By Timur Toktonaliev
Analysts are warning that mounting pressure on presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov casts doubt on President Atambek Atambaev’s promises that next week’s presidential election will be fair and free.
Multimillionaire businessman Babkov is considered the main rival to former prime minister Sooronbai Zheenbekov, clearly Atambaev’s preferred successor.
In recent weeks, Babanov has been pursued by a series of negative media stories, including that he tried to incite ethnic unrest in a speech to the Uzbek community in the village of On Adyr in the Osh region. In June 2010, deadly ethnic violence in the south left hundreds of people, mostly Uzbeks, dead.
Babanov’s campaign team said that exerpts from the speech had been taken out of context to imply the candidate’s sympathies lay with the country’s Uzbek minority. Nonetheless, the state security services opened an investigation into Babanov’s comments.
In another incident, a high-profile meeting Babanov held with Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbayev last month spurred Atambaev to deliver an emotional speech denouncing what he described as interference in domestic Kyrgyz affairs.
Perhaps most damaging, Kyrgyz security forces last week detained lawmaker and Babanov supporter Kanat Isaev on suspicion of planning to foment violence in the event of an unfavourable election result.
At an October 1 press conference, Babanov said that those chargres were clearly politically motivated and made plain that the bad publicity over his On Adyr speech, his Nazarbayev meeting and Isaev’s arrest were interlinked.
“The main goal is to tarnish my image,” Babanov told journalists. “Do not rise to it, do not be swayed by emotion. Everyone can see that we are winning this election. And, no matter what, we will continue our election campaign more intensely and confidently.”
Atambaev, who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, has repeatedly said that he would ensure a fair and honest election on October 15. However, he has made his support for Zheenbekov clear.
Babanov himself has received three warnings from the Central Election Commission (CEC) over the past two weeks for violating campaigning rules. His team said in response that the CEC was showing bias and favouring Zheenbekov.
CONTEST GETS CLOSER
The two main contenders held a television debate on October 10, in which Babanov challenged Zheenbekov over issues of corruption. Zheenbekov responded more aggressively, even appearing to issue a veiled threat against his rival.
“I have many questions for you, but I’ll ask them some other time. I’ll start the fight against corruption with you,” Zheenbekov said.
Following the debate, Babanov filed a complaint to the president and called for Atambaev to keep his promise to ensure fair and honest elections.
Some analysts believe that Babanov has been careful to not confront Atambaev too directly, fearing possible retribution.
Former lawmaker Omurbek Tekebaev, an Atambaev ally who became one of his fiercest critics, was earlier this year sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud in a case that many deemed politically motivated.
“The situation is now that any criticism of the president can lead to the initiation of criminal cases and lawsuits by the prosecutor general’s office,” said Aida Alymbaeva, a lecturer in political science at the International University of Central Asia (IUAC).
“Babanov is a businessman with major interests in Kyrgyzstan, he has a lot to lose, so does not want to spoil his direct relations with Atambaev,” Alymbaeva concluded.
John MacLeod, analyst for Russia and the CIS countries at Oxford Analytics, and a former IWPR managing editor, agreed.
“The tone of their remarks in the debate was certainly different. Babanov did defend himself and challenge Zheenbekov on corruption, but as you note, in milder terms. It must be difficult to campaign when the atmosphere has become so bitter and personal, with such serious accusations flying around”, he said.
MacLeod said that “the fact that Atambaev is stepping down, despite any concerns he has about what comes next, is pretty unique in this region”.
“However, some of his statements suggest a worrying attitude to democracy: suggestions that it is a foreign import and that anyone who opposes him is in some way against Kyrgyzstan”, he continued.
Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia department at the Moscow Institute of CIS countries, said that Babanov’s meeting with the Kazak president had been a particularly fateful moment.
“The supreme powers [of Kyrgyzstan] probably arrived at the conclusion that, after the Nazarbayev meeting, Babanov’s chances of winning sharply increased,” Grozin said. “In my opinion, Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoys the same level of popularity among the Kyrgyz population as Atambaev, or maybe even more.”
He said that it was clear pressure on Babnov had been stepped up after the photo session of him shaking hands with Nazarbayev.
“Obviously, the people from Atambaev’s team thought it was very dangerous and he should be stopped. So they are obstructing him as much as they can.”
MacLeod noted that such meetings were not unusual, adding that in 2010 Atambaev and other politicians held high-profile meetings with senior officials from both Russia and Kazakstan
“It is really Atambaev who is making this into a big issue,” he continued. “Assuming Zheenbekov wins, Atambaev has just made his life more difficult with such unusual – I think unprecedented – hostile language against Kazakstan, in recent history Kyrgyzstan’s best friend in the region”.
However, MacLeod argued that despite Atambaev’s more recent comments, the election campaign had still been largely competitive and fair.
“One gets the impression that it is Atambaev, not Babanov, who has changed,” he concluded. “Presumably he [Atambaev] has begun to fear that Zheenbekov might lose and has adopted this new rhetoric.”
This article was published at IWPR’s RCA 821