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Kyrgyzstan's 'Revolution Bulldozer' Bows Out Of Politics

Azimbek Beknazarov's long, tempestuous political journey is coming to an end, he says.
Azimbek Beknazarov's long, tempestuous political journey is coming to an end, he says.

It's been a rocky road to democracy in Kyrgyzstan, and Amirbek Beknazarov has been there every step of the way.

The controversial 61-year-old, known for his often fiery and seemingly nationalistic remarks, was nominated by the newly formed Union of National Patriotic Forces of Kyrgyzstan to run in the upcoming October 15 presidential election.

With opinion polls giving him little chance of winning against the 10 other candidates, the former prosecutor-general bowed out of the race on October 13, saying it no longer made sense to run.

Still, his impact on Kyrgyzstan's bumpy political road map back up "The Revolution Bulldozer" nickname he has worn proudly through his battle against corruption.

For Beknarazov, who was expected to get less than 2 percent of the vote, the country's postcommunist trials and tribulations resemble his own experiences en route to his third, and final, presidential campaign.

Ultimately, he was left frustrated.

"As we come closer to the final vote, on the scales of democracy are only the money of candidates and not their programs, ideas, platforms, so I decided not to go to the polls," said the politician, who can often be seen wearing the traditional Kyrgyz white felt hat, called a "kalpak."

"I had no goal to become president, I wanted only to convey my ideas to the people. This concludes my political career," he added.

Bumpy Road To Democracy

With its political upheaval and noisy election campaigns, Kyrgyzstan is the anomaly among Central Asia's five ex-Soviet states: the most democratic country in a predominantly authoritarian region.

That reputation hasn't come easily for the country's 6 million citizens.

The mountainous former Soviet republic has trudged through two revolutions -- the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005 and what has been dubbed the People's Revolution in 2010 -- in the past dozen years in earning its democratic pedigree. On October 15, it will vie to become the first in the region to peacefully and democratically change leaders through the ballot box.

While it is not uncommon for incumbent leaders from the Central Asian states that emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991 to garner 90 percent of the vote in elections, Kyrgyzstan's election this weekend is turning into a cliffhanger between the two main candidates: Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a technocrat who is President Almazbek Atambaev's preferred choice as successor; and Omurbek Babanov, a wealthy international businessman.

Atambaev, who was elected in 2011, was limited by the country's constitution to one six-year term.

"The authorities have already decided who will be the president, the eldest son or the youngest, Babanov or Jeenbekov," Beknazarov alleged in announcing his political retirement on October 13. "These elections have not been fair but dirty."

While he was insistent that he was ending his campaign, election authorities said he had not made the announcement in time to have his name removed from the ballot.

'Revolution Bulldozer'

A lawyer by training, Beknazarov entered the political scene as a lawmaker in 2000.

He shot to prominence just two years later, taking part in public rallies and criticizing the government's decision to renounce a claim to a swath of disputed territory claimed by neighboring China.

His arrest at the time sparked antigovernment protests in his native southern district of Aksy. Six people were killed and dozens wounded when police opened fire on demonstrators in March 2002 in what is now considered the first major rally against President Askar Akaev.

Beknazarov went on to play a key role in Kyrgyzstan's 2005 and 2010 revolutions that ousted Presidents Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev, respectively.

Never at a loss to speak his mind, he refused in 2011 to accept the "Manas" medal awarded to individuals for outstanding contributions to the protection and strengthening of the state and democratic society, saying that corruption was still widespread.

During the current campaign, he had vowed to help create a "national state" for the Kyrgyz people, and in a thinly veiled appeal to ethnic Kyrgyz said he "reject[s] the idea of Kyrgyzstan as a common home" to others from the more than 80 ethnic groups currently living in the country.

His incendiary remarks once again made him a target, despite his poor standing in the polls.

Last month security services filed criminal charges against Beknazarov for allegedly giving false testimony during the trial of Omurbek Tekebaev, another seasoned opposition politician, now jailed.

Beknazarov has denied the allegations but the news -- which broke during the campaign, along with widespread belief of a smear campaign against Babanov and the use of state resources to bolster Jeenbekov -- have raised fears over a stable transfer of power.

Adding to the concerns are a prominent opposition lawmaker's arrest on charges of plotting a pro-Babanov coup, a government election official's death in a "criminal" traffic accident, and Atambaev himself warning that neighboring Kazakhstan is trying to impose Babanov as "its own" candidate.

"The people of Kyrgyzstan will accept any outcome as long as it is believable and the government has not been too dirty," says Edil Baisalov, a former government chief of staff turned opposition-minded political commentator.

"If the opposite is the case, they will take to the streets and city squares once more."