The astonishingly cretinous will they/won’t they story of the U.S. Manas air transit center (in plain English, an air base) is creaking into life for another sorry round.

This time it is the Kyrgyzstan national boxing palladium — also known as the parliament — that is threatening, in language suggestive of a regretful nun casting off her habits, to “renounce” the treaty for the airbase’s presence at Bishkek’s international airport.

Something smells fishy here though. And it isn’t just recently released opposition head-case Kamchibek Tashiyev’s underpants.

First of all, the base deal is in any case set to expire in June 2014. This makes parliament’s move a formality so pointless it is surprising the chronically work-shy Kyrgyz legislators can be induced to withdraw their snouts from the trough for the time it will take for the vote to go ahead.

Empty symbolism then? In truth, this is an area the Zhogorku Kenesh excels.

The initiative comes from the government, however, which has somehow managed to fit this into its frenetic schedule between bouts of saving the country from economic, social and moral collapse. The renunciation bill is being presented to parliament, which has already approved the motion at committee stage, by deputy foreign minister Erlan Abdyldayev.

Kyrgyz budget will lose $200 million after the Manas transit center agreement denunciation; KyrTAG quotes the country’s first vice-prime Minister Djoomart Otorbayev as saying on Monday.

Earlier this month, deputy prime Joomart Otorbayev was cheerily informing the country how much further into staggering penury this will drive the state coffers. The United States pays around $60 million in lease annually for the base, which provides employment to 1,000 people and reportedly provides income for hundreds of supply companies.

One line of reasoning is that this is all part of a reorientation toward Russia, which purportedly intends to substantially expand its relatively modest Kant air base outside Bishkek. Following a visit to Kant earlier this year by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, reports appeared alluding to plans to expand the runway, modernize facilities and generally turn the base in a top-notch aviation outpost for the NATO-style Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

If it is the Russians trying to push the Americans out (again), then one wonders what Moscow’s motivations are. It is almost as though they were trying to slow down progress in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will likely take place in unseemly haste whatever happens.

In fact, if the base agreement were to be allowed to expire in June (as has been amply advertised for years now), the Americans will simply have to remove all permanent military presence in Kyrgyzstan and ferry their soldiers out on packed long-haul flights like sweaty British holidaymakers on their way to Pattaya. Logistically, this seems like a major hitch rather than an apocalyptic cataclysm, despite all the fretting and underpants-soiling among useless, lamebrain American diplomats.

Only this week, the foreign affairs committee in parliament approved giving British military transportation transit rights through Kyrgyz airspace. In the event of an emergency, the aircraft could even land at Manas, said Transportation Minister Maksatbek Diykanov, before presumably adding a theatrical wink.

There may be more significance in this affair to be found on Kyrgyzstan’s bacchanalian local political scene.

Kicking out the Americans will play well after years of fairly absurd claims they have been poisoning the Kyrgyz countryside and killing every first born child and heaven knows what else. (Admittedly, crashing a plane and possibly narrowly missing some densely populated village the other month can’t really have helped their cause).

This nationalist, philo-Russian stance will prove particularly useful now that the xenophobic contingent has come back into force with the release of pugnacious southerner Tashiyev and his chums. Also in that general political quarter, serious competition is in the offing from roly-poly Osh mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, who now scrubs up well, has stopped speaking with his mouth full and could make a run on a national stage when the opportunity presents itself; namely, at the next presidential elections.

Not that having been the government that kicked out the Americans will be particularly significant electorally, but having the Kremlin onside will surely help. The last person that angered Moscow over Manas is now moodily sucking on kompot cordials through a straw in the garden of a Belarusian dacha like something out of the world’s worst staging of Chekhov.

It is the relaxed air with which Bishkek says thank you, but no thank you to substantial amounts of easy cash from the Americans that creates much room for doubt.

The speculation doing the rounds when this pointless denunciation/renunciation thing first became public was that Kyrgyzstan might be in the process of pulling another three-card trick: Putting the proposal to parliament, which would then vote down the bill and then give the government coverage to negotiate another lucrative one-year extension. This scenario would require a pliant parliament, however, and this lot of legislators is anything but cooperative.

If the base does go, the government needs to find a way of plugging a new circa $100 million annual hole in the budget. With the Kumtor gold mine cash cow constantly tottering due to public unrest, incited by the rabble-rousing nationalists, the addition to the deficit almost seems like a triviality, but still.

For all the belly-aching, Manas won’t make or break Kyrgyzstan. Its disappearance will only simply further isolate a country that needs as many friends as it can get and further pauperize a state barely able to provide for its population.

The only thing that matter about Manas is how little it ultimately matters.


Abilov: “Please God let this referendum work!”

For anybody that has ever wondered whether Kazakhstan even has a political opposition, the answer is that it does, but not a very useful one.
Matters began promisingly on March 16 when one phalanx of the opposition met for an hours-long meeting to discuss a raft of referendum proposals that they hope could propel them into some kind of political relevance. The unwritten mantra among politicians in Kazakhstan is that if something is worth talking about, it is worth talking about for hour after endless hour.
Despite officially being banned, Respublika weekly newspaper usefully summed up the meeting with this pithy headline summary: “Opposition Says to Authorities: No to Eurasian Union, Yes to Elected Mayors.”
Other than backing referendums on those issues, the meeting also called for votes on whether to nationalize Kazakhmys, ArcelorMittal Temirtau, Kazzinc, ENRC and Halyk Bank, and on whether to prohibit the building of a nuclear fuel bank and an atomic power plant in Kazakhstan.
Overall, the proposals offer the suggestion of a nationalist-populist agenda that the largely anodyne opposition must hope will finally put a tiger in its tank.
The turnout at the meeting of 512 attendees was hailed as a success by Azat party leader Bulat Abilov.
“When, at the start of September, we proposed this referendum initiative, many told us that that we couldn’t bring people out and hold a meeting, that we would be harassed,” Abilov said.
But making the government see the error of its ways is imperative, he said.
The referendum, which will now need to be submitted to the election commission for approval, is also a useful platform for Abilov to return to the public eye.
He largely slipped from view last year after being jailed twice for participating in unauthorized rallies in which he vowed unending resistance to callous government indifference over the bloody suppression of unrest in Zhanaozen in late 2011. Presumably fearing a sentence longer than the two-week jail sentence slaps on the wrist he received, he judiciously tip-toed away from the whole Zhanaozen issue.

Zhanuzakov: "Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!"

Zhanuzakov: “Alga Kazakhstan! No Alga Going to Jail!”

Other notable speakers at the March 16 meeting were the young, photogenic and well-spoken political analyst Mukhtar Taizhan and the leader of banned Alga political movement Marat Zhanuzakov.
Taizhan, who has spoken copiously elsewhere in opposition to the Customs Union/Eurasian Union and has thus set out his stall as a reasonable nationalist of sorts, is a figure to watch in the future. But many eyes will have been on Zhanuzakov, who has the unenviable task of taking over the helm of a party whose previous leader is now serving a seven-year prison sentence.
An interview with Respublika after his first public airing in the new role reveals a combative figure apparently intent on pursuing similar territory to his predecessor; namely the corruption and economic malfeasance that has hampered Kazakhstan’s potential.
The elephant in the room here is that both Respublika and Alga are known to be financed by fugitive businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov, which renders that position inevitably problematic, given that he has all but admitted to gross embezzlement.
The referendum proposals are certainly not without promise and clearly designed as a quixotically mischievous attempt to wrong-foot the government, since their chances of actually going to vote are negligible. On the Customs Union _ or the Eurasian Union as the opposition has taken to calling it, in a transparent attempt to raise nationalist hackles _ the public jury is clearly still out.
As KIMEP University Professor Nargis Kassenova has lucidly argued, the Customs Union has largely proved a hindrance to businesses in Kazakhstan by causing bureaucratic complications and raising the cost of Chinese and Western imports.
Speaking for the defence, independent political analyst Andrei Chebotaryev criticized the proposed Customs Union referendum, calling it a short-sighted policy as, in his opinion, voters may actually end up backing the economic bloc were they given the choice.
Media reports of Chebotaryev’s remarks do not dwell on how he reached that conclusion.
While it may have been smiles all around at the referendum meeting, it was a different story at the gathering of that other hapless opposition stalwart _ the All-National Social-Democratic Party, or OSDP.
With the unhappy marriage between the prima donnas in the Azat-OSDP union having more or less culminated in divorce, OSDP is now busy eating itself if events at their congress on March 20 are anything to go by.
Despite being party deputy secretary, Amirzhan Kosanov was told on the eve of the meeting that he need not bother to turn up, which was as good as an invitation to make a fuss.
“I did not want any scandal,” Kosanov says in this video, before launching into a lengthy invective in front of the bouncers keeping him out of the congress.
“Somebody is intentionally creating a provocation and attempting to discredit the party,” Kosanov says.
That statement seems to assume OSDP is unable to discredit itself on its own, which is patently not the case.
In his rambling peroration, Kosanov calls for greater efforts by a unified opposition in attracting young people _ indeed a pressing issue for these movements’ greying ranks.
As it happens, ODSP Zharmakhan Tuyakbay has announced that the party has approved the creation of a youth wing and that a woman’s wing has also begun operations.
This looks like too little and well over a decade too late.
The imminent death of this tired and aged opposition generation has become a recurrent refrain among political commentators. As this piece from December in Central Asia Monitor harshly but not unfairly notes, “people with big names do not join the opposition, even from among those injured by the authorities (incidentally, this is not to the opposition camp’s credit because it hints at its gradual degeneration).”

Mambetalin: "Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!"

Mambetalin: “Shut your gob, you glamorous bitch!”

Central Asia Monitor also alludes to relatively youthful Serikh Mambetalin, the delusional former leader of the now-nationalist, now-environmentalist, now-nothing Rukhaniyat party, as another missed opportunity.
Mambetalin these days prefers to hang out in social media sites, where the newspaper tartly notes he indulges in petty name-calling, dismissing people as “glamourous bitches” and telling them to “shut their gob.”
Rukhaniyat, which once included Taizhan in its ranks until he wisely dropped out, collapsed farcically in the weeks ahead of the show elections in January 2011 that led to the formation of the sitting rubber stamp non-parliament.
(Somewhat hilariously, former KazTransGas chairman Serik Sultangali was in February elected the new chair of Rukhaniyat. As party founder Altyntash Jaganova told a party congress, Rukhaniyat’s vision has always coincided with the ideas of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which must have come as a surprise to Mambetalin.)
Central Asia Monitor, which seems to specialize in these obituaries on the opposition, ran with another piece earlier this month that revisited the same theme, albeit in an almost entirely incoherent fashion.
“An opposition that cannot see itself in power and simply occupies a certain political niche will never work up to the required standard,” writes commentator Bolat Shakuyev, without ever really getting to the point.
The standard is indeed low, but the burning question is whether it matters that Kazakhstan does not actually have an opposition party worthy of that title.
The government evidently doesn’t appear to believe so, but then again they were the people that let the issue of striking oil workers fester in Zhanaozen until it descended into bloodshed.
It is obvious that few lessons have really been learned from that tragic and quite possibly avoidable episode _ other than how best to massage the public relations fallout that is.
On the contrary, Alga, the one party vocally talking about Zhanaozen and warning of the dangers it represented in advance was instead accused of actually inciting the unrest and had its leader jailed in a kangaroo court.
The opposition is hapless and helpless, but there is no indication the government under the increasingly senescent Nazarbayev is possessed of a whole lot more vision.
The authorities’ strategy at the moment is a blind gamble on black: letting the population bumble around ideologically rudderless and hoping the oil money will be enough to quell any signs of unrest.

Turkmenistan responding to the demands of a human rights group? Whatever next?
Last week, Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Turkmenistan’s Independent Lawyers Association, based in Holland, published a fascinating and grim report on the state of the country’s prisons. The principal premise underlying the survey was that the Turkmenistan’s harsh judicial system is leading to overcrowding in the jails:
Due to a huge, for the size of the country, prison population, Turkmenistan’s penitentiary facilities house 3.3 times the number of inmates they are designed to accommodate. This results in the fast spread of diseases and numerous deaths in the correctional facilities.
Accordingly, the report calls for milder sentences for minor crimes and the introduction of methods such as home arrest and fines instead of prison terms.
It also draws attention once again to the authorities failure to allow access to jails by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The government has made feeble overturtes in that direction in the past, but nothing has ever come of it.
Clearly, the main reason that the Turkmens don’t want foreigners nosing about their prisons is because of what they might find in there. Tuberculosis – which is likely to become worse in the country in the absence of Medecins Sans Frontieres, who left under bad cloud last year – is rampant. If TIHR’s report is even half accurate, the conditions are nightmarish and the cruelty routine.
But perhaps even more importantly, for the highly sensitive Turkmen authorities, prisons are full of political undesirables that might be inclined to say something inappropriate.
At any rate, it would have have been legitimate to expect this report and its findings to disappear down a deep, dark hole, but the government has responded with surprising alacrity, as AP reports:
Turkmenistan’s president has ordered the country’s maximum prison sentence cut to 15 years and called for improving prison conditions, state media reported Tuesday.
The measures come as doubts grow about the authoritarian government’s commitment to democratic reforms.
President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov told a meeting of security officials Monday that the maximum sentence will be reduced from 25 years and fines will replace prison time for certain crimes, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reported.
Berdymukhamedov instructed the interior minister to study bringing prison conditions up to international standards, the paper said.
Where the authorities fall short, however, is on the issue of oversight. All Berdymukhamedov seems willing to commit to is to allow unspecified civic groups to monitor the state of jails. But given how craven and toothless those groups tend to be in Turkmenistan, there is no reason to believe that will come to anything.
Regardless of how this works out – and on the face of it, this announcement is unequivocably good news – the very fact that the government seems to have been stung into action by the report of an exiled activist group is a startling development.
Who knows that Berdymukhamedov hasn’t been surfing the net?

As of March 4, results from Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections show the People’s Democratic Party led by President Emomali Rakhmon winning 54 seats in the 63-seat lower chamber. Other parties – namely the Islamic Revival Party, the Communist Party, the Agrarian Party and the Economic Development Party* – won two seats each.

Depending on whom you believe, this outcome is either the vindication of the long-sighted platform put forward by the pro-presidential party or the outcome of systemic fraud.

In any case, the composition of parliament remains almost unchanged; the Communists have lost a couple of deputies, and the government party has lost a few seats to two dummy opposition parties that essentially materialized from nowhere, despite them having absolutely no public profile to speak of.

Reactions have varied from weary disdain to creeping dread about what lies ahead for Tajikistan. So what does the future hold in store: stagnation, tentative development or spiraling instability and a descent into worsening authoritarianism?

Kabiri: Two to Tango?

The fate of the Islamic Revival Party seems a useful illustration of general tendencies. Party leader Muhiddin Kabiri optimistically predicted before the vote that the IRP would win 10 seats. Kabiri has also insisted, since results were announced, that his party claimed at least 30 percent of votes cast, far more than the 7.7 percent officially attributed to it.

Kabiri earned some glowing write-ups on the eve of the election, and was cast by Radio Free Europe as a secular modernizer, complete with clean-shaven look and suit. Indeed, Kabiri seems like a confident and interesting personality, while his party has conducted a lively campaign, with supporters hitting the pavements and taking the message from door-to-door. The IRP also benefits from a natural hard-core base due to its regional roots and its, admittedly soft-focus, religious stripes.

One strand of thought on the eve of the elections had it that the IRP could be gradually co-opted by the government as a useful pressure valve for Islamic currents. There are monthly reports of arrests of adherents to banned groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat, not to speak of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist organization. IRP represents the respectable face of political Islam and it has gone to great lengths to disavow the values of those underground groups and reject the notion of creating an Islamic state.

Kabiri, who lived and studied in Yemen during Tajikistan’s five-year civil war, also adamantly insists his party has received no support from foreign movements or governments.

Even more propitiously for Rakhmon’s regime, as suggested above, the IRP does not even make any claims to power. The party’s very modest expectation of claiming less than one-sixth of the available seats in parliament was an advance declaration of defeat and evinced a clear desire to engage in a compromise stance from the outset.

"Check if any of those pesky OSCE people are coming?"

Why then would Rakhmon’s party, with the connivance of the Central Elections Commission refuse to accept the possibility of admitting the existence of the IRP as a weak, if viable, opposition?

Broadly, and crudely, speaking there is something in the Central Asian-Soviet regime mindset that determines that legitimacy can only be conferred by appearing to gain an absurdly and implausibly large swathe of popular support (with 72 percent of the vote and an 87 percent turnout, more than 62.5 percent of registered voters supposedly cast their ballot for deputies from the People’s Democratic Party). To put it more succinctly, again and again, crooked post-Soviet leaders decide that legitimacy is earned by numbers, not process.

Rakhmon also evidently believes that compromise is not a necessity. That much has been evident from the immediate postwar years, when Rakhmon’s Kulyabi clan began reneging on power-sharing commitments made during the peace negotiations. Over time, the legitimate Islamic opposition has been squeezed out and, all the while, the authorities have been muscularly stamping out alleged militants or terrorists (whatever you want to call them) and their troublesome teenage chai-wallahs**.

This steady process cannot but add impetus to the widely held theory that all the government is contriving to do is drive Islamic movement underground, where they will fester and grow malignant. Perhaps Rakhmon looks with hidden admiration to Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov’s intransigent line has led to apparent success in terrifying and extirpating potential violent radicalism into virtual extinction. Or even to Kyrgyzstan, which has been seemingly blessed with a lack of active extremist groups, but whose forces have also claimed victories in the fight against terrorist groups.

Those parallels can be misleading, because the countries are so fundamentally different in their political structures, demographics and recent legacies.

But what should be clear is that all the leaders of these countries pursue a malign and dangerous logic drawn from the small blueprint: Crush the religious underground, while using it as the straw man justification for quashing basic democratic freedoms in the name of some hazy indigenous notion of national development.

Because Tajikistan’s regime is no less absolutist than those of its ex-Soviet neighbors, its pursuit of unfettered power cannot allow for the appearance of an opposition in the ascendancy. Therefore, the Islamic Revival Party must wither or remain stunted, and those that desert it for the radical fringes will be hunted down without mercy.

Pretending for a moment that Rakhmon is driven by something other than megalomania, greed and an unquenchable thirst for power, what else would explain this desire to remain so utterly unchallenged?

Wanting to make a purely academic argument, one could argue that the Rakhmon regime has come to understand that its model for the country’s future economic prosperity, which appeared predicated almost entirely on the success of the Roghun hydroelectric dam, requires absolute control and supremacy.

It is true that Rakhmon’s government will need total control over all levers of power to get away with squeezing the population as hard as it is doing to raise the money needed to build Roghun.

Road to Ruin or Stairway to Heaven?

A little bit of background here – The Tajik government has issued $1.3 billion worth of stock in Roghun and it hopes the cashless population will be able to stump up the sum and pay, which will cover the cost of building the plant’s first two units. According to plans, Roghun will eventually comprise six 600 megawatt units, which would be more than enough to supply the country with its own electricity needs and leave enough left over to export to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Having broken off a deal with Russia’s RusAl some years ago and realizing that nobody would want anything to do with a project rife with peril from corruption and intemperate Uzbek resistance, Tajikistan has decided to go the first part alone. The government ensures Roghun will pay dividends (literally) in spades, although Rakhmon seems curiously reluctant to sink his ill-gotten hundreds of million (if not billions) into the enterprise, but that is hardly surprising.

No, this will need a Soviet-style combination of ceaseless propaganda and strong-arming. And there is no room for even the smallest hint of dissent in this scenario.

Cynicism apart, the publicity drive does appear to have been successful and will ensure that the anger that should be brimming over will be tempered for some to come.

Kabiri has warned that he will bring his supporters onto the streets in a peaceful and legal protest against the fraudulent elections, but there are all too many reasons to think this call will not be heeded, if it is even formally issued in the first place.

Christian Bleuer at Registan.net predicts conflict fatigue – a legacy of the civil war – and the IRP’s inability to mobilize and organize mass crowds makes a successful protest unlikely. This is a fair but perhaps only partial explanation for what seems like the most probable outcome.

There is a case to be made that the People’s Democratic Party and Rakhmon have been successful in ramming home the anodyne, but effective, rhetoric of sustainable development, stability and energy independence.

The fact that many people may bought into this line makes it all the more tragic that the corruption, incompetence and thoughtless callousness of the Rakhmon regime is likely only to drive Tajikistan further to the brink of collapse and conflict.

* These two parties were both created in 2005, the year of the last parliamentary elections. The Economic Reform Party, led by Olim Boboyev, reputedly has 17,000 registered members. The Agrarian Party, led by former Soviet apparatchik Amir Karakulov, has 20,500 members.

** Last month, Soghd regional court jailed four men for “involvement” with the IMU, including 16-year-old schoolboy Nasibulloh Zabirzoda. The court found Zabirzoda guilty of providing his uncle, an IMU member, with food and provisions.

In the wake of the assumed death of Kyrgyz ex-presidential chief-of-staff, Medet Sadyrkulov, some interesting fissures are coming to light in what has generally been believed to be a monolithic pro-government bloc in parliament.

Three political groupings are represented in the Jogorku Kenesh: the pro-presidential Ak Zhol party with an overwhelming 71 deputies, the soft Communist Party opposition with 8 deputies, and the more combative Social Democrats with 11 seats.

One of the saddest outcomes of the tainted parliamentary elections of December 2007 was that this legislative chamber, easily the most lively in Central Asia, was neutered and turned effectively into a rubber stamp body for President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration. Over the past few months, however, there have been increasingly rumbling about potential schisms within the dominant Ak Zhol group _ a possibility that has become ever more likely with Sadyrkulov’s death.

A substantial section of Ak Zhol deputies have an obvious loyalty toward Sadyrkulov, being former members of the Moya Strana (My Country) party that he once headed and saw merged into the larger grouping.

Galina Kulikova

Galina Kulikova

On Tuesday, former Moya Strana coordinator Galina Kulikova demanded Ak Zhol convene in an emergency meeting and called on Bakiyev to attend. The proposed topic of the meeting is to be what she described as shortcomings in the investigation into the crash in which it is believed Sadyrkulov was killed.

Meanwhile, Ak Zhol deputy Erik Arsaliyev, who lent the Lexus to Sadyrkulov, questioned the likelihood of the accident resulting in a fatality. He noted that the fuel tank in the Lexus is on the opposite side from where the collision took place, and so it was unlikely for the vehicle to catch fire the way it did.

(Incidentally, see this TV report for an interesting computer-generated reconstruction of the collision, which now appears to have taken place on a desolate road by a lake, although pictures from the scene suggested otherwise).

According to this article published in Reporter-Bishkek last year _ one of whose reporters recently fell victim to an unexplained beating _ Arsaliyev lies within the sphere of influence of an Ak Zhol faction headed by Sadyrkulov and Elmira Ibraimova, who also resigned as deputy prime minister in January. Ibraimova has been trenchant in her accusations against the government, insisting that Sadyrkulov’s was indeed murder. It was also she that has been telling all and sundry that Sadyrkulov warned her in previous weeks that he has been under surveillance and had received death threats. The important point here is that while some of Ibraimova’s words may verge on the hysterical, not to speak of self-regarding, she is clearly not a frivolous person without influence. Also, unlike Sadyrkulov, Ibraimova has manifestly pitched her tent broadly within the anti-government camp.

Elmira Ibraimova

Elmira Ibraimova

Zainidin Kurmanov, also formerly of Moya Strana, is yet another voice in the list of indignant deputies demanding a more probing inquiry into Sadyrkulov’s death.

What seems quite probable is that most those deputies (barring Social Democrats) coming out with the kind of stern words on this shady affair that we have seen so far will prove to be members of this broad faction encompassing Moya Strana and the Sadyrkulov-Ibraimova alliance, which may include anything up to 30-40 people, if the Reporter-Bishkek article is anything to go by.

Conversely, Sadyrkulov’s convenient death may have been just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. Any large-scale defections or rumblings may have been suitable averted by this macabre occurrence.

Ak Zhol may be on the brink of an almighty schism, in which case all bets are off. If the break-up of this political monolith is averted, however, it is difficult to see what difference the planned opposition marches will have.

The most bizarre aspect about Kyrgyz ex-presidential chief-of-staff Medet Sadyrkulov’s death is that nobody in government seems willing to allow the fact to be officially confirmed.

Piecing together the facts from official pronouncements and often contradictory media reports, it is not easy to divine specifically what happened that fateful Friday morning.

Medet Sadyrkulov

Medet Sadyrkulov

According to the most credible scenario, Sadyrkulov was returning from Almaty, Kazakhstan, together with political analyst Sergei Slepchenko and a driver. At 2 a.m., Slepchenko is reported to have called his wife to tell her that he was on his way back from Almaty. Half an hour later, their car, a Toyota Lexus 470 sports utility vehicle, crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan. Anywhere between 4 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. the Lexus was involved in a collision with an Audi 100 somewhere in the “Tyopliye Klyuchi” spa resort area situated around 40 kilometers outside Bishkek, where Sadyrkulov is purported to own a dacha.

The exact dynamics of the accident are far from clear, but it appear the driver of the Audi lost control of his vehicle, veered away from his lane, and collided with the Lexus. There are contradictory accounts about whether the Lexus was stationary or in movement at the time, a key detail given the varying age and size of the respective vehicles. According to police accounts, the crash appears to have provoked a furious fire in which the three passengers in the Lexus died.

The driver of the Audi, named by Interior Ministry officials only as O. Osmonov, born in 1985, survived the accident, although his current status and whereabouts are also unclear.

It transpired that the Lexus belonged to parliament deputy Erik Arsaliyev, who had lent the car to Sadyrkulov for the trip.

The Interior Ministry and the Health Ministry are both declining to make any definitive statement on the identity of the dead individuals found on the site of the crash. Oddly, even an examination of the remains by Sadyrkulov’s dentist was seemingly insufficient to allow for a definitive verdict. The Health Ministry says it will only know for sure after it receives the results of DNA tests from a laboratory in Kazakhstan, which could more than two weeks.

Every beyond and including the chronology above is now grounds for speculation, and has been feverishly seized upon by the opposition.

To start in proper order, however, it is worth wondering why naming the victims is so evidently being dragged out. In the primitive mentality of the Kyrgyz authorities, it must be believed that the furore around this death will die down in an information vacuum. Also, since the opposition is planning their major nationwide protests for the end of March, final verification may be delayed until after that, thereby preventing Sadyrkulov from being used a fallen martyr. If that is the case, it is misguided, since the opposition will only be able to make more capital out of the fact the authorities are seemingly trying to cover something up.

At this stage, it is important to ascertain a number of points: Was Sadyrkulov, as his colleagues and opposition representatives have been saying, indeed murdered? What was his current relationship with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev? Could he truly have been described as a government opponent? Who stands to benefit from Sadyrkulov’s death?

Once again, addressing these questions requires in first order a dispassionate assembly of the hard facts at our disposal _ the “known knowns” as celebrated philosopher Donald Rumsfeld once described them.

Sadyrkulov served as the head of Bakiyev’s presidential administration until January, when he tendered his surprise resignation amid a flurry of speculation. Sadyrkulov insisted that his departure from government was taken voluntarily, and Bakiyev pledged at the time that he would offer him a new position.

Most of the hypotheses surrounding Sadyrkulov’s decision to step down revolve around his perceived lack of loyalty to the current ruling establishment. Depending on who you believe, Sadyrkulov was either a key player among the northern clans traditionally opposed to people of Bakiyev’s background _ who comes from the south. Alternatively, he allied himself with no particular grouping and simply acted as a broker between rival camps.

But what is certain is that for as long as Sadyrkulov was at Bakiyev’s side, he served him well and rigorously, playing an instrumental role in strengthening presidential powers in ways that caused much consternation among the opposition.

Less two weeks after resigning, Sadyrkulov met again with Bakiyev, at which time he said he turned down an offer to take up a new job as Foreign Minister.

From there onwards, we must rely on opposition conjectures and claims for the nature of Sadyrkulov’s activities.

Opposition leaders Omurbek Tekebayev and Almazbek Atambayev, of the Ata-Meken and Social Democratic parties respectively, have both claimed that Sadyrkulov has been holding talks with government opponents about backing them against the current leadership. In addition to lending the opposition his political support, Sadyrkulov was also purportedly on a money-raising drive.

Since Sadyrkulov was hardly the model democrat, however, we can only surmise the motivations were predicated on a jostle for power and influence rather than any specific political grievances.

One issue that has been somewhat overlooked is Sadyrkulov’s party political role as the chairman of the Moya Strana (My Country) party, which was rolled into the pro-government Ak Zhol party some time ago. If those deputies with connections to that previous political grouping have been mulling where they stand within the increasingly fissiparous Ak Zhol, the murky circumstances of Sadyrkulov’s demise may help them to make up their minds either way.

Again though, it is imperative to stress that Sadyrkulov was not an opposition politician by any stretch of the imagination, and it is far from evident whether he would ever truly have become one. The danger he posed to the government, however, was that he was instrumentally capable of undermining its authority by drawing away significant support in his capacity as a political actor. In that respect, his departure from the scene could guarantee Bakiyev’s regime some breathing space ahead of further crackdowns and consolidation of power.

For anyone that has not been paying attention, this is a very select highlight of some of the government’s apparent attempts to clamp down on dissenting voices:

March, 2009: Ex-foreign minister and leader of the For Justice opposition movement Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov is arrested on suspicion of murder. If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

March, 2009: Reporter-Bishkek newspaper journalist Syrgak Abdyldayev is stabbed repeatedly and beaten severely by four assailants after leaving his office in an attack that opposition parties described as an attempt to stamp out freedom of expression.

January, 2009: Tekebaev is detained in the Talas region on an illegal weapons charge. He is unable to travel to a Moscow conference on the future development of Kyrgyz politics. The charges are later dropped.

December, 2008: The state radio station takes BBC programming off the airwaves, only days after withdrawing broadcasting rights from U.S.-funded Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service. Both broadcaster feature critical content and give a platform to opposition politicians.

October, 2008: A leading Social Democratic party member, Ruslan Shabotoyev, goes missing. Shabotoyev left his house late at night after being called out to an unexpected meeting. His cell phone was disconnected shortly after and he has not been heard from since.

September, 2008: The former head of the state election-monitoring body, Klara Kabilova, resigns her post and flee the country claiming she has been on the receiving end of threats from Bakiyev’s son.

September, 2008: Police arrest the editor of the Alibi opposition newspaper, Babyrbek Dzheenbekov, for failing to pay court-ordered libel damages Bakiyev’s nephew.

On and on it goes.

This speculation is all very well, but at the heart of it are deaths that remain mysterious and unexplained. As indicated above, the cause of the fire that is reputed to have incinerated the passengers of the Lexus SUV was caused by a collision with an Audi 100, a car considerably older and smaller than that the people-carrier in which Sadyrkulov was travelling.

Scene of the Crash

Scene of the Crash

According to some initial reports, passengers in the Lexus appeared to have made no attempt to escape the vehicle, indicating that at the very least they must have been rendered unconscious on impact. Studying a picture of the wreckage featured on the Radio Free Europe site, it defies belief how this could have been the case.

The Lexus looks as though it was left virtually intact from any collision. If the driver of the Audi, a common second-hand feature on Kyrgyz roads that was last issued in the mid-1990s, could have survived, he would presumably have left the car and made some distance between distance between himself and the flames soon after impact, since his vehicle is also shown to have been completely burnt out. In which case, one would have to ask why he would have done nothing to attempt to assist the passengers in the Lexus.

Even the position of the two cars looks odd. The Lexus looks as though it was parked in the spot, while the Audi appear to have come in from a very odd angle.

If Osmonov is able to regain normal health and is ever able to talk about what precisely happened that morning, it will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

And where now for Kyrgyz politics?

Opposition parties will attempt to follow through with threats to hold protests later this month, but with the alleged loss of a political and potential financial supporter, it is easy to imagine that the momentum may be too weak for anything significant. If the allegations about “political murder” have any grounds in truth, it is also easy to conclude that some will be genuinely rattled by the latest developments and decide to tone down their criticism.

Make Music Not Revolution

Make Music Not Revolution

Even if protests do proceed, the authorities are already mobilizing to thwart them logistically; in Bishkek at least. As a reader at Registan.net pointed out recently, city government has announced that it plans to begin renovating Ala-Too Square _ the scene of the dramatic climax to the revolutionary uprising in May 2005 _ just a matter of days before the opposition are due to hold their protests. As if Bishkek didn’t need more important things, the mayor’s office says that it plans to build a 20-meter high musical fountain on the square and that much of the main thoroughfare will be shut off until June.

The upshot of this is that Bakiyev looks to have won the day again, but at what cost does not bear thinking about. Diplomatically isolated in the wake of the U.S. base closure decision, Bakiyev now has free rein to turn his rule into a brutalized and despotic banana republic to all intents and purpose; without the bananas, that is.

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.

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