Crossroads Asia

In Kyrgyzstan, Babanov Cases Losing Steam

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Crossroads Asia

In Kyrgyzstan, Babanov Cases Losing Steam

Former presidential hopeful Omurbek Babanov was the subject of two highly political investigations. One has been suspended.

In Kyrgyzstan, Babanov Cases Losing Steam
Credit: Pixabay

At least one of the two criminal cases levied against former presidential contender Omurbek Babanov have been dropped, according to local media.

Babanov, who served as prime minister from December 2011 to September 2012 during the first year of Almazbek Atambayev’s presidency, later joined his Respublika party with Ata Jurt and headed the faction in parliament. In early 2017, Babanov was nominated by his party to run for the presidency that following October.

Although the election campaign period was short — legally mandated to be a month long — it was mean and messy. Babanov, who earlier that year had ranked as one of Kyrgyzstan’s most respected politicians, was lambasted by Atambayev for meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The hubbub developed into a briefly closed border and a chill in relations between the two countries.

A more inflammatory issue, however, were comments made by Babanov at a speech in Osh on September 28, which critics claimed incited ethnic hatred. The criticism developed into legal action in early November 2017 when the State Committee for National Security began an investigation, alleging that Babanov not only stoked ethnic hatred but publicly called for the “violent change of the constitutional order.”

A second investigation was launched in March 2018, with authorities suspecting Babanov plotted riots and a coup after losing the election to Atambayev’s preferred successor, Sooronbay Jeenbekov. As I wrote earlier this year:

The day after the election, Babanov lamented the dirty campaign, saying, “State television channels were used to pour dirt on us. There was a black PR [campaign] against us. Our campaign activists were abused; they did not know whom to turn to as law enforcement was also one-side.”

He went on to directly confront the suggestion that he would call on his supporters to take to the streets to contest the results by saying, “This is not true. We will not seize power. Our victory is to come. These elections made me and my team stronger.”

For a country that saw two street protest-driven revolutions in the span of 10 years, Babanov’s denial — and the possibility that even in defeat his political star could continue to rise — still sounded like a threat to the authorities.

Babanov left Kyrgyzstan shortly after the election, presumably for Russia, to lie low.

On September 19, reported that Ruslan Kazakbaev — a member of the Respublika-Ata Jurt faction in parliament which Babanov once led — had raised the issue of the criminal cases against Babanov in parliament. Kazakbaev mentioned various experts, both local and international, who concluded that there was no incitement in Babanov’s Osh speech. Idris Kadyrkulov, the head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) responsible for the investigations, reportedly said the expert opinions were being considered in the criminal case and that it had been suspended.

On September 20, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported a clarification from the GKNB that the case regarding riots and a coup has been suspended, but the incitement investigation is ongoing. The investigators are apparently still pondering the meaning behind Babanov’s speech from nearly a year ago. As RFE/RL reported it, they believe his words contained “an unsubstantiated, provocative meaning.”

As the criminal cases against Babanov lose steam, it’s worth pondering why — why the state pursued him in the first place, why it has dropped one case but not the other — and also what this all tells us about Kyrgyz politics. Atambayev hounded Babanov to the benefit of his chosen successor Jeenbekov. But the shine has come off the relationship between Jeenbekov and Atambayev in the year since the election, perhaps to Babanov’s benefit in this case. Kyrgyzstan’s security services don’t come off well, with their cases against Babanov appearing political in nature. Kyrgyzstan’s politics remain highly personal, to the detriment of rule of law in the country at the very least.