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In some polls, Omurbek Babanov has already emerged as a front-runner. Will his campaign run into the typical legal hurdles?

The nomination of candidates in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election officially started on June 15, and the vote already promises to be one of the most interesting and exciting elections yet seen in Central Asia.

Current Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev is prohibited by the constitution from seeking another term and, unlike leaders in some of the neighboring Central Asian states, Atambaev is really going to honor that stipulation.

So Kyrgyzstan will have a new president before the end of this year, and four months before polling stations open we don't know who that will be. It might require a second round of voting to determine the winning candidate.

That's absolutely unheard of in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It's always clear who will win there and there is never a need for a second round.

Courts Playing A Role

This won't be smooth sailing though. There is already controversy and it seems that, like Kyrgyzstan's elections in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the court system will be playing a prominent role during the registration and campaign process.

So far, at least 10 people have expressed an interest in running for the presidency.

From the political parties, so far former Prime Ministers Temir Sariev of the Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) party and Omurbek Babanov of the Respublika party have indicated they will run, as have the current prime minister, Sooronbai Jeenbekov of the ruling Social Democratic Party; Bakyt Torobaev, leader of the Onuguu-Progress party, who actually was the first person to say he intended to run back in January; former parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov; Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebaev; and former deputy Sadyr Japarov of the Ata-Jurt (Homeland) party.

There are also several people, such as Taalatbek Mamasadykov and Kamila Sharshekeeva, who are contemplating running as independent candidates.

Tekebaev and Japarov are currently both behind bars.

Tekebaev is being held on bribery and corruption charges. He was detained at Bishkek's Manas Airport on February 26 as he returned from Europe with what he claimed was evidence of President Atambaev's business interests outside Kyrgyzstan.

Courts have extended Tekebaev's detention several times while the investigation continues.

Japarov, a nationalist politician, is wanted for his alleged role in an incident in the northeast town of Karakol in 2013 when the regional governor was taken hostage by an angry crowd and held until police launched an operation to free him. He fled the country to avoid arrest and was taken into custody shortly after he returned to Kyrgyzstan on March 25.

Japarov was also briefly imprisoned in the first half 2013 after he and two other members of Ata-Jurt were convicted of attempting to forcibly seize power, a verdict that was overturned less than three months later.

On June 14, Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission informed Keldibekov he was not eligible to run for the presidency because, technically, he has a criminal record.

The Supreme Court fined Keldibekov 10 million soms ($142,900) in October 2016 for abuse of office when he was speaker and corruption when he was head of the State Tax Service. Keldibekov paid the fine on November 8, 2016.

According to Kyrgyzstan's Criminal Code, a conviction is removed one year after serving or execution of the sentence, meaning Keldibekov is ineligible to run until November 8, 2017, several weeks after the presidential election.

Keldibekov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, that he was not surprised and would fight the decision while he forged ahead with his bid for the presidency.

Situation Normal...

Some might view all this as confusing, but for voters in Kyrgyzstan this is nothing new. Similar incidents occurred in previous elections.

In Kyrgyzstan's 2000 parliamentary elections, for example, several political parties were banned from participating just three months before election day. Individual candidates were declared ineligible days before the elections, and party leaders suddenly found themselves charged with offenses.

In one of the more memorable incidents of the 2000 elections, Ar-Namys (Dignity) leader Feliks Kulov, who had been fighting off lawsuits throughout the campaign, won the first round of voting but inexplicably lost in a runoff election to an opponent who had received half the votes Kulov had in the first round.

It sparked riots in Kulov's home district. Kulov himself was detained barely a week after the runoff election and eventually imprisoned. And amid the controversy over the questionable outcome of the election, the local election commission official committed suicide.

So expect this upcoming presidential election campaign to provide an abundance of twists and turns.

Outliers, Front-Runners

As for the other likely candidates, Sariev is a veteran politician and served as a prime minister for 11 months in 2015-16 despite his Ak-Shumkar party not being represented in parliament.

Torobaev's Onuguu-Progress party is new to Kyrgyzstan's political stage. The party took part in elections for the first time in the 2015 parliamentary elections, winning 13 seats (fourth out of the six parties that got seats).

The two front-runners, at the moment, would seem to be businessman and Respublika party leader Babanov and Prime Minister Jeenbekov, who enjoys the support of President Atambaev.

The newspaper Vecherny Bishkek published the results of an informal poll of its readers that showed Babanov well ahead of others who might run for the presidency.

For that very reason, some suspect Babanov's campaign will be derailed somehow.

Charges have emerged suddenly against many perceived opposition candidates in the past, Kulov and the corruption charges against him being one example (he later became prime minister in 2005-07).

There are all sorts of other potential obstacles in Kyrgyzstan's political minefield -- citizenship issues, tax payments and declarations, sources of funding, and for those seen as the pro-government candidate, use of administrative resources for campaigns.

"Admin resources" is a term you're almost guaranteed to hear once the campaigning gets under way. And that won't happen officially until September 10, after the registration process (August 1 to September 10) is completed.

This will likely be another problem since it is sometimes difficult to define what constitutes campaigning. Some of these potential candidates appear to have already started articulating their platforms to the public.

The requirements to register as a candidate are: to be nominated by a registered political party or, in the case of independents, fill out the necessary documentation to run as an independent; pay a 1 million-som (about $15,000) deposit; pass a Kyrgyz-language test demonstrating above-average proficiency in the language; and collect signatures of support from at least 30,000 registered voters.

Ata-Meken is already disputing the signatures requirement, saying that number is not specified in the election regulations. (Unofficial support of the Kremlin is underlined by many candidates in the latest elections, and potential hopefuls now also try to show their loyalty toward Moscow.)

So get ready, here comes one of the most unpredictable elections yet in Central Asia.

Azattyk Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Kyrgyz journalist Ulugbek Babakulov (file photo)

A journalist has just fled Kyrgyzstan to avoid being arrested, and the Moscow-based website for which he works, which has been posting articles about Central Asia for nearly two decades, has been ordered blocked by a Kyrgyz court.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (SCNS) is charging Fergananews journalist Ulughbek Babakulov with inciting ethnic hatred for one of his articles, which the website posted on May 23.

Babakulov and Fergana say they were doing the country's security services a favor by revealing material that was being posted on Facebook that did constitute inciting ethnic hatred.

In his article, Babakulov notes there was a fight, involving knives, in the Nooken district of Kyrgyzstan's southern Jalal-Abat Province on May 18. Several people were injured.

"It became clear," Babakulov wrote, that "those who were hurt were representatives of the Kyrgyz [people], and the suspects in this were Uzbeks."

Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations in southern Kyrgyzstan are a sensitive issue. A very sensitive issue.

Interethnic Violence

The interethnic violence between the two peoples in 2010 is rarely discussed publicly, but it is never far from the minds of the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Babakulov, himself Kyrgyz, translated Kyrgyz-language posts on Facebook from Kyrgyz in the Jalal-Abat area after the May 18 fight.

As translated by Babakulov, these posts calling for violence against Uzbeks would indeed seem to qualify as inciting ethnic hatred.

Posts suggest "exterminating" Uzbeks; "burning them alive," a particularly troublesome call since many people were beaten and set on fire during the 2010 violence; and calls for expelling all ethnic Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan.

Babakulov said in the article that his purpose for writing it was to alert Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies to these posts.

Others did not see it that way.

On June 1, deputy Muradyl Mademinov addressed parliament saying, "I consider this journalist's [Babakulov's] article to be a provocation."

Mademinov called on law enforcement to investigate the article and the author and said those who stoke interethnic conflict should be stripped of their citizenship.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, interviewed Babakulov on June 2 and the journalist said: "I just exposed the problem, I didn't create it."

Six People Detained

The SCNS did investigate the offensive posts on Facebook and by June 6 said it had identified several of the people responsible for the offensive posts. It also clarified that the May 18 incident was between people from the same village -- one person had cut four others with a knife and fled, and was later apprehended near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

There was no mention of ethnicity.

On June 9, the SCNS press service said it had detained six people on charges of inciting ethnic hatred but provided only the initials of those held.

Five of the six sets of initials match names in Babakulov's May 23 article and most appear to be women.

On June 9, the SCNS filed a criminal case against Babakulov and the Oktyabr Court in Bishkek ordered that the Fergana website be blocked.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a statement that same day. CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nine Ognianova said: "Lawmakers and pro-government media have tried to smear Babakulov as a traitor and a villain for warning about the dangers of nationalism."

Ognianova added that "we call on Kyrgyzstan to cease harassing the journalist immediately and to restore access to his outlet, the website Fergana."

Fergana released a statement on June 11, complaining that the website had not been informed about a court hearing to block the site.

'Enemies Of The People'

The statement also said in recent weeks that in "the pages of print media in Kyrgyzstan and on main television channels there were many articles and reports in which our correspondent and our agency were named as 'enemies of the Kyrgyz people.'"

By June 12 it was clear Babakulov was out of Kyrgyzstan.

Babakulov posted a message on his Facebook account saying that he had ceased working for Fergana of his own volition.

Babakulov said in the May 23 article that he was seeking to bring the social-network posts to the attention of the authorities.

However, comments in the article -- particularly those suggesting that security services were occupied with "following political opponents of the president" and that "when people criticize the president on the Internet" security services seem to act quickly to find and detain the culprits while they ignore nationalist comments on the same social networks -- might have more to do with the problems Babakulov faces than his translations of hate posts on the Internet.

Kyrgyz authorities have not reacted well to criticism from the media in recent months and several media outlets and their journalists are facing charges that some call politically motivated.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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