An Opposition Enigma in Kyrgyzstan

Can Felix Kulov, a former vice-president and ex-mayor of Bishkek, muster a serious presidential challenge to the incumbent Askar Akaev? Political observers in Bishkek certainly think so.

An Opposition Enigma in Kyrgyzstan

Can Felix Kulov, a former vice-president and ex-mayor of Bishkek, muster a serious presidential challenge to the incumbent Askar Akaev? Political observers in Bishkek certainly think so.

Leading Kyrgyz opposition leader Felix Kulov has been arrested in the wake of angry demonstrations protesting against his recent defeat in the parliamentary elections.

A government spokesman said last week that Kulov has been charged with abusing his powers while serving as head of the Security Ministry between 1997 and 1998. The chairman of the Ar-Namys party is also suspected of embezzling $22,000 that the ministry had received from unnamed private firms.

Opposition supporters in the Kara-Buura district -- where Kulov was defeated by pro-government candidate, Alymbai Sultanov, on March 12 -- were the first to claim that the vote was rigged. The protest later spread to the capital Bishkek.

Before the parliamentary elections, Felix Kulov had hoped that being a Member of Parliament would provide him with a solid springboard from which to launch a presidential campaign - his long-term ambition.

Aware of the government's damage limitation strategy for the February elections, Kulov chose to avoid a high-profile seat in Bishkek, and opted instead for a provincial constituency.

This way he hoped to stage a comeback on the political scene, which he had left in April 1999. Following his resignation as mayor of Bishkek, Kulov claimed the Security Ministry was investigating him for allegedly plotting a coup d'etat.

His successor to the security ministry, Misir Ashirkulov, formerly Kulov's deputy, said that, during an internal investigation, spying equipment - used for bugging and recording telephone conversations - had been found in an apartment used by the ministry. Investigators said Kulov had purchased the equipment in Russia while he was security minister.

In an article for the newspaper Vecherny Bishkek ("Evening Bishkek"), Kulov wrote, "I sincerely believe the events which have dominated our history - searching out and liquidating our enemies - are being repeated in our country in renewed forms." Kulov also said that he was not openly opposed to President Askar Akaev, but objected to the methods employed by his inner circle.

He said he planned to devote his newly acquired free time to studying the Kyrgyz language, a comment many observers interpreted as a hint he intended to run for presidential office in December 2000. Fluency in the state language is a requirement for the job.

Kulov's political aims became even more apparent when in 1999 he founded a new political party - Ar-Namys ("Dignity"). Kyrgyzstan's Election Code requires political parties to be registered with the Ministry of Justice for 12 months prior to taking part in elections. For that reason Ar-Namys was blocked from running in last month's parliamentary elections, but Kulov took full advantage of the campaigns to attract public interest.

Beset with economic problems, many voters in Kyrgyzstan blame all their ills on the process of transforming the country into a democratic society. They hark back to the iron rule of the Soviet era and Kulov appears to fit the bill of a strong and uncompromising leader.

It was in the wake of the 1991 attempted coup in Moscow that Kulov acquired this image and rose to stardom in Kyrgyzstan. At the time Kulov was Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs and his resolute stand against the 'putchists' earned him the respect of the president and the Kyrgyz people.

Dubbed "the Peoples' General", Kulov organised military units to protect vital government buildings during the crisis and is credited with being instrumental in gaining independence for the republic.

In their attempts to discredit Kulov the authorities have launched a concerted campaign against him. It was especially felt during the election time when state media carried out numerous reports about his alleged wrong-doings while he was in the government.

Whilst governor of the Chuy province, Kulov established the ill-fated Kyrgyzsgazmunaizat - an oil and gas corporation. The company's former boss is currently on the run, following the disappearance of $18 million worth of credits.

Kulov's recent high-profile activities keep him in the public eye. And the more the government peddles scandalous stories aimed at defaming him, the more he appears a martyr before the electorate. His arrest will no doubt bring him even more publicity.

Now Kulov finds himself a leading light in opposition politics. Although outside the ruling elite, Akaev cannot afford to ignore him.

Kouban Abdikaev is a journalist in Bishkek.

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