BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has vowed to punish anyone who causes "disturbances" in connection with an October 15 election to choose his successor, issuing a strongly worded warning amid tension over the vote.
Atambaev was speaking on August 30 in response to criticism over recent remarks in which opponents say he used his position to promote the candidacy of former Prime Minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a longtime ally.
He said that politicians accusing him of using the levers of power to support a favorite were "shaking up" stability in the country in order "not to allow a candidate proposed by Atambaev to become president."
"Let's not forget that until December 1, I will be this country's president and I will have sufficient time to severely punish all of those who plan disturbances in our country," said Atambaev, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a second term.
"Once, when I was in the opposition, I was scared of Almighty God alone. And now Kyrgyzstan’s people support me," Atambaev said. "Do not play with fire, you will burn your hands -- and not only hands."
At a meeting with residents in the southern town of Ozgon on August 28, Atambaev called Jeenbekov his "friend" and suggested that Sapar Isakov, who became prime minister after Jeenbekov quit to run in the election, was his protege.
"After I leave my post, my friend may become the president. A young fellow whom I trained and raised was recently appointed prime minister.... I hope they will carry on my affairs and finish what I have undertaken," Atambaev said.
Critics say Atambaev is looking for ways to maintain influence after he leaves office to make way for the winner of the election in the country of 6 million.
Constitutional amendments proposed by Atambaev and approved in a December 2016 referendum boosted the powers of the prime minister in Kyrgyzstan, the only Central Asian country that has had more than two presidents since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Opponents fear the amendments are aimed at making it easier for Atambaev and his allies to remain in power as long as possible.
Atambaev began his six-year term in 2011, succeeding Roza Otunbaeva. The two previous presidents were driven from power by street protests, Askar Akaev in 2005 and Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010.
Controversy has been cast over the election by the August 16 conviction of opposition politician Omurbek Tekebaev, a former ally of Atambaev, on bribery charges that his Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party says were aimed at keeping him off the ballot.
Tekebaev was sentenced to eight years in prison, a ruling that bars him from running in the upcoming election and the next presidential vote, due to be held in 2023.
Election officials are scheduled to release the final list of candidates in the October 15 vote on September 10.