A protest by supporters of the detained opposition deputy Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of Kyrgyzstan’s Ata-Meken party. Bishkek, 27 February. (c) Tabyldy Kadyrbekov / RIA Novosti. Some rights reserved.
The phrase “failed state” has been applied to Kyrgyzstan so often that repeating it seems almost indecent. This November, the country will host presidential elections — and, of course, the “power vertical” is alive and well in Kyrgyzstan today. But recent events force us to think again: is this state functioning in the right way?
It was only during a recent visit to Austria that Omurbek Tekebayev, opposition politician and leader of the Ata Meken party in parliament, discovered that he faced charges of corruption and fraud. Returning home on 26 February, Tekebayev was taken into custody literally as he walked off the plane. Two days later, Tekebayev was placed under arrest for two months, until 25 April.
Friends and colleagues of the opposition politician say that the court didn’t bother to hold a fair hearing, that the hearing itself lasted just five minutes, and that an order for the arrest had been prepared in advance, and was simply read out by the judge.
A Russian trace?
The accusations against Tekebayev can be traced back to declarations to Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor General made by Leonid Maevsky, a Russian businessman. According to Maevsky, in 2010 he transferred Tekebayev one million dollars in cash in exchange for his help in buying the Megakom mobile network. “Tekebayev didn’t keep up his end of the bargain, but refused to return the money and threatened physical violence against me,” so reads Mayevsky’s declaration.
Tekebayev is a well-known figure in Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous political landscape. Beginning his political career in 1991, Tekebayev was elected to parliament several times, and has a long history in opposition. He was an organiser of the revolutions of 2005 (known as the “Tulip Revolution”, leading to the fall of president Askar Akayev), and 2010 (which toppled president Kurmanbek Bakiyev).
It’s widely believed in Kyrgyzstan today that Maevsky’s latest moves are a “present” from the Russian president to his Kyrgyz counterpart
This critic of multiple presidents became the target of several provocations, which seriously harmed his public image. In 2006, Tekebayev was detained at customs at Warsaw airport due to a planted souvenir matryoshka doll that contained 600 grammes of heroin. Not long before the presidential elections of 2010 — won by current president Almazbek Atambayev — the Russian television channel NTV broadcast part of a pornographic video featuring a man very similar to Tekebayev [links in Russian].
The scandal around Megakom isn’t new either. In 2012, Tekebayev’s party won a court case against one parliamentary deputy who accused him of receiving a one million dollar bribe as the middleman selling the network. For his part, Tekebayev has dismissed all accusations as false, believing them to be the handiwork of high-ranking state officials.
It’s widely believed in Kyrgyzstan today that Maevsky’s latest moves, which coincided nicely with Vladimir Putin’s visit to Bishkek, are just that — a “present” from the Russian president to his Kyrgyz counterpart. The Kremlin has long seen Tekebayev as pro-western, intransigent and unpredictable. And Russian officials were likely more than happy to help president Atambayev strengthen his personal power at the expense of his political rivals, all the more so if such moves could be presented as part of a “fight against corruption”.
Over the last seven years, the Kyrgyz authorities haven’t moved an inch on resolving the case of Tekebayev and Megakom, and have used it now only as a reason for his arrest. We still don’t know whether Tekebayev is guilty or not. But the circumstances surrounding his arrest speak of an underlying motive to remove Tekebayev from the political arena.
Politics from behind bars. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament building. Photo CC-by-NC-2.0: greys / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Of course, the timing is important. This autumn, Kyrgyzstan goes to the polls again to elect a president. Tekebayev would probably have run as a candidate. But now, his chances of being allowed to participate are close to zero — judging by the way the case is being handled, it won’t be resolved before the elections. He could also be kept under arrest for as long as possible (the maximum period of pre-trial detention in Kyrgyzstan is one year and two months).
But the upcoming elections are not the main reason for attacking Tekebayev. He’s recently made himself something of a personal enemy to Atambayev, holding public investigations into the origins of the president’s overseas wealth, businesses and personal connections. He was a fierce critic of Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional reforms that are deeply resented by the opposition and have essentially destroyed the independence of the courts. Following last December’s referendum on the reforms, Tekebayev announced that he would begin a parliamentary procedure to impeach Atambayev.
Portrait of a troublemaker
I met Omurbek Tekebayev in 2010 his office in Bishkek. Back then, he held the post of deputy prime minister in Kyrgyzstan’s interim government. I wasn’t able to fully discuss the bloody clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan as I had planned — Tekebayev spent the entire hour trying to prove to me that the tragedy, which saw hundreds of people killed, was entirely the fault of ethnic Uzbeks who had followed the lead of their untrustworthy leaders.
We watched a video recording of Kadyrzhan Batyrov, an Uzbek politician from southern Kyrgyzstan who fled the country after the clashes, at a meeting on 12 April, 2010. Tekebayev was searching for a quote that would prove his point, but he never found one. Trying not to lose face, he ended up trying to mistranslate Kadyrzhan’s words to me, insisting that he was making “calls for separatism”.
Kyrgyzstan is yet to make itself a parliamentary republic, as each brave new “revolutionary president” gradually becomes an autocrat
If you open Wikipedia, you will find the surprising claim that Omurbek Tekebayev “exposed the armed insurrection and separatist conspiracy led by Batyrov.” Fanciful disinformation like this was for some years the basis of Kyrgyzstan’s government propaganda that put the blame for the tragedy in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad on the very victims — the Uzbek ethnic minority of southern Kyrgyzstan.
In short, Tekebayev himself peddled falsehoods and lies when in office. And now, the government has turned against him. As they say, “might makes right”.
L’état, c’est moi
Tekebayev’s case is a perfect example of a politician who comes to power in Kyrgyzstan — they become hostage to their own self-preserving ideology. If history had taken a different path, perhaps Tekebayev would be president today, wondering how to deal with Almazbek Atambayev. And the scenario of a cynical government punishing a bothersome opponent would be just the same.
Almazbek Atambayev, president of Kyrgyzstan since 2011. Photo CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: M. Schulz / European Parliament / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
We don’t need to merely sympathise with Tekebayev as a victim of political struggle, but to concern ourselves with the fact that this struggle is being waged with underhand methods. In my view, evidence of whether a state has failed or not emerges when the state loses its main reason for existence: the powers-that-be should distribute justice in a conscientious manner. Both amongst themselves and to their political opponents. Both in peace time and at war. They should observe the law, and not use it for narrow personal interests.
Kyrgyzstan is waiting for a new kind of politics, another revolution. But it has to happen not on the streets, but in the minds and customs of politicians and society at large
Kyrgyzstan is yet to make itself into a parliamentary republic. Each new “revolutionary president” gradually becomes an autocrat, overwhelming the parliamentary opposition and alternative forms of political activism. Clearly, president Atambayev hasn’t avoided this fate either, hounding his opponents with the help of the Kyrgyz security services.
Tekebayev has written his supporters a note from jail. He writes that he “believes in his innocence.” This weird phrase passed Kyrgyz commentators by. “Everyone’s weary of this battle between Atambayev and Tekebayev,” wrote some Facebook users. “When will these old men go away, and make room for fresh faces?”
Kyrgyzstan is waiting for a new kind of politics, another revolution. But this time, it has to happen not on the streets, but instead in the minds and customs of politicians and society at large. So far, the old patterns are repeating themselves again, as Kyrgyzstan’s Groundhog Day comes round once more.