KYRGYZSTAN: ANATOMY OF A POPULAR FRONT.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 59

On March 20, leaders of Kyrgyzstan’s main opposition parties made public a common decision to create an alliance “in defense of human rights and the rule of law.” The alliance will call itself the “Popular Front of Democratic Forces.” Its composition suggests that this alliance has nothing in common with the Popular Fronts of the final Soviet and early post-Soviet years, but that it does have something in common with the Popular Fronts of a bygone age in Europe.

The Kyrgyz front’s main components include the Communist Party, the Party of Communists, the Ar-Namys [Dignity, or Honor] party of Feliks Kulov, the Socialist Ata-Meken [Fatherland] Party, the El-Bei Bechara [Unprotected People’s Party] and some smaller groups. Most of these parties had already made alliances among themselves in various combinations in the February 2000 parliamentary elections and the October 2000 presidential elections.

The two Communist parties are currently engaged in uneasy attempts at reconciliation. The Party of Communists is the direct successor to the Soviet-era party and continues to be headed by that era’s Central Committee First Secretary Absamat Masaliev. The Communist Party is a more radical offshoot led by Clara Ajibekova. Both parties favor Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Russia-Belarus Union, elevating the Russian language to the position of a state language, halting privatization and banning the sale and purchase of agricultural land.

Absamat Masaliev recently called for the return to Kyrgyzstan of Russian border troops and, more generally, for “an overall strategy of military cooperation with Russia.” Such calls are swipes at President Askar Akaev’s policy of diversifying Kyrgyzstan’s security relationships through cooperation with the United States, Turkey, and China as well as with Russia. On March 17, members of both Communist parties organized pickets in Bishkek to honor the anniversary of the 1991 referendum for the preservation of the USSR. The picketers supported “the indivisibility of the Soviet Union.”

In last October’s presidential elections, the Party of Communists supported a candidate who fronted for Kulov. The Communist Party supported the candidate of the Socialist-Democratic Party, who in turn fronted for Iskhak Masaliev, head of the Communist Party’s branch in the Uzbek-populated Osh Region in the south of the country. Iskhak is Absamat Masaliev’s son. Iskhak, like Kulov, is ineligible to run for president because he does not know the Kyrgyz language.

The Ar-Namys [Dignity, or Honor] Party is, in essence, a vehicle for Feliks Kulov’s aspirations to become the leader of Kyrgyzstan. The party had hoped to capitalize on the urban Russian/”Russian-speaking” electorate by promising a “renewed socialism,” along with a privileged status for the Russian language and for Russian personnel in public service. Himself a russified Kyrgyz, Kulov was disqualified from the presidential race after refusing to take the mandatory Kyrgyz language test. An emblematic product of the Chekist and party nomenklatura, and holder of top posts in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Kulov is considered the strongest personal rival to the president. Kulov deployed his well-organized electoral machine in an attempt to win a parliamentary seat in northern Kyrgyzstan last year, but the authorities managed through fraud to thwart his bid.

Earlier this month, Kulov was sentenced by the Military Court of Kyrgyzstan to seven years in prison on charges of abuse of power during his tenure in 1997-98 as national security minister. He was found guilty of creating an unlawful unit within that ministry to eavesdrop on government offices. The lengthy judicial proceedings were tainted by many flaws. The conviction of Kulov undoubtedly served as one of the catalysts for the formation of the opposition alliance.

The Socialist Ata-Meken [Fatherland] Party’s leader Omurbek Tekebaev was the distant runner up to Akaev–with a margin of 74 to 14 percent–in the recent presidential election. Tekebaev and his party are based in the largely Uzbek-populated Jalalabad Region of southern Kyrgyzstan. The northerner Kulov was, however, the real power behind Tekebaev. The latter publicly acknowledged his dependence on Kulov’s organizational network and finances, appointed Kulov as his campaign chief and pledged, if elected president, to reduce the presidential powers and appoint Kulov prime minister. That scenario would have made Kulov the most powerful official in the country.

The El-Bei Bechara [Unprotected People’s] Party is headed by Melis Eshimkanov, owner of the opposition newspaper Asaba in Bishkek. The newspaper has long been harassed by the authorities and also lost a series of libel cases which were brought by state officials in the courts. Meanwhile, the newspaper defaulted on a loan it had taken from a North American joint venture in 1994. Last week, Asaba’s assets were confiscated under a court decision to repay part of that loan.

Other opposition newspapers–such as Res Publica, which is closely allied with Asaba–also are being subjected to judicial proceedings, libel penalties and official chicanery, pushing these papers to the brink of bankruptcy. This factor, like Kulov’s conviction, helped precipitate the decision of opposition forces to close ranks and present a united front. But the dominant parties in this front are simply anti-Akaev and pro-Russian, rather than pro-democracy (Kyrgyz News, March 15, 17, 20; Institute for War and Peace Reporting–Central Asia, no. 44, March 14; see the Monitor, February 17, 28, March 27, September 20, October 27, November 2, 2000, March 12).

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