Mayoral elections in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh have eliminated a powerful foe of the central Bishkek government. What they've put in his place is far from clear.
The 25-19 vote by Osh city lawmakers appears to end the political domination of Melis Myrzakmatov, the beefy, mercurial mayor who has run the city like a personal kingdom for the past five years.
Myrzakmatov's tenure included the deadly clashes that ripped through Osh in June 2010. The event, spurred by the violent ouster of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev two months earlier, fueled apprehensions of a dangerous political divide between Kyrgyzstan's north and south. And rather than hurting Myrzakmatov's credentials, it seemed to only solidify his reputation as a firebrand who refused to play nicely with Bishkek, no matter the political cost.
But if Bishkek is glad to see the departure of a devil they know, they may be trading him in for one they don't. Aitmamat Kadyrbaev, the "pro-presidential" candidate in the January 15 contest, is himself southern-born, with a track record of openly defying the central government.
Kadyrbaev was serving as the deputy governor of Osh Oblast at the time of Bakiev's ouster. The coup sparked resistance in the cities of Osh, Batken, Jalal-Abad -- the heart of Bakiev's southern power base -- with protesters attempting to force new officials from the interim government of Roza Otunbaeva to abandon their posts.
Kadyrbaev personally led the storming of the Osh regional administration building, briefly appointing himself "the people's governor" after the interim governor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, fled the building.
Kadyrbaev was quickly removed from the post, and was later appointed to a development board charged with rebuilding Osh and Jalal-Abad following the June clashes -- working under the man now serving as prime minister, Jantoro Satybaldiev.
Apparently overlooking his past actions, Bishkek strategists later saw fit to recommend Kadyrbaev as a viable rival to Myrzakmatov, who was forced to run for reelection after being fired in December for appearing to support an antigovernment protest. (Myrzakmatov labeled the dismissal a "political decision.")
The weeks that followed saw a decisive reshuffle in the Osh city council, with Myrzakmatov's Uluttar Birimdigi (Unity of Ethnicities) party forced into the opposition by a newly formed coalition holding a whisker-thin majority of 23 of 45 seats. The final vote count suggests that by the end, even more Myrzakmatov allies had decamped in favor of siding with Bishkek's candidate.
Chynybai Tursunbekov, a national lawmaker from the Social Democrats, the party of President Almazbek Atambaev, says Kadyrbaev should avoid the isolationist tendencies that made Myrzakmatov a pariah in the north. "The mayor should work together with other government bodies and distance himself from separatist ideas," he said. "Myrzakmatov, through his actions and speeches, clearly showed himself to be a separatist -- and to some extent a regionalist -- leader."
Need A Southerner To Fight A Southerner
Atambaev, who succeeded Otunbaeva as president in 2011, could now be looking at Kadyrbaev to help rally Osh voters around pro-presidential parties in parliamentary elections next year -- something Myrzakmatov might have fiercely resisted.
To do so, Kadyrbaev would have first to win over his new constituency, which demonstrated its continued fidelity to Myrzakmatov by staging a massive demonstration -- complete with dozens of men on horseback and a photograph of Atambaev set alight -- as soon as election results were announced.
Myrzakmatov eventually broke up the rally, but said the fight was only beginning
, pledging to resume demonstrations with the start of warmer weather in 15 days -- stoking fears of a fresh season of conflicts that Kyrgyzstan, with its struggling economy and lower investor appeal, can ill afford.
Political observer Mirsuljan Namazaly says Kadyrbaev may face a struggle in simply overcoming Myrzakmatov's still-considerable hometown advantage. "I think Myrzakmatov continues to have a lot of supporters in Osh. Although the new mayor-elect will take office, his future activities in the city will likely be hindered by numerous obstacles," he says. "Because at the end of the day, Myrzakmatov, during his long tenure, established firm control over the officials who currently work in the mayor's office. It will be very hard for him [Kadyrbaev] to do his job there."
Other observers have suggested, however, that Kadyrbaev, who at one point worked alongside Myrzakmatov as a high-ranking official at the massive Kara-Suu bazaar, is up to the task.
Kadyrbaev is believed to control his own cadre of "sportsmen" -- young men used as informal enforcement squads -- and may be prepared to use them if Myrzakmatov refuses to step aside. By pitting one southerner against another, Bishkek may be looking to divide, and conquer, a region that so far has eluded its grasp.
Not everyone is convinced. Dmitry Orlov, an analyst with the Bishkek-based East-West strategy center, says he's afraid Kyrgyzstan will lose either way. "It's unclear who of the two is worse, Myrzakmatov or Kadyrbaev," he said in an interview with the Tushtuk news agency. "If the authorities are more or less aware of what to expect from Myrzakmatov, there's far less they can calculate about Kadyrbaev."
Written by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Osh by Kyrgyz Service correspondents Ernist Nurmatov and Ydyrys Isakov