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Akaev Woos Russians

A powerful public relations campaign is underway to persuade Kyrgyzstan's Russian minority to vote for President Askar Akaev
By Igor Grebenshikov

Kyrgyz leader Askar Akaev is stepping up his campaign to persuade the country's Russian minority to vote for him in presidential elections later this month.


In his latest bid to woo the Russians, the second largest minority after the Uzbeks, Akaev made great play of Russian President Vladimir Putin's first visit to the republic last week.


The Russian president, accompanied by five other regional leaders, had turned up for a session of the CIS council, but Akaev lost no opportunity to use the visit to bolster his prospects in the presidential poll.


Putin's carefully planned schedule included a high-profile visit to a Bishkek power station - whose workforce is almost entirely ethnically Slav.


Akaev has won applause from Russians for signing a decree in May that gave their language official status in Kyrgyzstan. Although a largely symbolic gesture, it signalled the lengths to which is prepared to go to get re-elected.


At the same time, government officials have sought to secure the minority's backing for Akaev by exerting influence over their newspapers.


Column space in the most popular Russian paper, Vechernyi Bishkek, has been handed over to Muscovite spin doctors, drafted in by the Kyrgyz government to help promote the president.


The still independent-minded Russian-language Delo No has, meanwhile, come under severe pressure from the authorities.


In July, the National Security Ministry accused the title of revealing state secrets in its coverage of the trial of opposition leader, Felix Kulov. The homes of editor-in-chief Viktor Zapolsky and correspondent Vadim Nochevkin were searched, and journalists are still being interrogated.


Akaev's attempt to win over the Russians might have run into trouble over the renewal of Islamic rebel incursions in the Batken border region. Last year, local Russians were targeted for conscription, prompting many to flee. Akaev learned his lesson. And this time around the army's recruitment drive has been fairer to the minority.


Russians and indeed other marginalised minorities are not fooled by Akaev's tactics. But many calculate that they have less to lose supporting Akaev than his election rivals.


After all, Akaev's government has never forced them to learn the official state language, Kyrgyz. And the diasporas of Kyrgyzstan's 26 ethnic groups have set up businesses in their native land, and have an interest in maintaining stability.


Replacing Akaev and his power structures would mean changes to laws, and a re-division of property. The Russians are afraid a new, hungry political elite will divert even more funds into their own pockets.


By not trusting any of the presidential candidates, and choosing "old" Akaev, Russians are insuring themselves against the devil they don't know.


Russian interests are unaffected by the Akaev regime's persecution of political figures such as Felix Kulov - known as 'the people's general' - and the recent imprisonment of former Bishkek university lecturer Topchubek Turgunaliev, which has alarmed outside observers.


The many thousands who demonstrated for the release of Kulov, for example, were almost entirely ethnic Kyrgyz from rural areas.


Another point in Akaev's favour is that the country's minorities are not familiar with his rivals. The president, meanwhile, has no shortage of supporters prepared to raise his profile.


One of the most notable is the Russian ambassador, Georgy Rudov, who, throwing diplomatic conventions to the wind, has been making high-profile trips and TV appearances to persuade his fellow Russians to vote for Akaev.


Igor Grebenshikov is a freelance journalist in Bishkek.


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