evidenced by the conspicuous absence of high-ranking Kazakh and Russian officials at Atambayev's inauguration.
Bishkek's relationship with Russia, in particular, is the subject of hot debate in domestic society. Currently the country is committed to entry into the Customs Union, a Moscow-led organization that promises to impose formidable tariff barriers on non-members, including China, currently Kyrgyzstan's biggest source of imports.
When the author of this Global Voices post interviewed Osmonakun Ibraimov, Secretary of State under Kyrgyzstan's first president Askar Akayev, for an article on Eurasianet, Ibraimov was unflinching in his assessment of what he called the potentially “economically suicidal” decision to enter the union, which currently comprises Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
“If Atambayev decides to enter the Customs Union, and the cost of cheap Chinese goods at [major wholesale markets] Dordoi and Kara-Suu rises, there will be a third revolution,” he said ominously.
But Bishkek is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. As observed in an engaging piece on Eurasia Review by Robert Hernandez, any move to ignore Russia's rogueish charms could have disastrous consequences for a country the size of Kyrgyzstan:
In the first world we usually do not equate gasoline tariffs with revolution…but those in Kyrgyzstan know too well the effects of trade when it is used as a political weapon. While it may sound farfetched, it is widely accepted that the punitive Russian gasoline export tariff, implemented in the spring of 2010, was the main instigator which lead to the ouster of Kyrgyzstan’s then president Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Free Trade or Survival?: A Hobson's choice indeed.
Still, if a tumultuous, powerful parliament, a fragile economy, and an inability to attract foreign investment may eventually combine to drive poor Atambayev to the drink [ru], then he should at least enjoy the here and now of being the top dog. That, at any rate, is the message of Bishkek's English-language tourist magazine the Spektator, who produced a moving poetic tribute to Almasbek in celebration of his inauguration:
Not for them the robes of state,
And while Tashiev’s brothers eight,
Will whine about you in his ear,
You’ll serve your own kin well (I fear),
But maybe that’s a smear.
And Madumarov is mad you know,
We’re glad you saved us from his throes,
To ballot-stuff – not such a crime,
Compared to murder and rapine,
It’s rather fine – the throne is thine!
But lo, behold the troubled realm!
And now it has you at its helm,
I wish you strength to smite your foes,
They’re not so patient – you should know,
They rally, roar and overthrow
Yet these are pains for other days,
When bells will toll and troubles weigh,
When second wives will make demands,
And younger sons will tie your hands,
For now you are the man – the man!