As the legislative election campaign intensifies in Kyrgyzstan, President Askar Akayev appears intent on packing Parliament with friends and relatives. His aim, political analysts say, is to ensure a smooth transition of executive authority later this year, when Akayev is expected to leave office following presidential elections.
The parliamentary election campaign formally started on February 2. Among those seeking seats in Parliament in the February 27 vote are two of Akayev's children, and two sisters-in-law. Other candidates with close ties to the presidential administration include the son of Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev and the son and son-in-law of Toichubek Kasymov, the president's chief of staff.
Local political analysts believe those close to Akayev are virtually assured of winning their constituencies. Administration supporters are especially intent on maintaining control of Kyrgyzstan's legislature this year because of the pending transition in the executive branch. Under Kyrgyzstan's constitution, Akayev is barred from being a candidate in the presidential election, scheduled for this October. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. This means that Kyrgyzstan stands to become the first Central Asian nation since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union to experience a relatively peaceful transfer of executive power.
As Kyrgyzstan entered this election year, some political observers wondered whether Akayev might try to reinterpret the constitution to enable another run. But now, after months of sending mixed signals about his intentions, Akayev seems to be pursuing a transition plan. Much is at stake for the president, his family and his political associates, who during their 14 years in power have accumulated extensive economic interests. Given the lack of a precedent for a political transition, there is concern among incumbent authorities that if political rivals were to gain power, those economic interests would come under threat.
Kyrgyzstan features one of Central Asia's more competitive political environments, where opposition parties over the last few years have been able to exert considerable pressure on Akayev's administration. Akayev appeared to be in political trouble in the months following the March 2002 riot in the southern town of Aksy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But the president managed to outmaneuver his political opponents, taking advantage of their lack of unity, to reestablish a firm hold on power following a February 2003 referendum. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Of late, however, the opposition has been energized by developments in Georgia and Ukraine, where popular protests forced peaceful transitions of power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. While pro-Akayev political forces appear to have the upper hand at present, the president has repeatedly expressed concern about a "revolutionary" scenario in which Kyrgyzstan becomes the third domino to fall, following Georgia and Ukraine. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Akayev has already sought to insulate himself against possible political persecution, having secured a constitutional amendment guaranteeing former presidents immunity from prosecution for actions taken while in office. Keeping parliament friendly to the administration would be another way of promoting a consequence-free transition for the president and his inner circle.
Under a reorganization mandated by the 2003 referendum, Kyrgyzstan's existing two-chamber parliament will become a unicameral legislature following the February referendum. Today, approximately 427 candidates are vying for 75 seats in the new parliament, including 68 incumbent legislators. The reduction in the size of the parliament places a premium on the political value of each seat.
Two of the most prominent pro-presidential candidates are Akayev's children; his 32-year-old daughter Bermet; and his 28-year-old son Aidar. In a late January interview with the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Akayev said the children were pursuing political careers with his blessing. "Sooner or later I will be rounding off my own political career," Akayev said. "Let my children also make their way in this field."
Bermet Akayeva is a candidate in Bishkek University's electoral district # 1, nominated by the student body at Kyrgyz National University and by residents of the capital's Lenin district. State-controlled media outlets have given extensive, positive coverage to Bermet's campaign. In one February 3 report aired by Public Educational TV, a constituent lavished praise on the president's daughter during an election rally. "Your [campaign] program not only delights the ear, but also satisfies the heart."
Opposition activists have accused the presidential administration of improperly using its influence to clear the way for Bermet's candidacy. They cite the fact that election authorities denied Roza Otunbayeva, co-chairperson of the Ata-Jurt opposition party, the ability to run in the same electoral district in which Bermet is a candidate. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, local NGOs, including Civil Society Against Corruption, have suggested the government has sought to effectively buy votes. On January 19, for example, Akayev signed a decree that calls for allows for 30 percent increase in stipends for university students.
Bermet Akayeva lived for several years in Switzerland working for the United Nations. In recent years, she has been involved in charitable causes run by her mother, First Lady Mairam Akayeva, and presently serves as a coordinator for the Aga Khan Foundation's activities in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, Bermet was involved in the formation of the Alga Kyrgyzstan movement, created in 2003 to serve as a political support base for the president.
In a February 9 interview, published in the journal Argumenty i Fakty Kyrgyzstan, Bermet downplayed her role in politics, vigorously denying that she should be considered the leader of Alga Kyrgyzstan. "I don't conceal the fact that I am one of the founders," she said. "Alga [Kyrgyzstan] is the party of many leaders -- of neighborhoods, towns, cities and the country."
Bermet, likewise, dismissed opposition reports that she is receiving considerable financial backing from her family, especially her husband, Adil Toigonbaev, an entrepreneur with interests in a vast array of businesses, including several influential media outlets. "This is one of the rumors that are spread about us," she said.
Meanwhile, the president's son, Aidar, is running in the Kemin District in the Northern part of Kyrgyzstan. Observers note that his victory is assured because Kemin is the birthplace of Akayev and a stronghold of the president's clan. Aidar currently heads Kyrgyzstan's National Olympic Committee. He previously served as an adviser in the Ministry of Finance where he focused on restructuring Kyrgyzstan's external debt. He was once married to Aliya Nazarbayeva, youngest daughter of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev. After divorcing her, he remarried in 2002. In recent years, he has generated controversy for allegedly leading an extravagant lifestyle.
The preponderance of relatives and friends vying to become MPs is likely a reflection of Akayev's concerns about the looming political transition, political analysts believe. The president may be worried that his possible departure from power could touch off a power struggle within the ruling establishment, causing current political allies to pursue interests that diverge from his own. Placing as many relatives and close friends as possible in the legislature people with a high degree of personal loyalty to the president is a way to minimize the risks associated with the transition.
The lack of a clear-cut successor to Akayev is potentially a source of the type of political jockeying that the president is evidently eager to avoid. Thus, many political observers expect Akayev to identify his successor soon. Some believe he already has made his choice -- Toichubek Kasymov, his chief of staff but is waiting for the right political opportunity to publicize it.
Previously the governor of Chui Province, Kyrgyzstan's largest, Kasymov is also reportedly related to the president's wife, Mairam. In recent months, Kasymov has received an abundance of favorable press coverage from government-controlled media outlets. He also presided over a streamlining of the presidential administration; a move that many analysts believed was designed to bolster Akayev's authority within the executive branch. One possible scenario, several observers say, is that after the February parliamentary elections, Akayev may appoint Kasymov as prime minister, giving him access to the administrative resources necessary to run a successful presidential election campaign.
While Akayev apparently strives to leave nothing to chance, observers say that he may find that ensuring a smooth political transition cannot be guaranteed. They suggest that competing interests and rivalries exist even within the president's extended family, raising the possibility that after his potential departure from power, a political clash among family members may be unavoidable.
Alisher Khamidov is a PhD candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C.