The crowd that gathered on Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square on February 27 was modest, belying the gravity of the latest political crisis gripping Kyrgyzstan.
Some of the demonstrators waved the red flag of the opposition Ata-Meken party, led by Omurbek Tekebayev, who was detained by state security agents as he flew into the country over the weekend. It appears Tekebayev will face corruption-related criminal charges.
The choice of location for the rally — the launch pad for two popular uprisings that toppled two presidents, Askar Akayev in 2005 and Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010 — was pointed and symbolic. Later in the day, the crowd marched round the block and relocated for a short while in front of the old parliament building, a structure that stands in the shadow of a statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
Recent events have been pointing inexorably to the arrest of President Almazbek Atambayev’s most dogged and vocal opponent, although the suddenness of it, occurring in the very early hours of February 26, appears to have taken many by surprise.
The arrest is turning up the heat in a political environment filled with uncertainty. Kyrgyzstan is entering a pivotal point this year. Due to a constitutional provision that limits him to one term in office, Atambayev will not be running in this November’s president election. Thus, the election is expected to mark the first time in Kyrgyzstan’s post-independence history that the country experiences a peaceful handover of power from one chief executive to another.
Critics contend that Atambayev is trying to eliminate political rivals and ensure that a status-quo candidate wins the election. Natalia Nikitenko, an MP with the Ata-Meken party, described the arrest as “political repression.”
“When you have arrests in the middle of the night with large numbers of police officers in tow, this is very reminiscent of political repression,” Nikitenko said. “This is a hounding of the opposition directly linked to criticism of [recent amendments to] the constitution and for the statements made by deputies about illegal acts and other schemes involving people in the president’s entourage.”
Protesters have said they intend to rally again on February 28 in a call for Tekebayev’s release and for the resignation of authorities at the State Committee for National Security, the agency that carried out the politician’s arrest. Police told the Kloop.kg news website that they will not break up that meeting, even though it coincides with a visit by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Politics aside, the unfolding confrontation appears to stem to a great extent from the personal enmity between Tekebayev and Atambayev.
While the two have never been close, they did join forces during the turbulent season in 2010 that led to the toppling of the widely reviled former leader, Bakiyev. The clashes that centered on Ala-Too Square in early April of that year claimed dozens of lives after government forces opened fire on protesters.
Commenting on the sporadic protests that have taken place since Tekebayev’s detention, Atambayev revealed that this current face-off is partly about claiming ownership over that historical turning point — an event both men see as a cornerstone of their political legacies.
Speaking on February 26, Atambayev revived oft-aired allegations that Ata-Meken supporters engaged in looting in the wake of the April 7 revolt. Citing purported relatives of people killed and injured on that day, he harshly criticized people rallying for Tekebayev.
“[The relatives] said that it was offensive for them to see how people involved in corruption and marauding are not only throwing a shadow over the glowing memory of the heroes of the April revolution, but are continuing to use their names for cover when the time comes to answer for their thieving and bribe-taking,” Atambayev said.
Medet Tiulegenov, a professor of international and comparative politics at American University of Central Asia, noted that selective arrests of opposition figures began in the wake of confrontations over last year’s tinkering with the constitution. “The constitutional reforms were objected to quite unequivocally by Tekebayev, who resisted the president in quite a rude manner,” Tiulegenov said.
Accusations leveled at Tekebayev and his allies — often through dubiously documented hatchet-job reports planted in government-friendly media — have intensified in recent months. In the latest expose, which emerged in the hours before Tekebayev’s arrest, the politician was alleged to have accepted $1 million in bribes while he was acting deputy prime minister in 2010 in exchange for granting a Russian businessman special favors during the sale of a nationalized mobile phone company.
Little by way of firm evidence has been released so far to substantiate such accusations. Investigators have claimed that while serving as interim deputy prime minister in 2010, Tekebayev used his authority to pressure a Russian investor, Leonid Mayevsky, into giving him $1 million in cash in exchange for granting preferential access to the sale of a part-nationalized mobile phone service provider. Tekebayev is then said to have kept the money without fulfilling his side of the bargain.
For reasons that are not clear, Mayevsky waited until this past week to reveal this story.
Former prime minister Temir Sariyev, who has announced he intends to run for president in an election slated for November, agreed with the emerging consensus that the Tekebayev corruption case appeared to be politically motivated.
“Only an objective trial in court can give a definitive answer as to whether this man is innocent, or if he has been slandered,” Sariyev said in a video appeal to Atambayev. “Over the last few months, Tekebayev has been engaged in a rough confrontation with Atambayev, so these accusations and Tekebayev’s detention have a political flavor to them.”
Marat Kazakbayev, a political analyst who typically adheres to the government line, downplayed the role of political motives in the case.
“Tekebayev’s arrest has been brewing for a long time, so what has happened now could have happened a long time ago. There is no political persecution here — there is already firm evidence provided here by a Russian businessman. The facts have been proven,” Kazakbayev said.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.