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Changing Sides in Kyrgyzstan

A leading government figure has apparently switched allegiance to the opposition, but critics say it’s all part of a complex game.
By Leila Saralaeva

Opinion is divided about whether the apparent defection to the opposition of a leading ally of President Askar Akaev is a blow to his regime, or a clever move to subvert his political enemies.

The May 20 announcement that Misir Ashirkulov, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, was to lead the Civic Union for Fair Elections left many confused about the future of the opposition-led group – and about the motives of a man regarded as a close friend as well as political ally of the president.

Akaev dismissed Ashirkulov from the Security Council four days later. But the latter told the Moya Stolitsa Novosti newspaper that there was no acrimony and the president even joked that he had “done the right thing” by taking the job, and that he, Akaev, was left as “captain of a sinking ship”.

The coalition was launched on May 20 by six leading opposition politicians together with Ashirkulov. They included four opposition party leaders – Omurbek Tekebaev of the Ata Meken Socialist Party, Emil Aliev, acting head of the Ar Namys party whose head Felix Kulov is in jail, Melis Eshimkanov of the El party, Almazbek Atambaev of the Social Democrats, and leading parliamentarians Adakhan Madumarov and Marat Sultanov.

On May 28, Eshimkanov told IWPR that more people had signed up to the coalition, including Kulov himself, parliamentary deputies Akylbek Japarov and Duyshenkul Chotonov, and chief editors Bermet Bukasheva and Alexander Kim of the independent newspapers Litsa and Moya Stolitsa Novosti, respectively, and Tolekan Ismailova of the Civil Society Against Corruption group.

For the moment, the emerging political grouping has not put itself forward as a coalition that will field candidates in next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Instead, it says it wants to put in place mechanisms to try to ensure the elections are fair, that the authorities do not try to rig the vote, and that there is no violence.

Nevertheless, as both the authorities and the opposition begin gearing up for the campaign, observers are carefully watching any sign that opposition parties will coagulate into an effective coalition.

Many are puzzled why Ashirkulov – a man with such solid ties to the regime - should suddenly choose to identify himself with opposition politicians who bear little love for the president.

As political analyst Abdylda Syrgakov wrote in the newspaper Obschestvenny Rating, “Putting Misir Ashirkulov in the same team as Ar Namys – whose leader ended up in jail through the efforts of the then National Security Service head Ashirkulov – is politically Jesuitical in the extreme.”

Now 58, Ashirkulov has been friends with Akaev for 40 of those years, since both were students in Leningrad, now St Petersburg. But he became a political heavyweight only in the late Nineties, appointed minister of security in 1998 after serving as deputy minister since the previous year. He was then put in charge of the presidential administration before becoming head of the Security Council in 2001.

In autumn 2002, he survived an assassination attempt, serious enough that he still has 18 grenade fragments in his body. A man said to have thrown the grenade is about to go on trial, and Ashirkulov has said that while he is certain the right person has been arrested, the attack was orchestrated by someone else.

Ashirkulov has sought to downplay the apparent contradiction in his change of role, suggesting that his relationship with Akaev remains amicable and that working to ensure fair elections is a legitimate aim with no political overtones.

“It was my own personal initiative,” he told IWPR. “Just like civil society, the authorities are interested in ensuring that the parliamentary and presidential elections proceed in a transparent and fair manner, in line with the constitution and election law. And no rose or velvet revolutions.”

Opposition activitists are deeply divided over Ashirkulov’s move and the motives behind it.

Those involved in the coalition are in favour, and believe the former security chief has burnt his bridges with the government.

Moya Stolitsa Novosti’s chief political editor Rina Prizhivoit sees Ashirkulov’s dismissal as “punishment for cooperating with people whom Askar Akaev deeply dislikes”. “With one stroke of the pen he rehabilitated Ashirkulov in the eyes of those who saw him as someone sent to infiltrate the enemy camp,” she said. “It’s now beyond doubt that the Civic Union is not the creation of the [Kyrgyz presidential] White House political technologists.”

Others are not so sure, with some critics picking up on Ashirkulov’s comment about warding off a Georgian-style “rose revolution” as a sign that the authorities want to control or neutralise the “fair elections” movement. That leads them to conclude that his defection to the opposition was orchestrated by the president’s camp.

Azimbek Beknazarov, a leading opposition figure in parliament, told IWPR that, “The dismissal was a cunning move to make the public and the civil [non-government] sector believe in Ashirkulov’s sincerity.”

He believes the president wants to “split the opposition, sow mutual distrust in its ranks, and feed information from the opposition to the powers that be”.

Human rights activist Tursunbek Akunov agrees, but goes even further, suggesting that the real end-game is about preparing the way for a presidential succession. Akaev, who has led the Kyrgyzstan since independence, has repeatedly said he will not stand for re-election in 2005, and Akunov believes that either Ashirkulov is himself the anointed successor, and will use the Civic Union to promote a separate political profile, or else that he has been charged with preparing the ground for some other candidate.

But between the two extreme views, there are some who see the emergence of Civic Union and its leader as a complicated poker game from which both the authorities and the opposition will seek to derive maximum advantage.

Tolekan Ismailova has joined the Civic Union despite misgivings about possible government attempts to manipulate it. Yet despite this she believes that “politicians have acquired a chance to influence the decision-making system”.

Ishenbay Kadyrbekov, a parliamentary deputy who has declared himself as a presidential candidate, sees ambiguities on all sides.

“I wouldn’t rule out that it is a multi-move gambit by the president,” he said. “It is quite possible that both sides know about it – each getting some advantage from it. The opposition gets to show that there is disarray in the presidential camp that people are defecting from it and that’s bad for the president – so they tolerate Ashirkulov’s presence.

“For his part, the president find its useful to know what the opposition is planning, so that he can take preventive action.”

IWPR has learned that Ashirkulov is currently out of the country. According to Eshimkanov, he left because he was concerned about his “personal safety”.

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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