The Kyrgyz government kicked off what could become serious protests on Sunday when the leader of Ata-Meken, a political party sitting in the parliamentary opposition at present, was detained upon returning to the country from Europe.
Omurbek Tekebayev, according to RFE/RL, was detained by plainclothes police at 3 a.m. He had been in Vienna attending the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Authorities said that he would be held for up to 48 hours for questioning related to a criminal investigation alleging his involvement in corruption and fraud.
State prosecutors claim that Tekebayev was part of a 2010 bribe scheme involving a Russian businessman and the sale of a telecom.
The present allegation has the same flavor as those aired last November in which the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security (GKNB) claimed that the government of Belize had mailed them evidence of nefarious business dealings by Tekebayev and his associates — Almambet Shykmamatov (a former Justice Minister) and Aida Salyanova (a former prosecutor general), both also Ata-Mekan MPs — via a Belize-registered offshore company. (EurasiaNet did an excellent dig on the scandal and found a number of odd turns and implausibilities.)
Shykmamatov and Salyanova were both detained earlier in February for questioning as well, but it was Tekebayev’s arrest that sparked protests.
Supporters gathered at Manas International Airport, about 30 km outside of Bishkek, but the government deployed a large number of riot police to keep order. In Bishkek, more than a thousand people came out to protest the arrest on February 26. The crowd gathered outside the GKNB headquarters, and according to EurasiaNet tried twice to push into the building. The rally featured a few prominent faces giving speeches by megaphone, including former interim President Roza Otunbayeva. On February 27 protests continued in Bishkek’s central square, Ala-Too.
On Sunday Otunbayeva, according to RFE/RL, said Tekebayev’s detention was politically motivated. “We have seen all this before,” she said.
“I was confident that current authorities will not repeat the mistakes of the previous authorities,” she went on. “Now, a political standoff is underway.” She called Tekebayev’s detention unjust and unacceptable.
Otunbayeva, Tekebayev and current President Almazbek Atambayev were leading figures in the 2010 revolution but the politicians that mustered the country’s 2nd revolution in a decade have had a falling out since. Otunbayeva and Tekebayev were both critical of the constitutional changes which Atambayev considered necessary. The more than 30 constitutional changes were approved in a referendum last December. One of the more controversial changes rebalanced power in favor of the prime minister. Atambayev will end his single six-year term this fall and is barred from running again; his critics believe he has his eyes on the prime minister’s post, if not for himself than for a close (and sympathetic) ally.
As I wrote in January, “there are no former Kyrgyz leaders who have not been pursued or criticized in some fashion or another by their successors. Often that criticism has been matched with prosecution for corruption and other crimes.” Atambayev may simply be getting the wolves first, before they turn on him. Nevermind that Tekebayev’s party is the smallest in parliament — with just 11 seats — and nationwide barely made the 7 percent threshold in the last election to even be seated. Atambayev’s pursuit of Tekebayev elevates the latter’s status — and stinks of personal vendetta.
This is, of course, no way to run a democratic state.
As EurasiaNet notes, “[t]he authorities are making little show of disguising the fact that this is an outright witch-hunt.” In addition to the Belize-themed rumors from last November, authorities have been poking around Ata-Meken MPs for anything untoward. Prosecutor asked the tax services to run audits on Tekebayev, Salyanova and Shykmamatov’s families recently, including, apparently, Tekebayev’s 8-year-old daughter.
The present iteration of the hunt for Tekebayev seems to have been sparked by a video of Russian businessman Leonid Mayevsky claiming to have paid $1 million in bribes to Tekebayev.
The logic, on the part of the Kyrgyz authorities, seems to be this: Few Kyrgyz politicians could have stuck around through two revolutions and three iterations of government without dipping their hands into one honey jar or another, and if the authorities poke around enough they’ll find something to convincingly pin on Tekebayev, who has made himself inconvenient.
Tekebayev’s supporters believe the state is hounding the opposition leader in order to discredit him ahead of the presidential elections scheduled now for November 19. It’s a long time until November and Spring has always been protest season in Kyrgyzstan. So far, there have been protests at Manas airport, in Bishkek, and in Tekebayev’s home district, Bazar-Korgon, northwest of Jalalabad. If these protests are sustained and spread, Atambayev may have a bigger problem than he anticipated.