Shades Of A Vendetta Dim Kyrgyzstan's Bright Moment
Bruce Pannier August 17, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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