A groundswell of public support for Kyrgyzstan's first president to return home to bury a close relative proves the old adage that absence makes the heart grows fonder.
Askar Akayev was far from a national favorite when opposition-led crowds forced the former physicist and his family to flee Kyrgyzstan in a helicopter more than nine years ago, the culmination of what came to be known fondly as the Tulip Revolution. By most accounts, the 14-year Akayev regime had degenerated into a hotbed of corruption and authoritarianism after the president’s reformist beginnings had seen Kyrgyzstan branded an “island of democracy” in authoritarian Central Asia.
But after five years under his successor, the venal and occasionally brutal Kurmanbek Bakiyev, followed by four years of economic and political uncertainty, some Kyrgyzstanis see Akayev with rose-tinted spectacles.
Since his ouster, Akayev, now 69, has lived in Moscow, where he teaches at Moscow State University. He has never returned to Kyrgyzstan.
The trigger for a public discussion of Akayev’s merits and shortfalls was the August 4 rumor that he would be returning to attend the funeral of his brother, who died August 3.
Citing “sources close to the arriving party," newspaper Vechernii Bishkek wrote: “Tomorrow on August 5, early in the morning, the arrival of ex-president Askar Akayev is expected. Relatives and close allies of Akayev expect him in connection with the death of the ousted president’s older brother, Bolot.”
24.kg, another local outlet, subsequently contacted Akayev himself. He would not discuss his intentions.
In the comments section of Vechernii Bishkek’s website, readers favoring allowing Akayev back into the country appeared marginally to outnumber those that do not.
“Condolences, Askar Akayevich. The best president we have ever had. Peace be upon the deceased,” wrote one. Another wrote, “The man is coming to his own brother’s funeral. This is a person who is respected and valued in Russia. He teaches the young. Even as a former president, he is still a president, elected, run out of office, but nonetheless respected. Our condolences.”
Even parliament’s perma-oppositionist Omurbek Tekebayev called attending the funeral Akayev’s “sacred duty.” Tekebayev said Akayev – whom he faced in two presidential elections – should have no reason to fear arrest. Despite the fact the 2010 interim government of which Tekebayev was a part stripped both Bakiyev and Akayev of their presidential immunity, criminal charges against the latter had passed their expiry date, he is quoted as saying.
Kyrgyzstan’s General Prosecutor, Aida Salyanova, played the spoiler, however, announcing yesterday that Akayev had plenty of reasons to fear arrest. She cited a “series of criminal cases in which [Akayev] and his relatives figure including the restructuring of the [agreement for] the Kumtor gold mine, the seizure of state assets in creating the [telecommunications company] Bitel, and others.”
This morning an Akayev did arrive on the overnight flight from Moscow, but not the one the media scrum waiting at Bishkek’s airport had hoped for. Instead of Askar, the former president’s youngest son Ilim arrived and was met by a party including one of Akayev’s former prime ministers.
Another Vechernii Bishkek commenter reacting to the earlier rumor of Akayev’s arrival, predicted: “Akayev won’t come back to his homeland. It is the fate of those that treat their own people with cruelty to die in a foreign land.”
Given the prosecutor’s response to the rumors Akayev was mulling a homecoming, that seems like a fair bet.