The sight of large, angry crowds outside government buildings has become relatively rare in Kyrgyzstan of late, so the rally outside the headquarters of the security services on February 24 brought back some unnerving memories.
Dozens of people rowdily mustered outside the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, in protest at the marathon interrogation of a prominent opposition politician Almanbet Shykmamatov. The former justice minister, a leading member of the Ata-Meken party, is ostensibly suspected of corruption, although his supporters have little doubt the investigations are politically motivated.
Fellow Ata-Meken member Aida Salyanova, best known for her stint as the general prosecutor, said the GKNB questioning of Shykmamatov over a nine-hour stretch was tantamount to torture.
At one stage, a group of protesters appeared to crush up against the police cordon protecting the building, eliciting memories of similar standoffs ahead of the bloody 2010 revolution. More police were reportedly brought in as the day wore on, although significant scuffles were avoided and no protesters were detained.
Pro-government media portrayed the demonstrators as lackeys in the pay of pro-Western nongovernmental organizations — a recurrent theme in Central Asian loyalist press. Vecherny Bishkek, which was a lively independent outlet before being expropriated in a murky court case in 2015, unblinkingly relayed the GKNB position.
“While Ata-Meken party member [Shykmamatov] was asked uncomfortable questions by the security services, a rally in support of the MP was held. These citizens, [seemingly] welcomed the fact that the MP in 2011 sold through a tender his wife’s car for a fee one-and-a-half times its market value,” the paper’s report on the protest said.
Shykmamatov, the newspaper remarked acidly, “is not corrupt for those who were paid for their participation in the picket.”
The case of alleged corruption alluded to by the newspaper, involving the sale of overpriced cars to a government department, looks like relatively petty stuff by Kyrgyz standards. The scale of the alleged offense and the amount of time that has elapsed since the purported crime took place raises suspicions that the case is indeed being contrived.
Salyanova, the Ata-Meken ally, was earlier this month likewise questioned by the GKNB for four hours in connection with a separate alleged corruption case.
On the face of it, there is little obvious political logic to be found in the hounding of Shykmamatov, Salyanova and Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev, who have all three also been target of an amateurish state media-led smear campaign linking them to offshore interests in Belize.
Ata-Meken is the weakest party in parliament at present, having only narrowly got over the required threshold to get in during the 2015 vote.
One possibility is that the authorities wish to discourage any of the party’s representatives from running in November’s presidential elections, but it is very implausible Ata-Meken could field anybody capable of competing strongly in what is already shaping up to be strong field.
Indeed, judging by the hero’s welcome that greeted Shykmamtov when he finally emerged from the GKNB building, the pressure could easily backfire and make the party more popular, not less.
The underlying calculations appear more personal than political.
The Ata-Meken trio were vehement opponents of a constitutional referendum called by President Almazbek Atambayev. Although the reforms appear on paper to only very slightly rearrange the balance of power at the top between the president and prime minister, Ata-Meken resisted the amendments and thereby earned Atambayev’s endless ire. (If Ata-Meken leader Tekebayev was particularly attached to the original 2010 constitution, it was likely because he was one of the main people responsible for drafting it).
In the run-up to and aftermath of that vote, Tekebayev lobbed numerous accusations in Atambayev’s direction, accusing him of being a corrupt leader in the mold of authoritarian ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled in 2010.
He has even threatened to impeach Atambayev.
These jabs, unaccompanied as they have been by meaningful political action, might be dismissed as mere trolling by a more thick-skinned leader. That is not the Atambayev way, however. His nearly six years in office have been marked by some of the pettiest disputes imaginable, with rivals both domestic and foreign.
It looks like Atambayev is determined to bloody a few more noses on the way out.