By-elections for Kyrgyzstan’s parliament were held on Sunday April 9. Reputed mafia chief Rysbek Akmatbayev won 79% of the votes in the parliamentary by-elections in Balykchi, Kyrgyzstan. Akmatbayev has a criminal reputation and is known to have strong connections with top government officials. His victory is symbolic of the criminal world’s triumph over Kyrgyzstan’s official state structures, including the judicial system.
High tension and numerous protests preceded the April 9 elections. Rysbek was acquitted of triple homicide charges in January, allowing him to register as a parliamentary candidate. On March 30, however, the Central Election Commission (CEC) cancelled his registration. Rysbek responded by organizing protests in front of the government house in Bishkek, the capital. About 2,000 people came from Balykchi to demand that the CEC decision be overturned. They also called for the resignation of Prime Minister Felix Kulov, whom Rysbek blames for the assassination of his younger brother, Tynychbek Akmatbayev, in October 2005. Special security forces were deployed in Bishkek’s main square to ensure that the protest did not turn violent.
As one of the best-known figures in Issyk-Kul oblast, Akmatbayev’s electoral victory was a foregone conclusion. Once seated in parliament, chances are that he will seek to head the parliamentary committee on security, rule of law, and information policy, a position his brother previously held. Rysbek’s open confrontation with the prime minister is another cause for concern. Following Tynychbek’s assassination in October last year, Rysbek declared a jihad against Kulov. Rysbek’s attitude towards the prime minister is based on his personal convictions, not opposing political views.
Rysbek’s candidacy and a general popular dissatisfaction with the government’s weakness against organized crime prompted civic groups to organize a peace demonstration on April 8. Several parliamentarians joined the demonstrators, including Melis Eshimakanov, Kubatbek Baibolov, and former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebayev. The March 24 Revolution’s main leaders, Roza Otunbayeva and Azimbek Beknazarov, were also active participants.
According to various estimates, between 3,000 and 10,000 people took to Bishkek’s streets to support the protest. Dozens of NGOs and youth organizations also participated. Edil Baisalov, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, took the lead in organizing the demonstration. Many other young leaders from various NGOs and mass media outlets also took an active part. Unlike previous protests in Bishkek, in which rural residents dominated the crowds, this time the majority were educated people from urban areas.
The Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society insists that CEC must cancel the election results in Balykchi district because the criminal case against Akmatbayev is still active, and therefore it was illegal to register him as a parliamentary candidate (Kabar, April 10). The CEC Chairman Tuigunaly Abdraimov expressed his support regarding the NGOs’ demand. Abdraimov said that Rysbek has highly provocative information against a number of top state officials and their children (Akipress, April 11). The CEC Chair’s public comment confirms the fact that canceling Rysbek’s parliamentary mandate might play against interests of government officials. Abdraimov also mentioned that Rysbek has threatened him with death.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev had no public reaction to either the demonstration or Akmatbayev’s victory. Nor did he respond to the demonstrators’ request to meet with them. Instead, only state secretary Dastan Sarygulov met with the crowds. If the president continues to ignore popular demands, the demonstration will likely be repeated on April 29. Kyrgyz NGOs are planning to stage a large-scale demonstration on April 29 by collaborating with legislators and drawing in people from other parts of the country. The main objective of these upcoming demonstration will be to draw attention to a number of pressing issues, including constitutional reform, the fight against organized crime, updating law-enforcement structures, reform of the national TV and radio company KTR, economic development, and anti-corruption efforts (Baisalov.livejournal.com, April 10).
Some think that Akmatbayev’s case is not the most shocking manifestation of the Kyrgyz state’s connections with the criminal world. Skeptics also point to the fact that no similar protests were staged against other parliamentary candidates with criminal connections before. For instance, although it was evident that Bayaman Erkinbayev, a parliamentarian who was assassinated in September 2005, was a mafia boss in southern Kyrgyzstan, the people did not protest against his presence in the legislature.
In the race for Erkinbayev’s seat, Sanjarbek Kadyraliyev scored the highest percentage at the April 9 by-elections, although a runoff is still needed. According to various reports, Kadyraliyev is a 30-year-old businessman, who also has a criminal reputation and is supported by Erkinbayev’s followers.
The April 8 peace demonstration was unprecedented not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in the entire Central Asian region. The demonstration has a number of implications. First, although the fight against the state’s connections with organized crime was the main theme of the event, its significance is far-reaching. The event came off with a rather optimistic, holiday-like mood amid a general dissatisfaction with the current government. The participants called on the government to engage in a dialogue, reminding officials that today’s civil society in Kyrgyzstan represents a significant force that the state should not ignore.
Second, the demonstration was officially supported by law-enforcement structures. Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiyev had ensured that the demonstrators could walk the busiest streets of Bishkek without interruption.
Third, mass media outlets and a number of prominent figures supported the initiative. There was a noticeable collaboration among Bishkek’s residents, including members of the business community. According to Baisalov, local businessmen helped to finance placards and banners carried in the rally.
Finally, the demonstration showed that the revolutionary changes that began on March 24, 2005, are an ongoing process not only in the state system, but also in Kyrgyz society. The Kyrgyz NGOs’ active mobilization against organized crime and in support of political reforms brings hopes for development of a stronger legal system.