While the likelihood of an imminent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be dimming, the tension has been ably exploited by Bishkek to head off opposition forces in the act of gathering their strengths.
On March 24, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced that it had detained two individuals on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. No full names were provided, but the initials of the suspects, B.A. and K.K., have been reported as being those of Bektur Asanov and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, both figures associated with the emergent southern-based opposition.
Moves against the pair followed the leak of recorded phone conversations — allegedly among Asanov, Kadyrov, another prominent and veteran opposition figure and seasoned rabble-rouser, Azimbek Beknazarov, and a former top government official, Duulatbek Turdunaliev — about purported plans to sow instability and seize power.
Kadyrov, for one, has called the recording a crude edit and complained that his constitutional rights were violated when his phone conversations were recorded.
Whether the recording is indeed fake or not, Kadyrov may be onto something.
The GKNB has claimed that the recordings were obtained through a court order related to a criminal investigation. The security services have not been forthcoming about the nature of that investigation, however, and the sudden timely appearance of the recording online suggests this intercept was part of an orchestrated effort to discredit the opposition.
(There is a certain irony in the fact that the very same kind of tricks were used against the political foes of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled by a coalition of figures that included the current president, Almazbek Atambayev. Back in the days when Atambayev was in the opposition, Beknazarov was regular habitué of his political party’s HQ, where they plotted how to defeat Bakiyev. And Asanov too was a trusted and rare ally to Atambayev in Bakiyev’s southern stronghold, Jalal-Abad, in the early post-2010 revolution period, only to later fall out of favor.)
Authorities appear to have been particularly spooked by the potential for a protest movement picking up steam against the backdrop of border tensions with Uzbekistan. On March 22, regional opposition figures mounted a rally in the settlement of Kerbin, a settlement close to where Uzbek and Kyrgyz troops have been facing off over a disputed piece of land. Another rally was to be held in the south’s largest city, Osh, on March 24, but was cancelled by organizers at the last minute over security concerns.
Atambayev was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth and condemned the opposition by accusing it of seeking to inflame the border troubles.
“The situation on the border is bad enough as it is and yet there people are purposely upsetting things. Moreover, they are provoking the border guards of a neighboring country,” Atambayev said on March 24, in an apparent reference to the Kerbin meeting. “If, God forbid, somebody gave them a weapon and told them to fire across the border… These people are capable of anything.”
Atambayev struck a notably defiant populist line by condemning Uzbekistan for what Kyrgyz authorities are casting as Tashkent’s attempted land grab for a water reservoir within Bishkek’s territory.
One reason for Uzbekistan’s deployment of troops along the border, he said, was that it had lost its levers of influence over Kyrgyzstan. As Atambayev tried to argue, Kyrgyzstan’s reliance on Uzbek natural gas has been nullified by the sale of the country’s gas infrastructure to Russian state energy giant Gazprom. And last summer’s inauguration of the Datka-Kemin high-voltage power link removed the need for reliance on Uzbek cables and thereby gave Kyrgyzstan energy independence, Atambayev argued.
Both those assertions are questionable, but Atambayev didn’t let that get in the way of a witticism at Tashkent’s expense.
“I told the authorities in Uzbekistan that in Kyrgyzstan the people say that if our air had to go through Tashkent, they would cut that off too,” he said.
Far from threatening Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan may have just given Atambayev the ideal gift. A cure-all solution to legitimize a crackdown against the unruly opposition and a popular nationalist talking point.