A Military Court's conviction of leading opposition politician Felix Kulov is part of a drive by President Askar Akayev to consolidate power, as the administration attempts to improve its ability to confront Islamic radicalism.
Kulov, the former vice president and head of the Ar-Namys Party, received a seven-year prison term on January 22, after being retried on abuse-of-power and corruption charges. Kulov was originally acquitted of the charges in August. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. The European Union and the United States, along with various human rights organizations, have denounced the Kulov verdict. However, President Askar Akayev's administration appears unmoved by the international outcry.
Local observers and politicians say that the Kulov sentence reflects the growing trend in Kyrgyzstan towards an authoritarian governing style on the part of Akayev. The Kyrgyz Prosecutor General's office vigorously denied in a January 26 statement that Kulov's trial had been politically motivated.
In eliminating Kulov as a political rival, Akayev is attempting to silence political opposition to his government, thus placing it in better position to address the security threat posed by Islamic radicalism, some local analysts say. Kulov's jailing is just one step in the process. A potentially more difficult task, some observers suggest, will be changing the clan structure that serves as the framework for the governing elite.
Akayev is surrounded by representatives of a number of influential clans, which formed during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Historically, Kyrgyz are divided into tribes, clans and small communities, which, on a larger scale, are divided into northern and southern factions. During the Soviet period, the Kremlin distributed power more or less evenly between the northern and southern factions. After the Soviet collapse, however, the northern faction began to dominate politics, producing discontent among southern leaders.
The northern faction played a key role in installing Akayev as president in the early 1990s. And, to a large extent, northern clan leaders still exercise considerable influence over policy. According to analysts, many northern clan leaders viewed Kulov as a threat to their authority. Thus, they supported Akayev's prosecution of Kulov. The northern factions also share Akayev's concern about the rise of unsanctioned religious groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-tahrir. Accordingly, they are backing a crackdown against Islamic radicals, who are most active in southern regions of the country.
Despite the fact that northern clans have been supportive of Akayev, the president now seems intent on reducing their influence. Akayev's recent reshuffle of the government was intended to increase the number of presidential loyalists in key posts, analysts say. It is still too early to determine whether Akayev's bid to enhance his power will be successful, as many of his new appointees still have ties to the northern clans. [For additional information see the Kyrgyzstan Daily Digest].
Meanwhile, some local observers believe Kulov helped hasten his own political demise by engaging in questionable activities while serving as minister of national security. In particular, Kulov authorized the formation of a secret anti-terrorist task force called "Kalkan," which was viewed by officials in the presidential administration as the possible preparation for a coup attempt. In addition, much of the equipment allocated to Kalkan, including electronic eavesdropping devices, has disappeared and its whereabouts remain unknown.
The governing elite turned against Kulov largely because February's parliamentary elections suggested that he could potentially unseat the incumbent administration in a free and fair presidential election. Some attribute Kulov's August acquittal to the administration's desire to ease domestic tension, as well as diminish international scrutiny during the run-up to the October presidential vote, which Akayev won in a landslide. Despite the initial acquittal, the government succeeded in excluding Kulov from the elections by introducing a Kyrgyz language proficiency requirement for all presidential candidates. Kulov, who refused to take the language test, reportedly possesses only a rudimentary knowledge of Kyrgyz.
"Kulov miscalculated the political situation in the country. He thought that in light of vast public discontent towards government, and because of the worsening living conditions and increasing poverty, Akayev would not win the 2000 elections," one local analyst said. "Kulov hoped he could be a strong alternative to Akayev. But Kulov did not take into serious consideration the formidable power of the ruling elite, and their intricate games. [He also did not recognize] that his presidential candidacy had to first be agreed among the elites."
Alisher Khamidov is the director of the Osh Media Resource Center in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.