Kyrgyzstan: Controversial Figure Meets Bloody End

Kyrgyzstan reels as a leading political figure with alleged underworld links is shot down in the street.

Kyrgyzstan: Controversial Figure Meets Bloody End

Kyrgyzstan reels as a leading political figure with alleged underworld links is shot down in the street.

The main news event on May 10 was supposed to be the announcement of a cabinet reshuffle by President Kurmanbek Bakiev. However, everything changed when newsflashes reported that member of parliament, businessman and alleged crime lord Ryspek Akmatbaev had been gunned down in the street.



Akmatbaev had been attending evening prayers at a mosque in the village of Kok Zhar near the capital Bishkek, and had just come out when a car drew up and its occupants fired about 30 shots at him from at least one Kalashnikov rifle.



Akmatbaev died from multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest. Three Kalashnikovs were later recovered from the abandoned car, suggesting multiple attackers.



“Ryspek was killed after praying in a place that is sacred to any Muslim,” said one of his associates, Ismail Kochkarov. “It’s an outrage. We’re devastated.”



A witness who gave his name as Asan told IWPR he was still inside the mosque when the shots were fired. “We’d just finished praying and when we stood up, there were shots in the street. A boy ran back inside and fell down. Everyone fell on the floor. Once the shooting stopped we carried out the injured [boy],” he said.



The boy, 12-year-old Manas, was lightly injured in the leg by a stray bullet. He admitted to IWPR later, “Someone tried to hold me back but I ran out to see what a shoot-out looks like.”



Instead of waiting for the police, Akmatbaev’s associates drove his body back to the Lake Issykkul town of Cholponata, where he lived, and - as is normal practice for Muslims - relatives held the burial as soon as possible, the following day.



Ryspek Akmatbaev was a colourful figure who had spent recent years outside Kyrgyzstan on the run from multiple murder charges. He returned in May last year, after the March revolution which ousted President Askar Akaev and his regime. He was questioned by prosecutors but all charges were dropped in January 2006.



Akmatbaev first emerged as a political player last October, when he and his supporters staged a demonstration following the murder of his brother. Tynychbek Akmatbaev, who was head of parliament’s legal affairs committee, was visiting a prison with other officials when he and two others were killed in a fracas with inmates.



Ryspek suggested that Prime Minister Felix Kulov had in some way orchestrated the killing – a charge the latter denied. The bad blood between them continued, with Kulov suggesting the surviving Akmatbaev was a key figure in the rampant organised crime world.



Akmatbaev was then nominated to fill the Balykchi seat left vacant by his brother. After a seemingly cast-iron ruling by the national election commission that he could not stand because of his past criminal record, a Bishkek court overturned the decision and he duly contested and won the by-election on April 9. At the time of his death, he had yet to formally take up his seat.



At this early stage it is unclear who might have killed Akmatbaev. Speaking on May 11, Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov shed little light, saying “it might be one of the criminal groups”.



What can be said with more certainty is that Akmatbaev’s life and death appeared to embody many of the problems highlighted by critics of the present government. They say the administration is weak and beholden to shady businessmen and alleged mobsters.



Opposition parties and pressure groups held a rally on April 29 to protest against the government’s failure to tackle organised crime and embark on key reforms, and have threatened to hold another one on May 27 if nothing is done.



Political scientist Zainidin Kurmanov thinks Akmatbaev may have fatally miscalculated his own strength. “Akmatbaev had recently begun to present a real obstacle. He was active, he’d set up a political party, he held rallies and demonstrations, and he won election to parliament,” said Kurmanov. “He’d created around himself the aura of a genuine national leader who might be able to impose order in parliament.”



But because the visible public presence of Akmatbaev attracted negative attention from both the United States and Russia, said Kurmanov, “he became a burden even to those who had been counting on his support”.



According to Edil Baisalov, the head of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society and a vocal critic of the government, Akmatbaev’s death does not mean the end of Kyrgyzstan’s law-and-order problems.



“It’s not about who was killed… The problem is a lack of will on the part of the country’s leadership to bolster the rule of law,” he said. “This leads to a situation where leading criminals have an opportunity to get into politics.”



If organised crime is one of the issues the opposition plans to focus on at its May 27 mass protest, the other is the government itself.



President Bakiev’s reshuffle was undoubtedly intended to address frequently-raised concerns that his cabinet has failed to address any the problems facing Kyrgyzstan, still less implement new reforms.



Key changes - announced before Akmatbaev was murdered - included the removal of State Secretary Dastan Sarygulov, an Akaev-era survivor, and the head of the National Security Service Tashtemir Aitbaev. Sarygulov was replaced by Adakhan Madumarov, while Aitbaev’s job went to Busurmankul Tabaldiev.



In other appointments, Daniyar Usenov became first deputy minister, replacing Medetbek Kerimkulov, who was transferred to the trade and industry ministry. Usen Sydykov was shifted from the post of head of Bakiev’s administration to become a state counsellor, and Agriculture and Water Minister Abdimalik Anarbaev was temporarily replaced by his deputy.



Presidential press secretary Nadyr Momunov said that many of the officials removed in the reshuffle went voluntarily. “This does not mean the president is fulfilling the opposition’s ultimatums. It is more a sign that he is ready for dialogue,” he said.



While some interpreted the reshuffle as a sign the opposition had scored a point over the president, the overall verdict from an often critical parliament seemed to that the changes were good, but not far-reaching enough.



“We view the personnel changes as positive and as a sign that president is ready for real dialogue and wishes to take public opinion and the parliament’s position into account,” said deputy Omurbek Tekebaev, co-chairman of the Movement for Reform, which was a prime mover in the recent opposition rally. “But this small personnel change will not remove the reasons for the current crisis, which are that the authoritarian system remains unchanged. We want to dismantle [it]; we demand urgent constitutional reforms.”



Tekebaev’s co-chairman of the Movement for Reform, Kubatbek Baibolov, said it planned to go ahead with the May 27 rally anyway, “Replacing a few officials is not the goal…. So we do not intend to back down from our demands.”



Another rally will be taking place much sooner than that. Akmatbaev’s lawyer Ryspek Nagaev told IWPR that the deceased member of parliament’s voters were planning a rally in Balykchy on May 12.



Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz Service of RFE/RL. Leila Saralaeva is a regular IWPR contributor in Bishkek



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