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Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev and opposition politician Omurbek Tekebaev may not have been best friends but there did not appear to be any great animosity between them until early 2016. (file photo)

A Kyrgyz court's conviction of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party's leader, Omurbek Tekebaev, on August 16 will likely prove to be more than a little stain on Kyrgyzstan's reputation --it will forever scar what should have been one of the country's finest moments when Kyrgyzstan holds its presidential election later this year.

Tekebaev planned on being a candidate in that election.

The fact that Tekebaev was unlikely to win that election makes the conviction and subsequent prison sentence for bribe-taking less understandable, especially in light of claims that the charges were political retribution.

President Almazbek Atambaev is constitutionally obligated to leave office when his term ends this year.

This makes Kyrgyzstan's upcoming presidential election a significant moment not only for Kyrgyzstan, but for Central Asia, because it will mark the first change of a president that was not the result of a death or a revolution.

Atambaev was elected in 2011 and took over from interim President Roza Otunbaeva, but the 2011 presidential election was a result of the 2010 revolution that ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Atambaev and Tekebaev were part of Otunbaeva's interim government.

Atambaev and Tekebaev may not have been best friends but there did not appear to be any great animosity between the two until early 2016, when Atambaev started talking about making changes to the constitution that was adopted in 2010 shortly after Bakiev's ouster.

Tekebaev was one of the architects of that constitution and he opposed making any changes, pointing out that it was agreed there would be no amendments to the document until 2020.

Atambaev pushed through a referendum on amendments to the constitution, which was conducted on December 11, 2016, but the peace between the president and Tekebaev was broken.

Tekebaev, who was already speculating publicly about Atambaev's motives for changing the constitution, started questioning the sources of Atambaev's money.

Atambaev was a businessman before seriously turning to politics and Tekebaev set out to trace Atambaev's business connections, clearly with the intention of uncovering something that would tarnish his image.

Sketchy Evidence

In February, Tekebaev traveled abroad to hunt for information about Atambaev's business dealings in Turkey.

He was detained upon his return to Kyrgyzstan on February 26 with what Tekebaev claimed was evidence of Atambaev's illegal financial activities.

Officials at the Turkish Embassy in Bishkek claimed the documents Tekebaev brought back were fake but Tekebaev was held as an investigation into his alleged illegal financial activities was launched.

A Russian businessman named Leonid Maevsky posted a video on the Internet at the start of 2017 in which he claimed Tekebaev had cheated him out of $1 million in 2010 in an alleged deal for stakes in Kyrgyzstan's largest mobile operator, MegaCom.

Kyrgyz Opposition Leader Jailed For Eight Years
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The timing of the charges was suspect since more than six years had elapsed since the alleged deal but Maevsky's assertion was sufficient for Kyrgyz prosecutors to launch a case against Tekebaev that would eventually involve another Ata-Meken member; former Emergency Situations Minister and ex-Ambassador to South Korea Duyshenkul Chotonov.

The trial process dragged on for months until the August 16 ruling.

Evidence was often sketchy. At one point Maevsky said many of the documents he had that supported his claims had been damaged by the sprinkler system in his office when a fire broke out.

Mercurial Politician

Some see Tekebaev's conviction as the result of the mercurial politician's reputation.

Tekebaev became politically active in the 1980s, when Kyrgyzstan was still a Soviet republic.

Tekebaev, a physics teacher then, became a social activist in his native Bazar-Korgon district in southern Kyrgyzstan, demanding that children not be sent to the fields to pick cotton, among other things.

These modest beginnings helped launch Tekebaev's political career and by 1990 he was a people's deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic.

Tekebaev founded the Ata-Meken party in 1992.

He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1995 and 2000. In 2005 he was elected speaker of parliament and quickly became one of the most vocal critics of then-President Bakiev.

There was probably no chance Tekebaev would cease looking for "kompromat" against Atambaev, but all the same, Tekebaev's conviction appears to be politically motivated in the eyes of many.

Even Tekebaev's sentence is intriguing.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison but will end up serving 4 1/2 with an additional stipulation that he cannot run for political office for a further three years after he is released from prison.

That effectively bars him from running in the presidential election that should take place in 2023, meaning it would be 2029 before he could run for president again.

He would be 70 years old by that time.

Casting A Shadow

The fortunes of his Ata-Meken party are also now in doubt.

Amendments to the election laws that were just passed at the end of June raised the percentage of votes a political party must receive to get seats in parliament from seven percent to nine percent.

Ata-Meken received 7.72 percent in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

With Tekebaev and Chotonov in prison, possibly to be joined soon by other Ata-Meken members who are currently on trial, the party's chances in 2020 are greatly reduced.

Tekebaev's incarceration might be a relief for President Atambaev and help ease any concerns he may have had that Tekebaev would hound him even after he steps down as president.

But Tekebaev's imprisonment will be forever linked with the 2017 presidential election and cast a shadow over assertions that it was a free and fair election, or an example of Kyrgyzstan's progress toward democracy.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov (left) is greeted by Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov at Manas airport in Bishkek on August 16.

Uzbekistan’s prime minister, Abdulla Aripov, arrived in the Kyrgyz capital on August 16, leading a delegation attending a session of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation.

That might not sound like much, but considering the poor state of Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations during the last couple of decades, the first meeting of this intergovernmental commission since December 2009 should be seen as a positive development.

And it’s not the only sign of better ties between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Since Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in Uzbekistan in September 2016 after the death of longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has been a clear departure from the 25 years of Karimov’s rule.

Probably nowhere is that more evident than in Uzbekistan’s new ties with Kyrgyzstan.

One year ago, in August 2016, troops from Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry seized a television relay station on Ungar-Too Mountain, in Kyrgyzstan, beginning a standoff that lasted several weeks.

A similar standoff had already occurred in the same place in March 2016.

The major cause of those tensions was the dispute over where the border between the two countries lies, an issue that has plagued Kyrgyz-Uzbek ties since the two countries became independent after the U.S.S.R. collapsed in late 1991.

So it is another good sign that a second commission -- the intergovernmental commission on the delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border -- will also be meeting in Bishkek.

Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Jenish Razakov will be leading his country’s delegation in those talks. Razakov said it would mark the first time that commission had met since 2006.

Kyrgyz-Uzbek border talks started barely a week after Mirziyoev was formally named Uzbekistan’s acting president.

It's not just that the 1,378-kilometer Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is poorly marked, it's more that there never were any borders there until Soviet mapmakers penciled them in.

There have been at least nine rounds of border demarcation talks since the September 2016 meeting. There have also been visits by officials from border cities and towns.

Aitmamat Kadyrov, the mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh, crossed the border to meet in Andijon, Uzbekistan, with that city’s mayor, Dilmurat Rakhmatullaev, on August 10. Officials and business delegations from those two cities had already exchanged visits starting last September.

It is an interesting choice of venues.

Andijon and Osh are big cities that are close to one another -- some 50 kilometers. But the two cities also have the unfortunate distinctions of being the scenes of the worst violence in Central Asia so far in the 21st century.

In both cases -- in Andijon in May 2005, when government troops opened fire indiscriminately on a crowd that was made up of overwhelmingly unarmed protesters, sending tens of thousands of Uzbek citizens fleeing into Kyrgyzstan; and in Osh in June 2010, when interethnic rioting broke out between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, also sending tens of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks to the border of Uzbekistan -- the violence hardened attitudes on both sides.

And that is added to shootings along the border that have gone on for two decades.

The big question is: What is motivating Uzbekistan’s abrupt turnaround in policy toward Kyrgyzstan?

The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border area has probably been the most dangerous border in Central Asia, though it’s worth mentioning that Uzbekistan laid mines along part of the border with Tajikistan, limiting the potential for mischief from that quarter.

Dozens of people, at least, have been killed and many more wounded along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

Kyrgyz and Uzbek border guards shoot at smugglers and rustlers, and sometimes at each other.

Angry locals have assaulted border guards from the other country and border guards have crossed uninvited into their neighbor's territory to drag back suspects.

Since the border talks restarted last September, there is a calm along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier that has not been seen since the first years of independence.

In fact, Uzbekistan’s border guards even reported last October that its troops received an ailing Kyrgyz border guard and brought the latter to an Uzbek medical facility for treatment since it was closer than any Kyrgyz medical facility.

There are other indications of warming Kyrgyz-Uzbek ties.

Representatives of the two countries have discussed increasing the number of flights between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and the number of trains, from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul mountain resort area.

The big question is: What is motivating Uzbekistan’s abrupt turnaround in policy toward Kyrgyzstan?

The easy answer would be that now Mirziyoev is Uzbekistan’s president and he wants Uzbekistan to have friendly relations with its neighbors.

But Mirziyoev was Uzbekistan’s prime minister from 2003 to 2016, the last half of Karimov’s rule as Uzbekistan’s president, when the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border was increasingly sealed and bilateral ties continually plummeted.

A better answer is that Mirziyoev is being pragmatic.

His country is in an economic bind, caused in no small part by Karimov’s “fortress Uzbekistan” policy that changed Uzbekistan from a natural regional transit country to a semi-isolationist state.

There is nothing to gain in continuing the antagonism with Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan once sold natural gas to Kyrgyzstan and Karimov’s government used that as leverage to punish Kyrgyzstan for decisions Karimov did not like, by suspending supplies.

But Gazprom bought state company Kyrgyzgaz in April 2014 and supplies Kyrgyzstan with gas, ironically from gas fields Gazprom is working in Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan also often obstructed road and rail traffic to and from Kyrgyzstan, but now the long-awaited China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project seems finally to be making progress.

This will be a shorter route for Uzbekistan to export goods to China than the current route through Kazakhstan, but it involves cooperation with Kyrgyzstan.

For the people living along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, Tashkent’s motivations for improving ties are probably not important.

Being able to trade openly with partners on the other side of the border and being able to visit friends and relatives more easily are a change for the better already.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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