Security services in Kyrgyzstan have opened a second criminal investigation against former presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov, signaling that politically motivated pressure on opposition figures is set to continue unabated.
The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, said in a March 29 statement that they are probing suspicions that Babanov plotted to seize power after failing to win last October’s presidential contest.
The GKNB announced last year, after the election, that they were investigating Babanov on suspicion of inciting ethnic tensions during his campaign.
These coup-plotting allegations are tied to a related series of investigations against allies of the multimillionaire businessman-turned-politician. In November, the GKNB detained Kanat Isayev, a member of parliament and Babanov supporter, and charged him with plotting mass unrest and attempting to seize power.
The contention in all instances is that Babanov intended, after losing the October election to the man who went on to become president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, to whip up angry crowds and thereby topple the government. One small problem as far as this allegation goes is that Babanov made a specific point in the wake of the vote of announcing before a crowded room of journalists that although he was unhappy with the outcome, he did not want to supporters to mount any protests.
“After the elections, we didn’t even hold peaceful rallies, let alone organize activities aimed at seizing power,” said Babanov, responding to the GKNB statement. “Moreover, people close to me stopped and calmed down those indignant supporters of mine who came out to the streets in the regions.”
Babanov left Kyrgyzstan soon after the election as it became evident that the government intended to penalize him for his political activity. The businessmen insisted though that his departure was motivated by his need for medical treatment. While appearing to play down the prospect of a showdown with the government, he struck a mildly defiant note at the time.
“Just because they expunge me from the political scene, life in the country will not get any better, problems will not be solved. You cannot blame all the problems on me,” he said. “The truth will [come] out.”
The coup-plotting investigation against Isayev and three associates has been concluded and is set to be transferred to the courts for trial.
Babanov is in many ways an odd target for the increasingly authoritarian Kyrgyz government. While ambitious for power, the 47-year-old is a far cry from the demagogic bruisers that have dominated political life in Kyrgyzstan for decades. He ran a slick and energetic electoral campaign — even earning the tacit endorsement of Kazakhstan’s president, much to former Kyrgyz leader Almazbek Atambayev’s deep chagrin — but he shied away from provocative confrontation.
Babanov is temperamentally unsuited to the rowdy street politics he is now being accused of secretly promoting. He also understands that his considerable business assets in Kyrgyzstan, which are said to include shopping centers, construction companies, banks and media, leave him exposed to more forms of retribution than one.
Indeed, in mid-December, officers with the anticorruption agency descended on the premises of Bishkek-based broadcaster NTS, which is believed to ultimately be controlled by Babanov, in a bid to shut it down.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.