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Kyrgyzstan: President Hints At Retirement -- But Skeptics Remain Wary

By Farangis Najibullah/Naryn Idinov

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has hinted that he will not seek re-election when his current term expires in 2005. If Akaev turns that suggestion into reality, he would be the first Central Asian president to step down voluntarily. Since Akaev has never made an official statement on the possible democratic handover of power, his critics dismiss the latest rumors as another political deception.

Prague, 18 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The recent adoption of a law in Kyrgyzstan that gives lifelong privileges to former presidents -- including immunity from prosecution -- has raised speculation about incumbent President Askar Akaev's possible desire to step down.

While Akaev has never officially announced that he will not run for a further presidential term, senior lawmaker Omurbek Tekebaev insists that Akaev is planning to leave his office voluntarily. "President Askar Akaev, as he has mentioned a couple of times before, told me once again that he will not run for presidency in the next presidential election in 2005. At his own initiative Akaev told me that there are enough qualified people for the position, and that he will make every effort to prepare conditions for objective and fair elections to make sure the nation will choose the president they want," Tekebaev said.

A prominent scientist when he came to power as president of Soviet Kyrgyzstan in 1990, Akaev represented Kyrgyzstan's newly emerging democratic politicians. He was elected by the parliament of the republic. A year later, Akaev was elected president of independent Kyrgyzstan. He was the sole candidate on the ballot. In 1993, Kyrgyzstan introduced its first post-Soviet constitution. In 1995, Akaev was elected for another term in office.

According to the constitution, a person can only run twice for the presidency, for two five-year terms. However, in 1999 the Constitutional Court paved Akaev's way for a further term, ruling that after the adoption of the new constitution, Akaev had sought office only once. In the year 2000, Akaev won a new term. Given his record, his critics find it hard to believe that the president will hand over power any time soon.

Adakhan Madumarov is a member of the Kyrgyz parliament and one of Akaev's political opponents. He tells RFE/RL it is unlikely that Akaev will not stand for a further term in the 2005 presidential election. "One should expect anything from Askar Akaev," Madumarov said. "This person promised not to run in previous elections too. He said he was tired of the presidency and wanted to return to science. However, a congress of young scholars was organized recently and they asked Akaev to stay in office until 2010, and Akaev just kept silent. I think it is a sign that he wants to be president for a longer period of time."

In a nationwide referendum in February, Kyrgyz citizens were asked if they wanted their leader to run the country until December 2005 -- the end of his constitutional term. According to the president, the referendum results showed that the Kyrgyz people "trust the head of state to lead the country and continue the process of reforms." However, Akaev's critics say that the once hugely popular president has lost support among his people. Some even called on him to resign in 2003.

Tursunbek Akun, a human rights activist says, "it is time for Akaev to retire. It is true that if someone stays in power for a long time, it would have a negative impact on the country. [Akaev] is one of those who contributed to deepening the crisis in the country and he is unable to solve problems. The longer Akaev stays in power, the deeper the crisis will get, and it will be an irreversible process."

But the speculation and rumors about Akaev's possible exit from the presidency are not causing much optimism among ordinary Kyrgyz in Bishkek streets. "[Akaev] says that he would leave. He always says he would do this, he would do that, but it is all lies. When his terms comes close to the end, he will announce, 'According to the wishes of the people, who want me to stay in power ...' I think his current efforts show that he is going in that direction."

When the latest law on lifelong privileges for former presidents was introduced, some experts began to compare Akaev to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who left office early after handpicking his successor, who in turn guaranteed Yeltsin's privileges and immunity from prosecution. With the latest law, Akaev has secured immunity and a $60,000 annual package of benefits -- such as an apartment, a country house, a generous pension, and a car with a driver -- for himself, as well as for his Soviet-era predecessors. However, the one thing that is still missing on Bishkek's political scene is Akaev's handpicked successor.

(Ainura Asankojoeva and Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)