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Qishloq Ovozi

Next month's parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan are an opportunity for the country to show how it is further along the democratic road than its authoritarian neighbors. (file photo)

Since the early 1990s, Kyrgyzstan has been called an “island of democracy” in Central Asia, a relative statement that, despite some setbacks, remains true today.

One main feature that separates Kyrgyzstan from its authoritarian, undemocratic neighbors is the country’s recent string of parliamentary elections, which have been widely judged to be largely transparent and legitimate.

There has also always been an element of unpredictability in the votes, and the October 4 elections should be quite difficult to forecast as the two parties that hold the most seats in the Jogorku Kenesh -- the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan and Respublika/Ata-Jurt -- are fractured.

So although the field is wide open, the legitimacy of these elections is being threatened.

Reports are surfacing of voters being offered money to cast their ballots for certain parties, and there are accusations of organized crime groups funding some of the parties as well.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, recently spoke with “Zhibek,” from the village of Novopokrovka, a few kilometers east of the capital, Bishkek.

She said she had been offered 2,000 soms (about $25) for her vote by a representative of one of the political parties taking part in the parliamentary elections. She did not say which party, but did say there was a group of people who “went to each home" on her street in the village making similar offers.

Those who accepted were given 1,000 soms (about $12.50) and promised the remainder would be paid after the elections, she said.

In Kara-Balta, some 60 kilometers west of Bishkek, resident Mirbek Suranchiev said voters were being offered 3,000 soms (about $37.50) for their vote.

Suranchiev did not say specifically who, but he spoke of “wealthy parties,” so it seems more than one political party may have been at work in Kara-Balta.

“In Kara-Balta, they will pay 500 soms up front, promising to give the remaining 2,500 after the elections,” Suranchiev said. “As far as I could tell, there were only a few who declined to sell their vote.”

Form No. 2

The parties' financial offers come with the condition that voters register under Form No. 2 at a polling station chosen by the parties.

Form No. 2 was first used in the presidential election in 2011. It was introduced to address the problem of growing internal migration in Kyrgyzstan and allowed eligible voters to register in the district closest and most convenient for them to cast their ballot, rather than in the district where they officially resided.

In our party, we do not have any members of organized criminal groups, [but] we see them among the members of other parties. Some of them are even candidates to be deputies."
-- Zamandash leader Jenish Moldakmatov

Abdyjapar Bekmatov, the former deputy head of the CEC, explained to Azattyk that at first “any person could bring a Xerox copy of the passport of another person and fill out Form No. 2 for the owner of the passport.”

But “according to the new regulations, each voter must come personally to hand over the documents on changing their place of voting,” he said.

Such voters are fingerprinted and photographed to check their identities.

Both Zhibek in Novopokrovka and Suranchiev in Kara-Balta said one of the conditions for being paid for their votes was to register in a district specified by these unnamed parties.

“To begin with,” Zhibek said, “I would have to go and register at the polling station that was opened in a local school.”

Suranchiev said that the parties paying the money told the people which district to register in and promised transportation to take them there on election day.

“They are massively registering residents of one district in another [district],” Suranchiev said.

The independent Kyrgyz news site kaktus.media posted a report on August 22 that had photos and video taken between August 19-21 of vans bringing people to School No. 47 in Bishkek, which is also the location of polling station No. 1047.

An unknown man gives instructions to the small groups as they arrive, and they go five at a time into the school, it said. When they finish, the vans drive them away.

Kaktus reported that “among the passengers were many representatives of national minorities.”

No one wanted to talk about which parties might be engaging in this illegal practice, but one person is sure he knows some of the people who are helping some of the at least 16 Kyrgyz political parties that are registered to participate in the elections.

Omurbek Suvanaliev stepped down from his post as Kyrgyzstan’s deputy security council chief on August 23 so he could run as a candidate for the Butun Kyrgyzstan party. At the Butun Kyrgyzstan party congress on August 19, he fired an opening salvo at the government by saying it had lost the battle against criminality in the country.

Suvanaliev further claimed that a "number of political parties included in the preelection battle are sponsored by criminal boss Kamchy Kolbaev."

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) wrote this about Kolbaev:

“According to the U.S. Treasury Department, [Kolbaev] was wanted for crimes related to transnational drug trafficking and the use of weapons and explosives. More recently the department alleged his involvement in human trafficking for forced prostitution and forced labor.”

It added: “In 2007, the U.S. State Department said he was 'considered to be the leader of the most influential criminal group in [Kyrgyzstan].'"

Kolbaev, aka Kolya Kyrgyz, has served several short prison sentences in Kyrgyzstan, the last ending in 2014. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Suvanaliev connected Kolbaev to what the former Security Council deputy chief called “pro-government parties”: Birimdik, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyzstan party, and Zamandash.

Zamandash leader Jenish Moldakmatov said his party does not have any connection to organized crime, but he agreed the influence of criminals in the elections is growing.

“In our party, we do not have any members of organized criminal groups,” Moldakmatov said, but “we see them among the members of other parties. Some of them are even candidates to be deputies,” he added, without naming any particular party or candidate.

General Keneshbek Duyshebaev has served as the head of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry and its State Committee for National Security.

Dyushebaev told Azattyk that Suvanaliev must have some grounds for making these allegations since he served as the deputy head of the Security Council, but questioned why, if Suvanaliev had evidence of Kolbaev’s connections to political parties, he did not do something about it while he was in the Security Council.

“All the same, his statement is an alarm bell,” Duyshebaev said.

Bektur Asanov, a veteran Kyrgyz politician currently in the Butun Kyrgyzstan party, said that “buying votes and the use of administrative resources has already started,” and he suggested there was already sufficient evidence to officially ban three parties from the elections.

Asanov did not names the three parties, but said they could be considered pro-government.

In a public appeal to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in early August, Asanov mentioned Raimbek Matraimov as being a sponsor of certain parties competing in the elections and called on Jeenbekov to take action against Matraimov and his associates.

Matraimov was the subject of an extensive investigative report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the independent Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop.kg, and Azattyk, and a report from Kloop.kg connected the Matraimov family to the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party. It also tied him to Matraimov's brother, Iskender Matraimov, currently a parliament deputy who abandoned the floundering Social Democrats and joined Mekenim Kyrgyzstan.

In a recent Azattyk report, a Bishkek resident named only as Kayyrbek said the owner of the apartment complex he lives in told all the residents that if they voted for Mekenim Kyrgyzstan that, in return, their apartment building would receive a new sewage system and have better water.

The reports are all very ominous and suggest the Kyrgyz government and the country's election officials should investigate and take action before the vote is held in order to preserve the country's reputation as a country with promising democratic credentials.

The leader of the political party Kyrgyzstan, Kanat Isaev, insists his party registered on time.

Campaigning for Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections does not officially start until September 4, but scandals, accusations, and confusion have already started.

Elections in Kyrgyzstan -- the lone democracy in Central Asia -- have always been raucous events. The 2005 parliamentary elections, for example, led to the ouster of President Askar Akaev in the Tulip Revolution.

But the vote set for October 4 might outdo all the previous polls as this time there are no clear favorites, which has raised the hopes of the at least 16 parties that will take part in the elections.

Three Minutes Late -- Confusion About Deadline

Just a few minutes after the 6 p.m. deadline passed for official party representatives to hand in registration documents -- including a list of candidates -- to the Central Election Commission (BShK) on August 24, there was the first problem.

The new Kyrgyzstan party apparently missed that deadline by three minutes, though party leader Kanat Isaev insists his people were not late.

On the registration book, the Kyrgyzstan party is signed in at 5:59 p.m., though there is evidence a previous entry had been written over and the person who handed over the documents neglected to put their signature next to the entry.

A video from the BShK office in Bishkek shows the Kyrgyzstan party representative in the office signing the book at 6:03 p.m.

At 6:20 p.m. on August 24, the BShK press service announced 17 parties, including the Kyrgyzstan party, had handed over the necessary documents but, shortly after, posts appeared on social networks in Kyrgyzstan claiming inconsistencies in the registration of the Kyrgyzstan party.

Representatives from several other parties along with civic activists came to the BShK office the next day to complain about the tardiness violation and were initially met by a BShK employee who reportedly said the clock on the surveillance camera was 13 minutes fast.

The group was not convinced and eventually the registration book was shown and inconsistencies in the Kyrgyzstan party's entry became apparent (see photo).

Kyrgyzstan - Central Election Commission. Bishkek, 25 August, 2020
Kyrgyzstan - Central Election Commission. Bishkek, 25 August, 2020

Representatives of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland), Reforms, Bir Bol (Stay Together), Ordo (The Center), and Chong Kazat (Great Crusade) parties complained to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the head of the state Security Committee, and the state ombudsman about the BSK decision to register Kyrgyzstan.

Later on August 25, the BShK announced it had rejected the Kyrgyzstan party's registration on the grounds that the authorized representative of the party was not the person who handed over the documents.

The party said their authorized representative was sick and could not deliver the documents.

Kyrgyzstan party head Isaev quickly announced the party would appeal the BShK decision in court and, on August 27, an administrative court in Bishkek ruled the BShK decision to reject the Kyrgyzstan party's documents was illegal, which party member Talant Mamytov said meant Kyrgyzstan could participate in the upcoming elections.

At the same time, the BShK's credibility was tarnished for initially registering a party -- Kyrgyzstan -- that is seen as pro-government, even if it later reversed its decision.

The BShK said on August 28 it would appeal the decision to reinstate the Kyrgyzstan party.

There might be other parties appealing BShK rulings soon. The BShK sent back the documents of 13 other parties, giving them 48 hours to make revisions or supply information that was lacking in the material originally presented for registration.

Who Is Running And Who Isn't?

As mentioned in a previous issue of Qishloq Ovozi, many Kyrgyz political parties have merged in previous elections, sometimes to boost their chances at the polls and sometimes because one or more parties were unable to register, so they joined ranks with a party that was already registered.

On August 18, the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan) and Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) parties announced they were merging.

Ata-Jurt joined forces with Respublika (Republic) before the 2015 parliamentary elections and the combined effort resulted in Respublika/Ata-Jurt winning 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the second-highest number among the six parties that secured seats in those elections. The two parties formally split in November 2016 but maintained their alliance within parliament.

Ata-Jurt did not announce it would participate in the upcoming elections at the start of August when 44 other parties said they intended to. So its candidates will be running under the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan banner.

In early June, former Prime Minister Temir Sariev announced his Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) party would join with Ata-Meken (Fatherland), the Liberal Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, and other groups to form the Zhany Dem (New Breath) political alliance for the upcoming elections.

On August 5, Sariev announced Ak-Shumkar was withdrawing from that group and on August 18 it was reported that Ak-Shumkar had merged into the Butun Kyrgyzstan (United Kyrgyzstan) party.

But on August 23, Sariev announced that Ak-Shumkar was withdrawing from that alliance and added that it would not take part in the elections.

On August 15, the Bir Bol and Democrat parties agreed to merge to "strengthen the interests of ordinary citizens who are hungry for change," but two days later the Democrat party announced it also was withdrawing from the elections.

Since independence in 1991, Feliks Kulov has been Kyrgyzstan's vice president, interior minister, security minister, Bishkek mayor, and prime minister. He created the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party in 1999 and the party took part in the 2007, 2010, and 2015 elections, but on August 18 Ar-Namys announced it would not participate in these elections.

Omurbek Tekebaev is the leader of the Ata-Meken party, but he is still officially under house arrest after a 2017 conviction on charges of corruption and fraud that many felt was part of a political vendetta against him by former President Almazbek Atambaev.

Tekebaev had already signaled he would not be running in the upcoming elections, but on August 17 he stated it clearly and said several other top members of the party would also not seek seats in these elections, even though the party is still registered and will be on the ballot.

Tekebaev said it is time "to clear the way for younger people" and repeated that 33-year-old Janar Akaev (a former reporter for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service) would top the party's list in the elections.

Several members of the Yyman Nuru (Ray of Faith) party complained on August 14 that their party was under pressure from other parties ahead of the vote, but the group declined to specify which parties or the form of pressure.

Mikhail Khalitov, a member of the party's political council, said they had advised any members "who have something to lose that they can leave the party."

Yyman Nuru party leader Aybek Osmonov, who interestingly was a founder of the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party, was among the first to leave, formally making the announcement on August 18 without giving any reason. He was replaced by Nurjigit Kadyrbekov, a young religious leader who studied in the United States and Japan.

On August 16, the Chong Kazat party held its congress and replaced leader Tural Alimov, who made an unsuccessful attempt to run for president in 2017, with Maksat Mamytkanov, a former head of the state Security Committee's department for fighting organized crime.

All this activity is only the beginning, as the registered parties scramble to woo voters, parties that were not registered try to stay in the game by joining registered parties, and the courts deal with issues such as the late-registration charge against the Kyrgyzstan party.

It all adds up to what will certainly be an interesting campaign for parliamentary elections that appear to be highly unpredictable and the problems seen in Kyrgyzstan are on an entirely different level compared to those experienced by candidates and political parties in the other Central Asian countries.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

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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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