When the roundtable meetings faltered this month, the best hope for easing mounting tensions between the Kyrgyz government and opposition parties appeared to have been dashed. The period since Kyrgyzstan's flawed parliamentary elections and run-offs in February and March has seen a crackdown on opposition figures and people in the media. It now seems likely that, until the fall presidential elections and probably beyond, President Askar Akayev will continue to sacrifice Kyrgyzstan's fragile democracy in order to preserve his own power.
The Kyrgyzstan authorities have been stifling dissident voices systematically. Felix Kulov, chairman of the Ar Namys ("Dignity") party and a popular alternative to President Akayev, has been subjected to gross government harassment. Government authorities nullified his alleged victory in the parliamentary elections, and soon after arrested him on spurious charges. Beginning on June 27, he will face judgement in a closed military court. He will almost certainly not be around to run against President Akayev in the fall.
Kulov, formerly part of President Akayev's inner circle, held numerous top government posts, including the vice-presidency. The last official post Kulov occupied was as mayor of the capital city, Bishkek. "During this period, all taxes that were supposed to go to the city administration were diverted to the federal budget," said Natalya Ablova, a well-known human rights activist. "This policy aimed to destroy Kulov's popularity by either showing him to be inept or by pushing him into illegal business as mayor of Bishkek." Understanding his compromised position, Kulov chose to resign and openly criticised the president as "incompetent." He was supported by a wave of popular support.
Since his arrest on March 22, supporters have held daily rallies demanding his release and that of other opposition leaders. They also demand that President Akayev abide by the constitution, which establishes a two-term limit on the presidency, and not run for president again this year. (Akayev was elected president in 1990, 1991 and 1995.)
Other notable victims of this election season have the media. According to Zamira Sydykova, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Res Publica, the government suspended the paper on March 28, soon after Kulov's arrest. On March 31, the paper's editorial board was fined 200,000 som (about $7,000 at that time and about $4,000 now) for publishing a letter criticizing the president of the National TV and Radio Corporation. In addition, two other journalists are currently on trial outside the capital on questionable charges. One, a Mr. Momunov, who is being tried in Suzak, reportedly is brought into court every day in shackles.
The recent behaviour of the Kyrgyz authorities will likely alienate western sympathy toward Kyrgyzstan, its most palatable ally in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan received millions of foreign dollars to boost economic development and nascent civil society.
According to Ednan Karabayev, presidential advisor and first foreign minister of Kyrgyzstan, "if the West intends to create instability in Kyrgyzstan, they could play the card of Kulov," adding that he was confident that the arrest of Kulov will not effect relations with the West. Karabayev continued, "Initially, US policy was to develop democracy in the region. But then this policy changed, believing that fully developed democracy is not possible here. Now, they support authoritarian regimes within the framework of their own national interests." He concluded, "Now we know that the priority task is to strengthen the state."
Western sources disagree with this analysis. "The strategic interest of Kyrgyzstan is the relative freedom that exists here, apart from the issue of the drug trade," according to a western diplomat, who requested anonymity. "Kyrgyzstan was important to show that Central Asia could have regimes other than the existing authoritarian ones. If Kyrgyzstan goes its own way, then it will surely become less interesting to the West," he concluded.
Ultimately, the ongoing power struggle in Bishkek could weaken, not strengthen, the Kyrgyz state. In addition to discrediting it internationally and domestically, it could also shift the leadership's attention away from serious problems the country is now facing. Chief among them are economic erosion (the average monthly salary is below the poverty line), inter-ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan, the threat of Islamic guerrillas on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, and border disputes with Uzbekistan.
The administration's repressive policies can only shift the support of the urban liberal voters from Akayev to Kulov, come fall. The waters are rising around Central Asia's "island of democracy."
Vicken Cheterian is a freelance journalist, who specializes in Caucasus and Central Asian political affairs.