It was supposed to be simple: toward the end of 2017, Kyrgyz voters would cast ballots — with a range of candidates to pick from — and one of them would win, taking over the reigns of Central Asia’s much-ballyhooed island of democracy. It would be the second such transfer of power in the country and the first between full, rather than interim, presidents. The country previewed the process in 2015’s parliamentary election, which were vibrant, competitive and, in general, went well.
With the election still a full eight months away, however, the forces are gathering to make this fall’s election anything but simple and far from easy. There’s every ingredient for a new kind of post-Soviet political opera: an outgoing leader worried about his place, entrenched political interests, allegations of corruption, jailed politicians running for office, rude remarks, lawsuits, and an overactive rumor mill.
Near the epicenter is a break between President Almazbek Atambayev and his former allies, most notably Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president who handed power over as prescribed in 2010 after Atambayev’s election, and Omurbek Tekebayev, a long-time feature in Kyrgyz politics and a key drafter of the 2010 constitution. What specifically sparked the break isn’t clear (to me at least, surely there are theories out there on how the fallout began), but the constitutional referendum last year was a major irritant with Otunbayeva and Tekebayev at the front of opposition to changing the document and Atambayev leading the ultimately successful charge to do so.
In November 2016, allegations resurfaced linking Tekebayev and his Ata-Mekan associates to a telecom corruption scandal. A particularly astute analysis from EurasiaNet pointed out the absurdities, prime among them the fact that Kyrgyz security services claimed Belize officials had mailed them documents tying Tekebayev to an offshore company involved in a planned telecom sale back in 2012. The episode smelled of a potentially cooked-up controversy but Atambayev hasn’t let it go.
Tekebayev was arrested in late February and a judge ordered him held for two months while corruption investigations proceed. His party, Ata-Meken, then nominated him for president. It’s worth repeating EurasiaNet’s assessment that Tekebayev wasn’t much of a political threat to Atambayev. Ata-Mekan barely made it into parliament in 2015 and the field of presidential candidates is deepening. So far there are several serious contenders, with Temir Sariyev, Bakyt Torobayev and Omurbek Bababov among them.
This week, the two sides of the Tekebayev-Atambayev battle are trading lawsuits — Ata-Mekan against Atambayev for insulting the party and the state prosecutor general against Tekebayev’s lawyers, allegedly in response to their March 1 claim that the cargo of the plane which crashed at Manas International Airport in early January belonged to Atambayev. (For more on that fiasco, read EurasiaNet’s account).
Tekebayev’s lawyers claimed that the party head was compiling evidence to link Atambayev to the cargo of the plane that crashed in early January while trying to land at Manas International Airport. Kloop.kg reported that Tekebayev was planning to start impeachment proceedings in March. If true, such allegations may explain Atambayev’s pursuit of Tekebayev — but that’s a big “if.”
Meanwhile, presidential hopeful and leader of the Onugu-Progress party Bakyt Torobayev, floated the idea of dissolving parliament to solve issues of gridlock. Atambayev supported the idea and criticized parliament for being transformed from a legislative body to to a rumor mill.
Speaking on Wednesday at a state function, Atambayev accused “external and internal forces” of disliking stability. According to 24.kg he said, “After the April revolution, some politicians came to power, led looting, plundered the national property, and later concealed the traces of their crimes. We know all of this.”
Unsurprisingly, Atambayev wants the rumors about his political opponents to be believed wholesale (“We know all of this”) while those about himself ought to be dismissed.
Atambayev urged parliamentarians to fly to Cyprus, where the rumors allege he has stashed money, and investigate.
“But if necessary, I will buy tickets for them. If the deputies find my money in Cyprus, let them take it for themselves.”
It’s going to be a long eight months before the election, but the game is already in full swing.