Kyrgyzstan's regional rivalries are deepening, as various elite groups, especially those with their power bases in northern Kyrgyzstan, are growing discontent with recent personnel and organizational decisions made by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's administration.
Based on recent developments, including a far-reaching governmental restructuring announced on October 20, Bakiyev appears intent on shifting an increasing share of power into the hands of southerners. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Elite networks based on kinship and geographic factors have played an important role in Kyrgyz politics since the Central Asian state gained independence in 1991. The North-South divide has often served as the axis around which Kyrgyz politics operates. Under Askar Akayev, a northerner who served as Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet president, elite groups from northern regions came to dominate the political establishment. The Tulip Revolution in March 2005 smashed the northern stranglehold on power, and opened up political opportunities for southerners, including Bakiyev.
Bakiyev -- who hails from southern Jalalabad Province -- has publicly sought to downplay regionalism. During a June election rally in Jalalabad, for example, the president told supporters that he wanted to dismantle political divisions: "The party-based electoral system has already yielded its initial results -- divisions based on regional factors and the phenomenon of tribalism are becoming things of the past," he asserted.
Yet, his detractors argue that the president's words aren't corresponding to his actions. Even before the October 20 government restructuring, they contend, the most powerful positions, especially in the ministries of finance, internal affairs and state security, were all in the hands of southerners close to the president. The president's brother, Janysh, runs the Presidential Protection Service, an influential security agency. Meanwhile, the president's former bodyguard, Defense Minister Baktybek Kalyev, and Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongatiev, both from Jalalabad, seem sure to retain their positions amid the governmental overhaul.
Other influential government members such as Parliamentary Speaker Aitibai Tagayev, Minister of Emergency Situations Kamchybek Tashiev, and Prosecutor General Elmurza Satybaldiev are also from the southern provinces of Jalalabad and Osh. And the new deputy prime minister and presidential chief of staff, Aaly Karashev, served as the governor of Osh prior to his presidential appointment.
A perception that southerners are now poised to tighten their hold on power is stoking resentment among officials who hail from the North. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Bishkek city official told EurasiaNet; "The southerners are assuming important positions in the tax administration, law enforcement, and prosecutor's office. One thing is clear: they like to work where big money is involved."
Resentment also appears to be spilling over into the public realm. "One can observe the politicization of this issue, the division into North and South, among ordinary people. This is linked with the ongoing redistribution of assets at the elite level," Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariev told the 312kg.ru online news agency.
Northern elites seem to be fighting back in various ways. For example, there is public opinion data that suggests police officers in Bishkek, the capital and largest city in the North, are targeting southerners for harassment. According to a survey published on July 22 by the 24.kg news agency, 45 percent of labor migrants from the southern regions claim to have been harassed by Bishkek police, while 19 percent of surveyed migrants from northern regions report police harassment.
Regional affiliation doesn't always determine political and economic outcomes. The urban-rural divide has also emerged as a political fault line. For example, officials from mainly rural provinces, both northern and southern, express the belief that that they are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to obtaining a share of a $300-million financial aid package extended by Russia earlier in 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Meanwhile, the proposed creation of a new Russian military base, to be situated in southern Kyrgyzstan, is fueling a budding rivalry between factions based in Osh and Jalalabad, the two largest urban centers in the South. The base is expected to pump roughly $250 million into the local economy of the region that hosts the facility.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.