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Majlis Podcast: The Fallout From Detaining A Kyrgyz Opposition Leader

Kyrgyz opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev (left) and President Almazbek Atambaev had enjoyed cordial relations until last summer. (file photo)
Kyrgyz opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev (left) and President Almazbek Atambaev had enjoyed cordial relations until last summer. (file photo)

The detention of Omurbek Tekebaev, the leader of Kyrgyzstan's Ata-Meken party, has provided opponents of President Almazbek Atambaev and his Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) with a fresh rallying point.

The country's presidential election is scheduled for November and Atambaev is constitutionally prohibited from running, so this promises to be the most contested presidential election in Kyrgyzstan's 25-year history.

That makes Tekebaev's detention not only a political issue between his party, other opposition parties, and Atambaev and his ruling SDPK, it also makes it an election issue in a country that has already seen two presidents chased from office by protests.

What just happened in Kyrgyzstan, and why did it happen? Where could this lead Kyrgyzstan, a country still credited with being the most democratic in Central Asia?

These were some of the questions addressed in a Majlis, or panel discussion, organized by RFE/RL.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Joining the Majlis from Bishkek was Medet Tiulegenov, assistant professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia. Also from Bishkek, Ryskeldi Satke, a researcher and freelance journalist who has written for many media outlets, including Al-Jazeera and The Diplomat, took part in the conversation. I'm always rooting for Kyrgyzstan, so I said a few things also.

Tekebaev was taken into custody by the State Committee for National Security early on February 26 when he arrived at Bishkek's Manas International Airport.

According to Satke, "a political fight between the Ata-Meken faction and the president's circle, including the president himself" was at the center of Tekebaev's detention.

Previously Amicable Relations

Tekebaev and Atambaev were once allies, part of the interim government that took over when former President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted in April 2010. They maintained amiable ties until last summer, when Atambaev started pushing for a referendum to make changes to the constitution. The referendum took place in December and the amendments were passed.

Tekebaev was an author of that constitution and a provision in the text prohibited amendments until 2020.

Satke recalled: "There were a number of accusations since last year and … the referendum was one of those issues where the Ata-Meken faction was disagreeing with the president's version … since then this political rivalry escalated."

It did indeed escalate into what Tiulegenov called a "war of kompromats …a form of a wider, deeper struggle, which happened in the wake of constitutional changes."

Over the course of the last half-year, Tekebaev and Atambaev have exchanged accusations about how each acquired material wealth. Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan after visits abroad, one of which was to Cyprus, where he collected what his Ata-Meken party said were documents linking Atambaev to cargo aboard a plane that crashed near the Manas airport in late January.

'Second Wave' Of A Power Struggle

The reason for detaining Tekebaev was the recent appearance of a video in which Russian businessman Leonid Maevsky claimed he gave Tekebaev $1 million in late 2010 in order to acquire a stake in Kyrgyzstan's largest mobile phone operator, MegaCom.

Tiulegenov said, "The question many people are asking [is] why this person comes out almost seven years after all these events."

And Tiulegenov reminded us that Tekebaev is not the only member of Ata-Meken who is currently detained. Three other Ata-Meken members were arrested in November in connection with an offshore company that had links to MegaCom.

"Maybe you can view it as a second wave of struggle by Atambaev to consolidate his power," Tiulegenov suggested, recalling that Atambaev, "using the same tactic, using law enforcement agencies he controls as the president, opened up various criminal cases [against] the Ata-Jurt party."

Ata-Jurt was a party packed with former officials from the Bakiev administration. They were naturally opponents of the government that replaced Bakiev after he was chased from power. Ata-Jurt won the most seats (28) in parliament in the 2010 elections. As Tiulegenov explained, some of the parliamentary deputies from Ata-Jurt "were arrested or criminal cases were opened against them, and now Ata-Meken comes [into a similar situation]."

A Time Of Uncertainty

Moving forward, Satke pointed out that the detention of Tekebaev did not spark large protests and as a single issue is probably not sufficient to ignite the sort of passionate demonstrations Kyrgyzstan has seen in previous years. But Satke added there are many perennial issues that could easily be added to opposition protests, including among others poverty, corruption, and chronic unemployment, which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens working as migrant laborers.

Satke also mentioned that "protests in the province of Naryn have been going on for quite a while over electricity rates; winter was harsh this year, and many were complaining that electricity is too expensive them."

The Bakiev government's decision to hike utility rates in the winter of 2009-10 was the first issue to bring people out onto the streets. By the time protests hounded Bakiev from office in April 2010, this issue was practically forgotten, replaced by a dozen other complaints.

The run-up to the November election in Kyrgyzstan is already looking a lot like the elections when Askar Akaev was president (1991-2005). Back then, prominent opposition leaders often also found themselves in legal entanglements months ahead of important ballots and election campaigns became part party politics and part courtroom battles.

Tiulegenov said the fact that Atambaev must step down and cannot ever again be president is likely playing a role in the events surrounding the Ata-Meken party and Tekebaev. "It poses kind of a security dilemma … to safeguard yourself after stepping down from the presidential position."

Tiulegenov summed up the uncertainty of the coming months by noting, "We don't have, unfortunately, a lot of experience with what ex-presidents may do."

The discussion looked at these issues in greater detail and made some comparisons between what is happening now in Kyrgyzstan and crises in the country in the past.

An audio recording of the Majlis can heard here:

Majlis Podcast: The Fallout From Detaining A Kyrgyz Opposition Leader
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.