Kyrgyzstan: Sacked Mayor Down But Not Out
After his surprise dismissal earlier this month, Melis Myrzakmatov, the powerful mayor of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, already seems to be planning his comeback.
His Uluttar Birimdigi party has merged with the Onuguu-Progress party, creating a new political alliance for Kyrgyzstan’s south that could present a series challenge in the 2015 parliamentary election.
Myrzakmatov and Onuguu leader Bakyt Torobaev sealed the deal on December 7, just two days after the mayor was removed from office.
Prime Minister Jantoroo Satybaldiev sacked Myrzakmatov after he took part in a December 2 demonstration in Osh in support of Ahmatbek Keldibekov, a former speaker of parliament arrested on corruption charges last month.
Keldibekov is a leading member of Ata Jurt, an opposition party with a power-based in Jalalabad, a southern region neighbouring Osh.
The Osh rally was just the latest in a series of protests that have taken place across Kyrgyzstan in recent months. Although it had its own agenda, demanding Keldibekov’s release, it also featured the same issues raised at other demonstrations, including calls for the Kumtor gold mine to be renationalised, and accusations that the government was corrupt and prepared to trade away the national interest.
On the Kumtor dispute, many earlier protests have taken place in the northern Issykul region, where the mine is located. The government is currently trying to revise a deal offering new terms to the Canadian firm Centerra which manages the gold mine, after parliament rejected the carefully-crafted agreement on the grounds that Kyrgyzstan did not do well enough out of it.
Other rallies earlier this year saw Ata Jurt supporters pressing for the release of their leader Kamchibek Tashiev and two of his associates, who were convicted of plotting a coup last year. That pressure apparently worked – all three were released this summer.
Myrzakmatov’s appearance at the Osh rally seems to have prompted the government to make a swift move against him. His backing, not only for Keldibekov but for a wider opposition agenda, could offer the kind of unifying strong leadership that the various protest groups have lacked until now.
After the December 2 rally, the authorities opened a criminal case, which included possible charges of attempting a coup, as in the Tashiev case. No suspects have been named, and it seems more than possible the process was designed for use against Myrzakmatov should the need arise.
It is therefore not surprising that Myrzakmatov was removed from office after openly siding with opposition protesters. His response suggests that he plans to regain power not through street protests, but via the ballot box.
In the short term, he will concentrate on being returned as mayor of Osh, by securing victory for his party in local elections. The party that holds a majority on the city council gets to pick the mayor. Addressing 5,000 supporters two days after his dismissal, Myrzakmatov asked them to disperse and wait for Uluttar Birimdigi to contest the municipal election.
He could probably win that election just with his own party, which now has 21 of the 45 seats on the council plus two more held by allied parties. But teaming up with Onuguu suggests he is looking ahead to the parliamentary election.
The choice of Onuguu indicates that Myrzakmatov will seek to position his party as a moderate force. Onuguu leaders distance themselves from more radical groups like Ata Jurt.
Set up last year, Onuguu was created out of a schism within the Respublika party, led by former prime minister Omurbek Babanov. It represents businessmen mainly in the agricultural industry and mainly in the south – specifically in Jalalabad, thus complementing Myrzakmatov’s strength in Osh.
Despite its recent origin, the party did well in local elections last year.
Myrzakmatov and Torobaev had actually been in talks for some time, but the former’s dismissal clearly speeded things up.
Central government has been keen to see the back of Myrzakmatov for some time. Mayor since 2009, he survived the April 10 unrest that toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the mass ethnic violence that engulfed Osh and Jalalabad in June the same year. (See Southern Mayor a Tough Survivor and Southern Kyrgyz Mayor Builds on Success.)
A recent bill amending the way elections were run in Osh has been seen as an indirect move to unseat the mayor by preventing the council from appointing him again. But after challenges from some members of parliament, only a watered-down version was passed in late October. It was signed into law by President Almazbek Atambaev on December 12, so that a council election in Osh is now imminent.
Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst in Bishkek.