On September 1, a mere eight months after he was appointed Kyrgyz prime minister, Omurbek Babanov offered his resignation to President Almazbek Atambayev, providing the first serious test of Kyrgyzstan’s new constitution and its parliamentary form of government. Kyrgyz law permits three attempts to form a new government within fifteen days before the president must call for early elections.
Babanov, a Russia-educated businessman who founded and chairs the Respublika (Republic) Party, is the second person to serve as prime minister following the adoption of the new constitution in 2010. Almazbek Atambayev held the post following the October 2010 parliamentary election until being sworn in as president of Kyrgyzstan in December 2011.
In January 2012, four of the five parties elected to parliament—the Social Democratic Party, Ata Meken (Fatherland), Respublika, and Ar-Namys (Dignity)—formed a majority coalition headed by Babanov. Ata-Jurt (Homeland), a Kyrgyz nationalist party with strong support in the country’s south, was in the opposition; prior to that, Ata-Jurt, Respublika, and the Social Democratic Party were part of the coalition that brought Atambayev to power.
Babanov’s ruling coalition quickly proved fragile, however. On August 21, 2012, the Ar-Namys Party withdrew in protest of the country’s deteriorating economic conditions and because, the party alleged, Babanov sanctioned corruption. A day later, Ata Meken followed Ar-Namys and left the coalition.
The accusations against Babanov first surfaced on August 13, when the Ata Meken Party warned that it would seek a no-confidence vote. According to Ata Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev, the prime minister accepted an English thoroughbred horse valued at between $500,000 and $1.5 million (without paying import taxes) in exchange for a Pentagon construction contract at Manas Air Base. Americans at the base deny these charges, as does Babanov—who claims he purchased the horse himself for $20,000. Yet, for a prime minister who has staked his reputation on fighting corruption, the charges are perhaps as troublesome as the lack of confidence in his government’s economic policy.
The concerns about the state of the Kyrgyz economy are real. Decreased output at the Canadian-operated Kumitor gold mine—which last year accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and over half its industrial output—has contributed to a 5 percent economic contraction this year. Furthermore, Ata Meken deputies have warned that the country risks defaulting on its $2.8 billion foreign debt (a figure that is more than half of its GDP).
Although the constitution provides for cabinet members to remain in their positions in an acting capacity until a new government is formed, Babanov was effectively forced to resign from this position on Saturday, September 1. Upon his acceptance of Babanov’s resignation later that day, Atambayev named Social Democratic Party member Aaly Karashev, who had been serving as deputy prime minister, caretaker until a new prime minister is confirmed.
There is speculation in the press that Atambayev may have worked behind the scenes to break up the coalition so that he could choose a new, more servile prime minister. The fact that his own Social Democratic Party has been given a mandate to form the new government suggests this might be the case. Babanov's spokesman, Sultan Kanazarov, suggests that the prime minister’s exit was more the result of the formation of a new three-party coalition—which unites the Social Democratic Party, Ata Meken, and Ar-Namys and excludes Respublika—than the allegations of corruption.
Kyrgyzstan’s new parliamentary opposition will include both Respublika and Ata-Jurt. This will quickly change the political balance, as both will be courted by the political parties and groups excluded from parliament after the October 2010 election.