In the space of one day, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev offered a handy primer on how to nullify the political impact of the opposition. 

On Monday morning morning news emerged that the leader of the Ata-Meken party, possibly the most viable genuine opposition force, was being investigated by the police on suspicion of “illegally repairing his gun,” as Russian language reports put it. According to the Interior Ministry, police inspected Omurbek Tekebayev’s  Mercedes-Benz 320 on Jan. 17, while he was holding an unapproved political meeting, and found inside it a veritable treasure trove of weaponry _ including a Saiga 7.62 calibre combat shotgun containg 23 military-grade cartridges and a couple of handguns.

Omurbek Tekebayev

Shooting from the Hip: Omurbek Tekebayev

The specific charge is that Tekebayev _ though this detail is not altogether clear _ has upgraded his Saiga to hold more bullets than legally permitted. Ata-Meken officials do not deny he had in the gun in his posession, but insist that there was nothing illegal about it and that it had been given to him as a gift by former Interior Minister Murat Sultanov in 2006.

Not that any of this is particular significance, other than that it means Tekebayev will now be unable to go to Moscow, where he was due to attend a Carnegie-sponspored conference and possibly meet with some public officials.

 Ata-Meken insist the charges are politically motivated, which seems like a perfectly credible suggestion. It is clear that something is afoot in Bakiyev’s camp and the presidential administration does not need any plotting going on.

After all, Bakiyev was due to visit Moscow himself for talks with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, only for the meeting to apparently be cancelled at the last moment. Instead, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov went and met with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to discuss the much-discussed $2 billion loans and investments package that Moscow has been tantalisingly dangling before Bishkek’s nose. The snub _ if it was one _ has set tongues wagging about the possibility that Russia may be about to leave Bakiyev in the cold _ for what reason, other than Moscow’s new-found friendship with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, is far from clear.

Just to be sure, however, the authorities have gone after Tekebayev directly, so as to insure against him forging alliances in Moscow and giving the Russians a Plan B in the event Bakiyev should somehow end up being unceremoniously deposed. Incidentally, a whole gang of opposition politicians seem to have conveniently fallen foul of the law over the last few weeks.

Last month, Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former foreign minister and member of the broad United People’s Movement (UPM) coalition, was put under investigation for abuse of office while he was serving in government until early 2007.

Another UPM member, Ismail Isakov, is being probed for allegedly misusing public money while he acted as defense minister over the past three years. He fell out with Bakiyev over the controversial recent local elections, which also saw the head of the election commission hounded out of the country.

Earlier this month, Green Party leader Erkin Bulekbaev was summoned to the General Prosecutor’s Office for “expressing contempt for the president.”

And it goes on and on.

In short, Bakiyev is exercising tried and tested bully-boy tactics to silence former comrades and increasingly influential opposition activists.

The second development of the day, however, revealed another string to Bakiyev’s power-consolidating skills. In a surprise move, he named opposition figure Omurbek Babanov as first deputy prime minister.

Baby-Face Omurbek Babanov

Baby-Face Omurbek Babanov

Babanov, a well-known Kyrgyz entrepreneur, was the mastermind of some of the last large protests to be seen in the country, held to demand a raft of constitutional reforms. A former member of parliament, he has now decided to suspended his membership in the the Social Democratic Party.

Along with Tekebayev and Jekshenkulov, Babanov represented a more moderate and elite-focused approach to opposition activism, coyly described as constructive opposition.

In welcoming Babanov into his government, Bakiyev has achieved a number of different outcomes. First, he has conveyed an apparent attitude of cooperation with the opposition, thereby signaling his openness to political dialogue and desire to ratchet down political tension. Second, he has effectively removed an influential, and very wealthy, potential opponent from the ranks of his antagonists. Third, by showing he is striving to create a broad church of consensus within his government, Bakiyev demonstrates to the international community that he is not backsliding into despotic practices, which he is frequently accused of doing.

Across the board, his new appointments are distinguished by their youthful and cosmopolitan character, a fact that can do Bakiyev no harm. Whether he is putting himself at risk by embracing the serpent to his bosom, however, it is too early to say.

So there we have it. Persecute, marginalize and co-opt are three keywords that define Bakiyev politics. In having effected this master stroke, he can only hope that the oft-threatened street marches will not materialize in the spring, just in time to ruin all his carefully hatched plans.