Puppet Kyrgyz Elders

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev wheels out the country's elders to bolster his cause

Puppet Kyrgyz Elders

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev wheels out the country's elders to bolster his cause

"Only Akaev is worthy of being president!" declared 74-year old Djumabek Asankulov to a crowd of assembled journalists.

A former head of the Soviet-era Kyrgyz KGB, Asankulov has a reputation for keeping out of the media spotlight. But in recent times the old man has taken to giving interviews on the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now he has ventured into present-day Kyrgyz politics.

Asankulov went on to describe opposition political leader Felix Kulov as short-sighted and unbalanced. "I helped Kulov a lot in my time," said Asankulov, "and now I want, as an 'aksakal' (elder), to give him some advice: Kulov should get out of politics, he is not fit to be president."

Kulov, leader of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) opposition party, was swift to respond.

"Asankulov is a representative of the old order," he said. "He learnt how to adapt himself well to changing circumstances, and he carries the scars of the old Soviet system, so we shouldn't be too surprised by such attacks."

Kyrgyz press coverage of the 'dejurnye aksakaly' or 'puppet elders' appears to be increasing as the presidential elections approach.

The comic label of 'puppet elder' was coined by film director and politician Dooronbek Sadyrbaev during the years following Kyrgyz independence.

"In 1994, several elderly people, pensioners, who had previously held high governmental posts and Communist party positions, founded the so-called 'Alai Forum' and staged a campaign to extend the mandate of President Akaev through a referendum," said Sadyrbaev.

"This sort of action was entirely unconstitutional. My colleagues and I came out against it. It was at precisely that moment that these people, so quick and happy to be used as political weapons in the hands of the authorities, were coined puppets."

Sadyrbaev believes the pensioners are steeped in a culture of bureaucratic grovelling and are more than happy to fulfil any duty handed down from 'on high'.

"They'll support any power structure that feeds them," he said. "They're a fairly unthreatening force within society."

But prominent Kyrgyz political analyst Tugolbai Kazakov believes their campaigns to extend the presidential mandate have done enormous damage to the country's democratic image.

"To some extent you can understand these old people. They've lived almost their entire lives under the Communist system," said Kazakov. "But it shocking the way the authorities have exploited them over the last ten years."

Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Ishenbai Kadyrbekov claims 90 per cent of the country's current bureaucrats have enjoyed the elders' influential support.

"It's become a sort of tradition, a certain kind of political appointment succession," he said "It's not surprising that these old men who occupied important posts under the old regime are prepared to get involved in the fight for the maintenance of the current regime."

The 'puppet elders' have meanwhile sought to counter all their negative publicity. Kalyinur Usenbekov, chairman of the Republic Council of Veterans of War and Work and prominent member of the Alai Forum, insists they were only acting in the best interests of the nation when they tried to extend Akaev's mandate.

"We thought about how to prevent the people splitting, how to avoid a civil war like in Tajikistan," said Usenbekov. "We agreed between ourselves that we wouldn't get mixed up in politics and that we'd just express our wishes as elders with a wealth of experience of life."

Now officially registered as a presidential candidate, Akaev has embarked on a tour of the country. At numerous public meetings, community elders are strategically placed in the front rows to wish the president all the best for the coming elections.

An angry opposition has derided the meetings. "The authorities, having lost the trust of the people, are again turning to the elders for backing, in order to create the impression that they have all-embracing support," said one opposition spokesman.

Some politicians in Kyrgyzstan maintain that respect for one's elders forms the basis of the country's national culture. But during the 70 years of Communist rule and in the post-Soviet era the situation changed.

The Communists co-opted the elders, who surrendered much of their moral authority to the political and ideological needs of the regime. They used well-known and respected old people to spread their propaganda and ideology.

Ten years after independence, Kyrgyzstan still gives the impression of a country trapped in the past. It's not difficult therefore to agree with those experts who insist genuine democracy will only be achieved in Kyrgyzstan when the present generation of politicians is totally replaced.

Sultan Djumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor.

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