Last month Kyrgyz opposition leader Melis Eshimkanov was nominated to become Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to Switzerland. Eshimkanov is a member of the “For Reforms” parliamentary opposition bloc, which promotes long-term political changes in Kyrgyzstan. Despite widespread criticism in political circles for giving up the fight for his political views and submitting to the ruling regime, Eshimkanov pledged to “work on the country’s image” in his new position (TV5, June 30). He was also publicly supported by Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, who represents the moderate opposition in the government (Kabar, July 10). Former minister of interior Omurbek Suvanaliyev, a member of former prime minister Felix Kulov’s Ar Namys party, will likely run in by-elections to occupy Eshimkanov’s seat in parliament.
As with other political actors in Kyrgyzstan, Eshimkanov has at times displayed vacillating political views and loyalties. At different points in time he has both supported and opposed former president Askar Akayev and current president Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Eshimkanov promoted constitutional reform in November 2006 but voted against it two months later. His Kyrgyz-language newspaper, Agym, enjoyed wide popularity among the masses and often published reports on corruption among government officials from various camps.
Eshimkanov’s case illustrates how the ruling regime is trying to gently eliminate members of the political opposition by appointing them to foreign service positions where they are not able to voice their own political views. Shortly after the Tulip Revolution in March 2005, Bakiyev appointed two opposition journalists, Rina Prizhivoit and Zamira Sydykova, as ambassadors to Austria and the United States, respectively. Both journalists were ardent critics of Akayev’s corrupt politics, called attention to the shortages of democracy under his leadership, and enjoyed popularity among the wider public. They supported Akayev’s ouster in March 2005, but their new foreign service positions quickly turned them from critical journalists into political actors with diplomatic responsibilities. Bakiyev recently appointed a third journalist, Kuban Mambetaliyev, to be Kyrgyz ambassador to the United Kingdom (NTS.kg, May 26).
If this trend continues with other opposition leaders, Bakiyev will acquire greater political leverage over competing forces. Rumors in Bishkek suggest that Azimbek Beknazarov, another fervent opposition leader, is a potential candidate for an ambassadorial position. As one Kyrgyz political expert told Jamestown, “In Beknazarov’s Aksy region people are mooting the possibility of him agreeing to become Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador in Turkey.” However, some observers argue that unlike Eshimkanov, Beknazarov still enjoys strong support from his electorate and therefore is not interested in leaving Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to Russia, Apas Dzhumagulov, resigned last month, vacating a key post to make way for a new candidate. As it stands now, Bakiyev’s most ardent political opponent, former prime minister Kulov, seems to be the perfect candidate for the position in Moscow. Recently Kulov has suggested that Kyrgyzstan join with Russia in a confederation to solve its economic problems. His views toward Russia and his personal conflict with Bakiyev make Kulov a favorable candidate both for Moscow and Bishkek.
A number of other diplomatic positions might also be vacated in Europe and Asia. According to Bely parohod newspaper, the potential list of candidates for various diplomatic positions includes Kyrgyzstan’s representative in the Eurasian Economic Community in Moscow, Ishengul Bolzhurova; head of Channel 5 TV Oksana Malevana; parliamentarian Dooronbek Sydyrbayev; State Secretary Adakhan Modumarov; and former deputy prime minister Daniyar Usenov (July 15).
One political observer from Bishkek thinks that although there have been visible opposition factions over the past two years, they are slowly withering away. All together, Kyrgyz experts conclude that the “bankruptcy of radical political opposition” is becoming noticeable in the country. After Kulov’s April fiasco, when he failed to pressure Bakiyev to step down, the president today faces only moderate opposition forces, while the most fervent opponents have given up their positions.
This trend is not new. As president, Akayev offered several political leaders ambassadorial positions when their domestic popularity began to spread. Bakyt Beshimov, currently a vice president at the American University of Central Asia, became ambassador to India shortly before the presidential election in 2000. Beshimov was offered an ambassadorial position when his critique of Akayev’s regime gained strength in the late 1990s. Medetkan Sherimkulov, a presidential candidate in 1995, served as ambassador to Turkey during 1998-2002. In some cases choosing ambassadorial positions allowed opposition leaders to continue with their careers in politics while escaping the escalating tensions with the ruling regime. If opposition leaders have declined ambassadorial positions, that news has not been publicized.
On a positive note, the Kyrgyz political opposition has set a number of precedents for political compromises with the ruling regime, and it still serves as a regulating power against Bakiyev’s policies. As Kyrgyz independent political observer Kubatbek Asan uulu noted, “A ‘pressure group’ still exists in the opposition camp that constantly challenges the president.” This group consists of parliamentarians, former government members, and NGO leaders.
To a large extent, regime-opposition relations are shaped by private economic interests on both sides. Despite some signs of consolidation in 2006, Kyrgyzstan’s political opposition was not able achieve a viable constitutional reform or prevent the government’s decision to privatize hydropower sector. Now many members seek their fortunes elsewhere.