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Kulov Release Raises Suspense

The acquittal of prominent opposition leader Felix Kulov transforms Kyrgyz political scene
By Almaz Kenenbaev

Opposition politician Felix Kulov, released from prison on August 7, is keeping his supporters in a state of high suspense.

The former Kyrgyz vice president was freed after the courts ruled there was insufficient evidence to proceed with charges of corruption related to Kulov's spell as Kyrgyz Minister of National Security.

Kulov, who prior to his arrest in March said he would run for the presidency this autumn, has yet to confirm or deny he still intends to proceed as a candidate.

On his release Kulov said only, "We'll have to think about it." Such caution must have come as a great disappointment to his supporters, who have picketed the government for his release everyday since his arrest. Nevertheless the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party leader was greeted with roars of support when he emerged from court.

By a strange coincidence President Askar Akaev, on the same day, visited the mutinous Kaara-Buura region, scene of Kulov's last political campaign during the parliamentary elections earlier this year. Kulov's defeat in those elections was blamed by many voters in the region on government vote rigging, prompting a series of demonstrations, even in Bishkek itself.

Kulov's arrest came shortly after the Bishkek protests and the announcement he planned to challenge Akaev for the presidency.

But a total of five years in prison seem to have made "Iron Felix" more wary. Kulov's refusal to confirm his presidential ambitions has led many analysts to conclude his surprise release on August 7 was part of a deal with Akaev - in exchange for his freedom Kulov agrees not to stand in the forthcoming presidential elections.

But such a "gentleman's agreement", the theory goes, would not preclude Kulov's return to the big stage in a few years time. Most political experts agree Akaev is tired of the machinations of Kyrgyz politics and would, having secured a niche in history as Kyrgyzstan's undefeated leader, opt to pass on his mandate - perhaps to Kulov.

Although such a scenario would suit Kulov, it is unlikely to suit his supporters. Throughout his imprisonment they campaigned unrelentingly for his release, enduring beatings, arrests and all weathers. They are unlikely to forgive their hero, should he betray them for the quiet life within the Akaev "family".

Kulov is by far the highest profile potential candidate facing Akaev, and his participation in the election is therefore of crucial to the opposition. Should he decide not to stand he risks earning the reputation of Kyrgyzstan's most inconsistent politician and possible future oblivion.

But Kulov's legal case is not totally closed. The state prosecutor said he intends to appeal against the August 7 acquittal. A final decision from the High Court could be open to political manipulation and many analysts expect the decision could hinge on whether Kulov does opt to run for the presidency.

Meanwhile Kulov has another obstacle to overcome on the path to presidency - the exam testing his aptitude in the Kyrgyz language. By his own admission he usually just scrapes a pass. Even friends doubt he could write the required essay in the allotted 45 minutes.

Then there is the difficulty of collecting 50,000 signatures in support of one's presidential candidacy - another requirement, which may prove problematic for Kulov.

The Kyrgyz government endured considerable international criticism over Kulov's arrest. United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for his release during a visit to Central Asia in the spring. The OSCE and the National Democratic Institute in the USA also expressed their disappointment with the Bishkek authorities.

Once known as Central Asia's "island of democracy", Kyrgyz officials found themselves excluded from events such as the international democratic forum, held in Warsaw this year.

With social and economic problems still plaguing the republic, Akaev is only too aware of the dangers posed by isolation from the West.

By releasing Kulov, therefore, it is possible the president is seeking to "kill two birds with one stone" - shore up his democratic reputation abroad while neutralising his main challenger at home.

But one question still awaits a clear answer - will Kulov challenge for the presidency?

Almaz Kenenbaev is a pseudonym for a regular IWPR contributor.

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