The rabble-rousing mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been abruptly dismissed after he appeared to stoke anti-government protests this week.
Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev fired Osh Mayor Melis Myrzakmatov on December 5 without explanation. Satybaldiyev appointed Alimjan Baygazakov, Myrzakmatov’s deputy, acting mayor.
The dismissal came three days after some 3,000 demonstrators rallied in Osh to call for the release of opposition politician and Myrzakmatov ally Akhmatbek Keldibekov, who was arrested November 20 on corruption charges. The mayor joined the protest, denouncing the charges against Keldibekov as “nonsense” and a “political order.” Protesters gave the authorities three days, until today, to release Keldibekov.
The news of the dismissal apparently came as a surprise to Myrzakmatov himself, who described it as a “political decision of the authorities.” Speaking in Bishkek, where he had been summoned to meet Satybaldiyev, the former mayor told the 24.kg news agency that Satybaldiyev “hinted to me about my dismissal, but I do not possess any official information that the corresponding order has been signed.”
Myrzakmatov declined to reveal details of his meeting with the prime minister, but said it concerned the rally in support of Keldibekov.
As Myrzakmatov was meeting the prime minister, around 100-200 protesters gathered in Osh to rally again against the jailing of Keldibekov, an MP from the nationalist Ata-Jurt party who was forced to resign as parliament speaker back in 2011 amid scrutiny of his links to alleged mafia kingpin Kamchybek Kolbayev. He now faces 10 years in jail on charges of corruption and abuse of office that he denies. He describes his arrest as political.
The mayor’s dismissal comes amid maneuvering over mayoral elections due in Osh. His term officially expired in February, but elections cannot be held until President Almazbek Atambayev signs a new law on the status of the city, which was approved by parliament in October after months of wrangling and after the president had vetoed the original version.
One point at issue is that the new law gives local council deputies powers to nominate mayoral candidates, a power that used to belong to the president alone. That would boost Myrzakmatov’s position in the mayoral race, but the government is widely believed to be hoping for the victory of a candidate more amenable to Bishkek.
Dismissing Myrzakmatov is a risky move for the weak central government in far-off Bishkek. In 2010, after fatal Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic clashes in and around Osh, Myrzakmatov, who describes himself as a Kyrgyz nationalist and has said central authority does not extend to his city, faced down Bishkek’s bid to fire him – and won with the help of street protests.
Many minority Uzbeks feel Myrzakmatov was complicit in the ethnic violence, which left over 400 dead. The riots came shortly after the toppling that spring of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who initially appointed Myrzakmatov.
Myrzakmatov wields vast control in Osh, which sits on a major trafficking route for Afghan narcotics. He retains widespread support in and around the southern city, and could potentially rally large crowds to take to the streets in protest at his dismissal.