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Kyrgyz opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev (left) and President Almazbek Atambaev had enjoyed cordial relations until last summer. (file photo)

The detention of Omurbek Tekebaev, the leader of Kyrgyzstan's Ata-Meken party, has provided opponents of President Almazbek Atambaev and his Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) with a fresh rallying point.

The country's presidential election is scheduled for November and Atambaev is constitutionally prohibited from running, so this promises to be the most contested presidential election in Kyrgyzstan's 25-year history.

That makes Tekebaev's detention not only a political issue between his party, other opposition parties and Atambaev and his ruling SDPK, it also makes it an election issue in a country that has already seen two presidents chased from office by protests.

What just happened in Kyrgyzstan and why did it happen? Where could this lead Kyrgyzstan, a country still credited with being the most democratic in Central Asia?

These were some of the questions addressed in a Majlis, or panel discussion, organized by RFE/RL.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.Joining the Majlis from Bishkek was Medet Tiulegenov, assistant professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia. Also from Bishkek, Ryskeldi Satke, a researcher and freelance journalist who has written for many media outlets, including Al-Jazeera and The Diplomat, took part in the conversation. I'm always rooting for Kyrgyzstan, so I said a few things also.

Tekebaev was taken into custody by the State Committee for National Security early on February 26 when he arrived at Bishkek's Manas International Airport.

According to Satke "a political fight between the Ata-Meken faction and the president's circle, including the president himself" was at the center of Tekebaev's detention.

Previously Amicable Relations

Tekebaev and Atambaev were once allies, part of the interim government that took over when former President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted in April 2010. They maintained amiable ties until last summer when Atambaev started pushing for a referendum to make changes to the constitution. The referendum took place in December and the amendments were passed.

Tekebaev was an author of that constitution and a provision in the text prohibited amendments until 2020.

Satke recalled: "There were a number of accusations since last year and… the referendum was one of those issues where the Ata-Meken faction was disagreeing with the president's version…since then this political rivalry escalated."

It did indeed escalate into what Tiulegenov called a "war of kompromats…a form of a wider deeper struggle, which happened in the wake of constitutional changes."

Over the course of the last half-year, Tekebaev and Atambaev have exchanged accusations about how each has acquired material wealth. Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan after visits abroad, one of which was to Cyprus where he collected what his Ata-Meken party said were documents linking Atambaev to cargo aboard a plane that crashed near the Manas airport in late January.

'Second Wave' Of A Power Struggle

The reason for detaining Tekebaev was the recent appearance of a video in which Russian businessman Leonid Maevsky claimed that he gave Tekebaev $1 million in late 2010 in order to acquire a stake in Kyrgyzstan's largest mobile phone operator, MegaCom.

Tiulegenov said, "The question many people are asking [is] why this person comes out almost seven years after all these events."

And Tiulegenov reminded us that Tekebaev is not the only member of Ata-Meken who is currently detained.Three other Ata-Meken members were arrested in November in connection with an offshore company that had links to MegaCom.

Tiulegenov suggested, "Maybe you can view it as a second wave of struggle by Atambaev to consolidate his power" recalling that Atambaev, "using the same tactic, using law enforcement agencies he controls as the president, opened up various criminal cases [against] the Ata-Jurt party."

Ata-Jurt was a party packed with former officials from the Bakiev administration. They were naturally opponents of the government that replaced Bakiev after he was chased from power. Ata-Jurt won the most seats (28) in parliament in the 2010 elections. As Tiulegenov explained, some of the parliamentary deputies from Ata-Jurt "were arrested or criminal cases were opened against them, and now Ata-Meken comes [into a similar situation]."

A Time Of Uncertainty

Moving forward, Satke pointed out that the detention of Tekebaev did not spark large protests and as a single issue is probably not sufficient to ignite the sort of passionate demonstrations Kyrgyzstan has seen in previous years. But Satke added that there are many perennial issues that could easily be added to opposition protests, including, among others, poverty, corruption, and chronic unemployment that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens working as migrant laborers.

Satke also mentioned that "protests in the province of Naryn have been going on for quite a while over electricity rates, winter was harsh this year and many were complaining that electricity is too expensive them."

The Bakiev government's decision to hike utility rates in the winter of 2009-10 was the first issue to bring people out onto the streets. By the time protests hounded Bakiev from office in April 2010, this issue was practically forgotten, replaced by a dozen other complaints.

The run-up to the November election in Kyrgyzstan is already looking a lot like the elections when Askar Akaev was president (1991-2005). Back then, prominent opposition leaders often also found themselves in legal entanglements months ahead of important ballots and election campaigns became part party politics and part courtroom battles.

Tiulegenov said the fact that Atambaev must step down and cannot ever again be president is likely playing a role in the events surrounding the Ata-Meken party and Tekebaev. "It poses kind of a security dilemma… to safeguard yourself after stepping down from the presidential position."

Tiulegenov summed up the uncertainty of the coming months by noting, "We don't have, unfortunately, a lot of experience with what ex-presidents may do."

The discussion looked at these issues in greater detail and made some comparisons between what is happening now in Kyrgyzstan and crises in the country in the past.

An audio recording of the Majlis can heard here:

Majlis Podcast: The Fallout From Detaining A Kyrgyz Opposition Leader
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

How much has Shavkat Mirzyaev changed Uzbekistan?

It's been six months since Uzbek President Islam Karimov died and Shavkat Mirziyaev took over leadership of Uzbekistan.

Mirziyaev has made a lot or promises and raised hopes the country would start to implement some reforms and become a more active player in Central Asian affairs.

Six months is not a long time to change a system that Karimov spent 25 years creating but there have been some alterations since September, as well as some indications about facets of Karimov's policies that seem likely to be preserved in the Mirziyaev government.

One encouraging early sign is that Mirziyaev does not seem, so far, to want to be the sole focus of state media as Karimov did. State television for example, has for years shown sessions of government or parliament but the only voice people in Uzbekistan heard was that of Karimov. Newscasters usually summarized what ministers, members of parliament, or other officials said.

Since Mirziayev took over, broadcasts include officials speaking. It's a small thing but it could be interpreted as meaning Mirziyaev is not obsessed with being the one and only voice of government, as Karimov was, or as has been true in neighboring Turkmenistan, where only the presidents speak on television and radio.

The media itself is enjoying a very slight new ability to report critically on some issues. Self-censorship became the norm under Karimov but as Eurasianet noted in a recent article, at least one newspaper has been able to write about financial and trade matters in a way that would have been unthinkable under Karimov.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, confirms that some reporting since Mirziyaev assumed power has pushed ever so slightly against the previously established boundaries of journalism in Uzbekistan.

That certainly does not extend to criticism of the government or Mirziyaev himself. One example of an area that remains off-limits to the media is criticism of Mirziyaev's appointments to state posts, which have already included some people with controversial backgrounds.

The new Uzbek president also did away with snap audits of businesses by the financial police. Such inspections were often used to extort money from businessmen, seriously poisoning the entrepreneurial spirit in the country. Businessmen in Uzbekistan have told Ozodlik the change has been beneficial, inspiring new confidence and ambition.

Freeing Political Prisoners

Probably the most hopeful signs coming from the Mirziyaev administration have to do with political prisoners, though the Uzbek government still does not admit there is anyone fitting that description in Uzbekistan.

At the start of March there was news about the release of Jamshid Karimov from a psychiatric hospital. Karimov, who is a nephew of the late president, once wrote for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and was a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. He was first put in a psychiatric hospital in 2006 and had rarely been out since.

Others have been released from prison. Muhammad Bekjon, who Human Rights Watch said was one of the longest imprisoned journalists in the world, was freed on February 22. Bekjon, now 62 years old, had been imprisoned since 1999.

Rights activist Bobomurad Razzaqov, 63, who was convicted of human trafficking in 2013, was released in October; Samandar Kukanov, 72, a former member of parliament who criticized the government, was freed in November after more than 23 years in prison; and political activist Rustam Usmonov, 69, the founder of Uzbekistan's first private bank, was let of out of prison in February after being convicted of illegal hard-currency transactions and imprisoned in 1998.

While welcoming these releases, and pointing out that none of these men should ever have been confined to begin with, international rights organizations have called upon Mirziyaev to release hundreds, possibly thousands of others who remain wrongfully imprisoned in Uzbekistan.

Others have noted that the four men released from prison were elderly and some had simply served their sentences.

On March 1, a court upheld a five-year sentence against Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan member Agzam Farmonov. Farmonov, 39, was convicted of extortion in 2006 and on the eve of his release in 2015 the sentence was extended by the five years Farmonov was just seeking to have annulled.

And while Jamshid Karimov might have been released from a psychiatric hospital, on March 2 there was news that rights activist Elena Urlaeva had been forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Opening Up To The World?

Mirziyaev also promised, right after being elected president in early December, to waive, or ease visa requirements for citizens of 27 countries as of April 1, 2017, but on January 9 he announced that would be postponed until 2021.

He said at the end of November that the government would loosen its tight control over the rate of the national currency, the som, and work toward currency convertibility, but nothing has been said about this since then.

Mirziyaev's policy toward Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors has shown great promise. He said from the beginning that better ties with those countries would be a priority.

That was extremely good news for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, all of which had at one time or another, some nearly always, been at odds with Uzbekistan since they became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991.

Any attempts at Central Asian regional cooperation during the last 25 years have been doomed from the start, largely due to ex-President Karimov. Uzbekistan's policy toward its Central Asian neighbors seemed based on Karimov's personal relationship with the other countries' leaders, and he didn't like very many of them.

Some Signs Of Progress

Under Mirziyaev, more progress has been made in demarcating Uzbekistan's borders with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in six months than had been made in the previous 15 years. Mirziyaev awarded the head of Kazakhstan's delegation to the talks, First Deputy Prime Minister Askar Manin, Uzbekistan's "Dustlik" (Friendship) order on February 8.

Progress along the Kyrgyz frontier has been even more dramatic, with scores of previously disputed areas having been agreed upon recently. However, while it is clear pen is being put to paper on these agreements, it is less clear what that actually means along the border.

Uzbek-Tajik ties have also improved significantly since Mirziyaev came to power. Delegations from the two countries have been going back and forth and there has been talk of restoring severed communications links -- roads, railway, and air.

Attempts at resuming the latter, however, showed Uzbekistan is not willing to go too far, too quickly.

The two governments agreed to resume flights between their capitals -- Tashkent and Dushanbe -- that had been suspended since 1992. A test run was made without incident in early February but the official first flight on February 22 was suddenly canceled.

Uzbekistan claimed Tajikistan's Somoni Airlines had not filed all the necessary documents 30 days prior to the flight. The head of Somoni Airlines, Alisher Rustamov, was quickly fired but a second planned flight a few days later also did not happen. Uzbekistan announced at the end of February the flights would start in April, but Uzbekistan's national airline, Uzbekistan Havo Yollari, would run the flights, not Somoni Airlines.

Things are changing since Mirziyaev took over, without a doubt. Turkmenistan under current President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov looks a lot like Turkmenistan under first President Saparmurat Niyazov. But Uzbekistan under Mirziyaev already looks different than Uzbekistan under Karimov.

Alisher Sidikov and Sirojiddin Tolibov of Ozodlik contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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.



Majlis Podcast: The Backlash Against Art -- And Feminism -- In Kyrgyzstan
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Majlis Podcast: The Backlash Against Art -- And Feminism -- In Kyrgyzstan
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