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Central Asia Report: January 26, 2004

26 January 2004, Volume 4, Number 4

INVESTIGATIONS LAUNCHED INTO KYRGYZ BUGGING SCANDAL. Politicians play hardball in Kyrgyzstan, the opposition no less than the government. If the government usually has the upper hand, it is because the opposition is more often at the receiving end when the hardest balls get thrown. The recent discovery of secret listening devices in the offices of six opposition parliamentarians has left the president's enemies outraged and reeling. Meanwhile, the government's idea for a freeze on "premature" political maneuvering and election campaigning threatens to handicap badly the opposition's chances in the presidential and parliamentary elections slated for 2005.

The bugging scandal erupted on 14 January when General Ismail Isakov, former leader of the opposition Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev and Reforms for the People, and currently chairman of the State Security Committee in the Kyrgyz Legislative Assembly (lower house of parliament), told journalists at a hastily convened press conference that a listening device had been discovered in his office some hours before, concealed behind a heating unit. He suggested that the microphone had been used to record his conversations for about two years, and said he suspected it had been planted by the National Security Service (SNB). "The SNB leadership must resign, as secretly taping the telephone calls of a member of parliament or any other citizen is an unlawful act," he demanded, as quoted by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on 17 January. As well as calling for the resignation of SNB Chairman Kalyk Imankulov, he said that Akaev himself should step down.

Following the press conference Azimbek Beknazarov, a prominent opposition parliamentarian who chairs the Judicial Committee, invited reporters to inspect his office for bugs. A similar listening device was duly found behind the radiator in Beknazarov's office, too. On the same day, two more bugs were discovered in the offices of Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, deputy leader of the Communist Party, and Omurbek Tekebaev, leader of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party. "I am outraged by such a gross violation of citizens' constitutional rights," said Tekebaev according to IWPR. "This is an immoral act by the authorities against their political opponents in order to have some kinds of incriminating evidence against them," he added (see "Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Deputies Say Their Offices Are Bugged", 15 January 2004).

On the following day, yet more listening devices turned up in the offices of opposition deputy Adakhan Madumarov and Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, a film director and head of the Kairan-El (Poor Nation) party, reported on 15 January -- thus bringing the total to six government opponents who allegedly were being bugged.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Rustam Isaev said on 15 January that his office was formally launching a criminal inquiry into the matter on the basis of Article 136 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code, which prohibits unauthorized wiretaps and other invasions of privacy, Interfax and Kabar news agencies reported. Meanwhile, the parliament went into special plenary session on 15-16 January to address the scandal. The speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Abdygany Erkebaev, who called the session and invited representatives of the security agencies and Ministry of Internal Affairs to attend, denounced the planting of listening devices as "against the law on the statute of deputies.... This is against human rights. I strongly condemn such actions," RFE/RL reported on 15 January.

But Imankulov, the SNB chief, vigorously denied that his service was responsible or involved in any way. Given the SNB's shortage of funds, which Imankulov claimed made it hard even to pay its officers' salaries, he said that the organization was not wasting money on secret surveillance operations. In any case, he insisted, the government had no motive to snoop on oppositionists since they communicated their opinions and attitudes openly in the media. Furthermore, the SNB chief admitted, "we do lag behind our colleagues in neighboring countries in terms of technical equipment, but the devices that we use on the sanction of the prosecutor are much more modern than the ones found by these deputies," IWPR reported. He said the devices looked homemade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2004). Asked who did plant them, if not the SNB, he said he assumed it was the opposition deputies themselves who staged the affair as a "provocation" or "the beginning of a PR campaign." He went on to acknowledge that it was "possible that it was done by some officers in the law enforcement bodies." Nor did he rule out "security services of another country.... Anything is possible, but let's first investigate it."

Erkebaev lashed out at the SNB chief for his assertion that the bugging might be an opposition stunt, albeit three days later. The parliamentary speaker said that Imankulov's statement was "unethical, to put it mildly," AKIpress reported on 19 January. Dismissing that option, Erkebaev said three viable theories had emerged from the debates in the parliament: some deputies were eavesdropping on others, or the security service planted the devices, or the bugging had been conducted by foreign security services. Erkebaev rejected the suggestion that commercial interests were spying on legislators (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004).

At the conclusion of the special session on 16 January -- which was attended by Justice Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov, and Security Council Secretary Misir Ashirkulov -- the Legislative Assembly passed a resolution deploring the bugging of deputies' offices as a grave violation of their constitutional rights. Many oppositionists remained convinced that the government was behind it. Some continued calling on the president to resign for failing in his duty as protector of the constitution. On 19 January, Deutsche Welle reported that Isakov had told his parliamentary colleagues that, with one exception, the deputies who discovered listening devices in their offices all hailed from southern Kyrgyzstan. In Isakov's interpretation, the microphones were planted on the instruction of northerners to destroy their southern rivals. Isakov, a former deputy defense minister, also called on parliament to cut the SNB's budget by half on the grounds that taxpayers' money should not be used to spy on their elected representatives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2004).

Meanwhile, on 16 January the Legislative Assembly established a special commission to investigate the case. From its inception, however, according to RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau, opposition groups were putting little faith in it and questioning the objectivity of the commission's members. To bolster trust the latter announced on 20 January that they had requested outside help to pursue the inquiry. Commission member Alisher Abdymomumov said he and his colleagues had appealed to the American Embassy in Bishkek and specialists from the U.S.-led antiterrorist coalition deployed in the Ganci airbase at Manas airport. "In principle, they are ready to help us," Abdymomumov told RFE/RL.

The possibility of appealing for outsiders for assistance had surfaced almost immediately after the scandal broke. Deputy Prosecutor-General Isaev said on 15 January that his team was "prepared to bring foreign experts into the investigation if necessary," Interfax reported. Abdymomumov, who chairs the parliament's foreign affairs committee, pointed out on the same day that international organizations and foreign governments could participate in the inquiry, Kabar reported. Even Imankulov publicly welcomed the idea of foreign experts cooperating in the investigation, noted on 16 January. Such experts could "satisfy both parties -- government and opposition -- so that as a result there won't be doubts about the investigation's legitimacy," Imankulov said.

Perhaps it is true that foreign experts, presumed to be honest and apolitical, can lend objectivity to the ongoing inquiry. Few would dispute the usefulness of having international observers, say, to monitor elections. Nonetheless it is a sad commentary on the discredited state of Kyrgyz institutions, particularly those handling law-enforcement, and on the poisonous political atmosphere in Bishkek, if international organizations and foreign governments have to be called in to help sort out a domestic bugging incident because no internal investigation can be trusted to be impartial.

POWER FOR THE PEOPLE: NEW OPPOSITION BLOC FORMED IN KYRGYZSTAN. At a press conference in Bishkek on 14 January the heads of seven opposition parties -- Asaba, Kairan-El, the Democratic Movement Kyrgyzstan, Erk, Erkindik, the Republican Party, and Young Kyrgyzstan -- announced that they had formed a coalition, called For People Power, to challenge pro-government groups in the presidential and parliamentary elections currently scheduled for December 2005. The coalition would nominate a single candidate for president, they said, adding that other opposition parties and individuals were welcome to join the bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). They did not indicate who their presidential nominee might be. (On 18 December 2003, the Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys parties announced that they would jointly field the jailed former Vice President Feliks Kulov as their candidate, assuming he was released by 2005, reported. "If he is not released, we have several more options that will be announced later," Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebaev was quoted as saying at the time.)

After introducing their new coalition, and pledging it would ensure that the 2005 elections were conducted fairly, the party heads warned that Akaev was unlikely to step down peacefully. They claimed that he was planning to stage a referendum on extending his stay in office beyond 2005. They also predicted he might try to wrongfoot his opponents by calling for early elections, Interfax reported.

Opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov stressed that the bloc had been formed with the support of the American Embassy, reported on 15 January. "I have met the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan [Stephen Young] three times lately. I make it no secret that the establishment of the bloc was one of the results of these meetings," Beknazarov said. Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, leader of the Kairan-El party, underscored that For People Power had America's imprimatur by noting the U.S. State Department had invited some of the coalition's founders to visit Washington. It was clear, Sadyrbaev said approvingly, that if President Akaev intended to seek an (unconstitutional) third term, he would find no friends in Washington. "If Akaev wants to be president again, he would have to seek the support of Russia," the deputy cautioned.

The following day, Justice Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov categorically denied there were any plans either for a referendum on Akaev's term in office or for pre-term parliamentary elections. He then slammed the new coalition as an illegal formation since it lacked a charter and had not gone through proper procedures to register with the Justice Ministry, Kabar reported on 15 January. Osmonov performed a similar role as the government's attack dog when the opposition launched the Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev and Reforms for the People (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 22 August 2002). Osmonov further opined that the For the People coalition was illegitimate because individual parliamentarians had no right to speak in the name of the people of Kyrgyzstan, adding that party leaders, rather than the parties themselves, had formed the new grouping (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2004).

On 19 January, Akaev made another move that the opposition interpreted as an attempt undermine their political maneuverings. He suddenly proposed an unofficial ban on what he called premature campaigning. The president suggested a moratorium be imposed on early campaigning, international news agencies reported. He also called for an unofficial ban on high-ranking officials organizing political parties and events, according to a statement by the presidential press service. The statement quoted the president as telling public organizations, "all efforts should be made to solve economic and social problems and to raise people's well-being" -- the idea being that those efforts would be neglected if attention had to be diverted to excessive electioneering. Instead, Akaev told the citizens' meeting, "Look at Russia's wonderful example, at how well they conducted elections. It uplifted the public mood." Russia's parliamentary elections in December 2003, which were dominated by pro-Kremlin forces and further strengthened President Vladimir Putin's grip on power, were reckoned to be seriously flawed by international observers (see "Russia: Observers Say Election Falls Short Of Democratic Standards,", 8 December 2003).