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New Leaders Cautious on Reform

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- The new leaders of Kyrgyzstan, swept to power on a wave of popular discontent at the corrupt and increasingly autocratic rule of ousted President Askar Akayev, are taking a cautious line on reform even as hopes for drastic change ride sky high.

The new authorities have had little time to focus on anything but securing peace and stability in the capital, Bishkek, as well as sorting out whether the country's outgoing or newly elected parliament is actually legitimate.

"I have very high hopes, but I am also really frustrated," said Edil Baisalov, leader of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a coalition of Kyrgyz NGOs. "The government needs to send a powerful signal that something has changed. We hope the authorities will act swiftly."

The new leaders appear to be tentatively extending an olive branch to Akayev. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the acting prime minister, told reporters Saturday that Akayev would be guaranteed immunity if he returned to Kyrgyzstan.

So far, there has also been almost no talk of reviewing post-Soviet privatization deals, an issue that galvanized the opposition in Ukraine's peaceful Orange Revolution. Akayev's inner circle gained control of massive swaths of the nation's economy during his rule.

Bakiyev has also made concessions to the new parliament that was voted in last month in allegedly fraudulent elections, saying that most of their members could stay on.

Two former opposition leaders and one jailed former vice president have emerged as the main power brokers, although even their authority has been thrown into question by their inability to decide if the newly elected lawmakers would be allowed to keep their seats.

Bakiyev, a former prime minister who became a fierce critic of Akayev, has been named acting head of state by the old parliament. The appointment appears to confirm his position as a top candidate in any presidential election.

Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister and later ambassador to Washington and London, has also played a leading role in the opposition. She returned to Kyrgyz politics after witnessing Georgia's Rose Revolution as a United Nations official in November 2003. Appointed acting foreign minister Friday, she said she would not seek the presidency.

Felix Kulov, a former vice president jailed in 2000 on charges of corruption, was freed from prison by a crowd of 300 protesters Thursday and appointed the acting coordinator for law enforcement.

Bakiyev said in a Saturday news conference that "six or seven" other ministers had been appointed but did not give details. A government spokesman could not be contacted later for comment.

Analysts have speculated that rival presidential bids by Kulov and Bakiyev could open a new political rift in the country.

But in an interview at Interior Ministry headquarters, a tired-looking Kulov said he had been "too busy" to even think about running for president.

Looting had raged through Bishkek Thursday night and part of Friday until a show of force by police and a chance rainstorm helped bring the city under control. By Sunday, as a gentle blanket of snow covered the city, the city appeared calm.

Kulov said that if it appeared his candidacy might create political turbulence in the country, he would refrain from running.

"We're not stupid people," he said. "We know what our obligations are."

Kulov said he would not seek to have Akayev investigated, even though he claimed he was thrown into prison on Akayev's personal order.

"If he's ashamed to look me in the eye, that's enough," Kulov said.

Kulov's absence from a presidential race would likely give Bakiyev an easy victory in the June 26 poll.

Internationally, the new authorities' main priority seems to be not rocking the boat. Both the U.S. and Russian military bases will be allowed to stay, and the government has promised it will honor all its previous international agreements. Bakiyev said he had spoken to President Vladimir Putin, who asked him how he could help.

Asked how his government would differ from Akayev's, Bakiyev said he would not bring his family with him into government and would ensure the freedom of the press.

Neither of these would be small changes. In the last parliamentary elections, both of Akayev's sons and one of his daughters won seats, and many Kyrgyz were worried the president was seeking to establish a political dynasty.

But Mike Stone, head of the Freedom House independent publishing center in Bishkek, which has been publishing opposition newspapers for more than a year, said establishing a free press must be done indirectly by creating the right environment for the press to flourish. First, he said, must come independent courts to protect newspapers' right to publish the truth. Libel is a crime punishable by jail time in Kyrgyzstan, and the rule has been arbitrarily enforced.

Newspapers have also been stifled from carrying advertising from companies not controlled by Akayev's friends and family, depriving them from vital alternative sources of revenue.

Experts on Kyrgyz politics said that they were cautiously optimistic about the chances for free and fair elections in the future, but that international support would be vital in helping the democratic process develop.

"In forthcoming elections the attention of the world, and the assistance of international institutions, should provide the conditions for open and competitive elections," said Eugene Huskey, a professor of political science and an expert on Kyrgyzstan at Stetson University in Florida.

But without administrative reform, the new government would inherit a system giving enormous power to the president at the expense of the legislature and the courts. Unless the constitution were changed, the country's political future would be largely determined by whoever won the presidency.

(The Moscow Times 28.iii.05)

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