Kyrgyzstan is holding the third presidential election in its existence on October 29. Incumbent President Askar Akaev seeks reelection to a five-year term. Alone among the Central Asian presidents, Akaev is not a former member of the Soviet nomenklatura. A professor of physics, Akaev was first elected as president by popular vote in October 1991 and reelected in 1995. Three years later, the Constitutional Court ruled that Akaev is entitled to run for a third term in 2000.
Akaev faces five opponents, three of whom hope for a decent-to-strong performance by capitalizing on the country’s disastrous economic situation. In an October 17 televised speech to labor union representatives, Akaev apologized to all voters for the government’s failed economic policies and accepted a share of personal responsibility: “There is one accusation that I level at myself with greater severity than do my opponents. To my deep regret, we failed to protect people from food shortages and impoverishment during all these years [since 1991].”
Akaev, a northerner, conferred on the southern city of Osh the status of a “second capital” of the country under an October 5 decree. Beginning in 2001, Osh will permanently host a “southern” presidential office, as well as several ministries to be transferred there from Bishkek. The decree also instructs the government to implement an urban development and industrial investment program for Osh from 2001 to 2010.
On October 26, the authorities announced the successful completion of anti-insurgent operations in the Batken Region and the recall of most troops to their permanent stations in the interior of the country. And on October 26, Akaev presided in Bishkek over a victory parade by troops from all the military services.
The putative runner-up in this election is Omurbek Tekebaev, a two-term parliamentary deputy from the Jalalabad Region, currently Vice-Chairman of the Legislative Assembly (lower house of parliament) and leader of the Socialist Ata-Meken [Fatherland] Party. But Tekebaev’s prospects hinge on the resources of his ad hoc ally, Feliks Kulov. The two recently made a deal whereby Kulov became the campaign chief for Tekebaev and was promised the post of prime minister in the event of Tekebaev’s election as president. Tekebaev, moreover, has pledged to push for constitutional amendments which would reduce the presidential powers and correspondingly increase those of the parliament and the cabinet of ministers. Under that scenario, Kulov as prime minister would become the most influential official in the country. When announcing that deal, Tekebaev expressed optimism that Kulov’s organizational network and finances would enable their team to win.
Communist Party chairwoman Klara Hajibekova has endorsed the Tekebaev-Kulov team. However, one or two other candidates also expect to capitalize on parts of the Communist and Russian votes.
Between March and August of this year, Kulov was detained for investigation and trial on criminal charges stemming from his tenure as national security minister in 1997. The charges include embezzlement of state funds, covert purchase of eavesdropping equipment in Moscow and the use of that equipment to spy on the presidential office. Due to the nature of the charges and to Kulov’s rank as a general, military courts are handling the case. The case has gone through a number of phases, usually ending in a reprieve for Kulov, thanks to pressures from the West. In August, the court of the Bishkek garrison acquitted Kulov of the charges and released him from investigative arrest. In September, however, the Higher Military Court of Kyrgyzstan overturned the acquittal verdict and returned the case to the garrison court for retrial.
One of Kulov’s codefendants, former senior state security official Janybek Bakchiev, is already serving a seven-year sentence under a related case. Bakchiev headed an “antiterrorism” group of Kulov’s personal supporters within the National Security Ministry, who were found guilty of maintaining covert links with Kulov after the latter had been dismissed as minister.
On October 20, Kulov–in his triple capacity as Ar Namys [Dignity, or Honor] party leader, head of the Tekebaev campaign, and former minister–appealed to the “officers, noncommissioned officers and rank-and-file personnel” of the internal affairs troops and security services to remember that they are “sons of the people” and refrain from “antipeople actions.” The Kulov organization had the appeal printed on leaflets and disseminated among troops. The Prosecutor’s Office threatened to bring sedition charges against those involved in this action.
Melis Eshimkanov, presidential candidate of the Poor and Unprotected People’s Party and owner of the Asaba newspaper, has only recently taken over from the better-known Daniar Usenov as party leader. Eshimkanov threatens to “make the embezzlers weep bitter tears,” “brandish a whip over the corrupt” and institute an “iron order,” albeit “through unity and accord, rather than revolution and repression.”
Socialist-Democratic Party leader Almazbek Atambaev, head of the “Forum” industrial group, relies mainly on the vote-drawing power of his Communist ally, Iskhak Masaliev. The latter–like Kulov–was denied registration as a presidential candidate because he does not know the Kyrgyz language. Iskhak Masaliev heads the Osh Region branch of the Communist Party and is the son of Absamat Masaliev, the long-serving first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the republic. The Tekebaev-Kulov and Atambaev-Masaliev teams will compete for the votes of the sizeable Russian and Russian-speaking population in Bishkek, Osh and other cities.
Tursunbay Bakiruulu, the country’s best-known human rights campaigner, is the only presidential candidate to call for accommodating the Muslim religion as part of the “state idea” of Kyrgyzstan in the post-Soviet era. Bakiruulu underscores the fact that he is the only practicing Muslim among the six registered presidential candidates. Cautioning against attempts to stigmatize “any religion” as inimical, Bakiruulu is urging the authorities to accept religious values as a social and moral basis for nation building. By the same token, he opposes the “new socialism” program of the Tekebaev-Kulov team. As part of his campaign, Bakiruulu cites his role as mediator in the hostage crisis last year, when insurgents of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan seized four Japanese hostages in southern Kyrgyzstan. He was instrumental in securing their release. Bakiruulu heads the small Erkin [Free] Kyrgyzstan party (Kabar news agency, Kyrgyz Television, Bishkek Radio, Slovo Kyrgyzstana, Vecherny Bishkek, Itar-Tass, October 17-26; see the Monitor, September 20; Fortnight in Review, September 22).
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