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English Stallion Unseats Kyrgyz Prime Minister

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov is well-known for being an enthusiastic horseman.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov is well-known for being an enthusiastic horseman.
Officially, it was allegations of corruption and its mishandling of a shrinking economy that brought the ruling Kyrgyz coalition down this week.

The last straw, however, was a thoroughbred English horse allegedly given as a bribe to Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov by a Turkish entrepreneur with business interests in Kyrgyzstan.

This scandal further aggravated ongoing disputes between the four coalition parties. Many members of the coalition government have long been accusing the 42-year-old businessman-turned-politician of failing to fight corruption and implement reforms. They have also alleged that he has links to shady organizations.

As a keen equestrian, Babanov owns around a dozen horses in the state-owned Cholpon-Ata horse farm. He insists that he lawfully bought the horse from the Turkish businessman for $20,000.

According to Babanov's version of events, the five-year-old stallion, Islander One, was brought to Kyrgyzstan in April.

Customs officials have confirmed that the Turkish businessman Khunkar Adali paid all the legal duties required under Kyrgyz law.

The businessman runs a building firm, reportedly involved in the construction of an air-traffic control tower at Bishkek's Manas International Airport. He entered Islander One in a local race horse, where the stallion came second but injured its leg.

WATCH: Omurbek Babanov's Horse, Islander One (In Kyrgyz)

Babanov's people in his Respublika party say Adali no longer wanted the injured horse and sold it to the prime minister.

His political opponents, however, are having none of it. Lawmakers from the Ata-Meken party believe a horse like Islander One is worth between $500,000 and $1.5 million in world markets.

"It makes me laugh to claim an English thoroughbred horse costs only $20,000," said Joomart Saparbaev, an Ata-Meken deputy. "Those involved in the horse-breeding business say Kazakh buyers pay that amount of money for ordinary mares in our Chui region."

Babanov's people have hit back, saying if anyone questions the price the prime minister has paid for the horse they "should buy it from Babanov for $20,000 and then try to sell it elsewhere for a million dollars."

Tarnished Image

Because the dispute was played out in the public eye amid widespread media coverage and speculation, it has somewhat tarnished the young, charismatic prime minister's image.

Indeed, it seems the "stallion business" has done more damage to Babanov's public standing than all the claims that he has mishandled the job of prime minister.

Until recently, the Moscow-educated millionaire businessman and founder of the pro-business party Respublika had been something of a media darling in his remote, mountainous homeland since becoming coalition prime minister in December.

Featuring constantly in newspapers, magazines and television programs, the handsome and youthful Babanov has even overshadowed President Almazbek Atambaev, whose media coverage is now largely reduced to perfunctory reports on his important meetings and speeches.

According to local media, the key to Babanov's pubic relations success has been a successful PR team, which carefully spins information to present a positive image of their employer.

It remains to be seen what Babanov's image managers can do to minimize the damage the "million-dollar" English horse has done to his career and if he can pick up the pieces after what has been a spectacular fall from grace.

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah and RFE/Rl's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Zairbek Baktybaev

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