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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[11.02.23] New Constitution Runs Risk of Deepening North-South Divide in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan's new Constitution, approved in a recent nationwide referendum, strengthens the decision-making powers of local representative bodies. Officials in Bishkek hope that the move to expand local authority will help reduce social tension in the country. However, there is a risk that the new arrangement could deepen the political and economic divide that separates Kyrgyzstan's northern and southern regions
The opposition's challenge of the referendum results has, in large measure, overshadowed the potential change in the way the central government interacts with local authorities. In addition to having full authority over local economic and social policies including the budget, Kyrgyzstan's 467 local governments and councils will have greater independence from state agencies. Local officials also may utilize local mechanisms to adjudicate disputes, presided over by local elders, or aksakals.
In keeping with the new constitution, members of local councils are to be elected for four-year terms, and are protected from legal prosecution connected with their work in the councils. Tolobek Omuraliev, the Kyrgyz minister for local government, announced at an early February news conference that "the priority goal for the administration is strengthening the material-technical base of local governance structures."
The provision on the redistribution of powers helped secure the backing of local officials for the new constitution. Their support, in turn, certainly aided the Akaev administration in gaining approval for both questions on the referendum. Administration officials now hope that the devolution of power may help to ease north-south tension. Yet, in devolving power from the central government to local officials, Akaev's administration is taking a risk that may end up doing more to hamper the central government's effectiveness than to help it.
Many southerners feel that their social and economic concerns have not been adequately addressed by Akaev's administration, which is dominated by northerners. A major source of north-south tension is the disproportionate distribution of economic resources. Some observers indicate that over the past decade Bishkek has focused Western-backed development initiatives on the more industrialized northern regions.
However, political analysts and even Akaev administration members are concerned about the possibility of local clans using the new power arrangement to cement control over localities, thus leaving the country fragmented
Some administration officials worry that opposition leaders, including Azimbek Beknazarov, may seek to dominate local councils in southern regions, establishing a new platform from which they could launch political attacks on Akaev. There are also concerns that southern local officials may use their new authority to initiate a drive for greater autonomy from Bishkek. Last November, for example, supporters of opposition politician Usen Sydykov suggested that three southern regions - Osh, Jalal-Abad, and Batken - might launch such an autonomy drive if Bishkek did not redress its economic, social and political grievances.
Other observers say concerns about potential conflict are overstated. They note that current legislation gives Akaev-appointed regional executives significant influence over the composition of local government bodies. In addition, the powers of provincial governors, who enjoy broad authority to enforce presidential directives, remain unchanged.
Regardless of the broader political ramifications, the new power arrangement appears likely to prompt an increase in local discontent. Omuraliev has announced that starting in the second half of 2003, the monthly salaries of local officials will be doubled, from 920 soms (about $20) to 1,800 soms (roughly $40)The 158 million soms needed to fund salary increase for about 6,000 local officials will be generated through local budgets, namely higher taxes on land ownership.
Critics say higher property taxes will hit poor farmers in the south, where the bulk of Kyrgyzstan's rural population is concentrated, the hardest. Sultan Akramov, an official in the tax department in the Aravan local government, believes that many poor farmers will be forced to sell their land. "The increased tax on land can lead to the pre-Soviet Kulak-Batkrak [rich farmer-poor worker farmer] pattern of agricultural relations. As the land of these [poor farmers] will be purchased by their richer neighbors or relatives, it will lead to exploitation [of poor farmers] and public discontent."
Some southern-based commentators believe the best way to ease north-south tension is for the Akaev administration to accelerate work to link the two regions. Efforts to improve the Bishkek-Osh highway have lagged in recent years, despite a $50 million credit extended in 1996 by the Asian Development Bank.

By Alisher Khamidov, Eurasianet, February 11, 2003

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