Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Bishkek and OSH Elect New Mayors

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By Arslan Sabyrbekov (the 22/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On January 15, the two mayors of the cities of Bishkek and Osh in Kyrgyzstan were elected based on the new legislation approved by the country’s President Almazbek Atambayev last December. In accordance with this new legislation, the mayors were elected by secret ballot in local municipal councils, instead of being directly appointed by the President. Due to their political significance, these mayoral elections have been closely followed by the country’s general population and observers, leading to a number of worrying conclusions.

The new mayor of Bishkek, Kubanychbek Kulmatov, was unanimously nominated by the country’s ruling Social Democratic Party and supported by all the other parties in the ruling coalition. As the only candidate for this post, Kulmatov received 41 votes of the City Council’s 43 members. The uncontested nature of the Bishkek mayor elections was heavily criticized by the country's political elite, experts and civil society activists. An opposition member of the Kyrgyz Parliament, Ravshan Jeenbekov, went on to state that “the elections were a simple formality and must be perceived as yet another successful effort of the Kyrgyz President in power consolidation.”

Kulmatov is a figure widely known to the Kyrgyz public. Before his election as the new mayor of Kyrgyzstan's capital, he worked as the representative of the Government in the Northern province of Chui and has also previously headed the State Customs Service Agency, which according to local estimates has always dominated the list of the most corrupt state agencies. Kulmatov also received public attention due to a dispute in the Kyrgyz Parliament over his citizenship. A number of parliamentarians from the Respublika Party cited information from the Federal Migration Service of the Russian Federation that Kulmatov holds Russian citizenship. The parliamentarians called for his immediate resignation based on the state service law and criticized President Atambayev for his tacit support of Kulmatov.

Later, representatives of the Kyrgyz government and the General Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement that Kulmatov cancelled his Russian citizenship, therefore making the accusations groundless.

In Kyrgyz political circles, Kulmatov is indeed perceived as a trusted associate of President Atambayev. After his unanimous election as new mayor of Bishkek, some local media sources described him as the President’s possible successor. Jeenbekov, the opposition parliamentarian, stated that “these speculations are not groundless and this has to do not only with the president himself but with certain Russian political forces as well.” In the meantime, Bishkek continues to face a number of problems with regard to its infrastructure and the newly elected mayor promised to deliver certain results within the next 100 days.

On January 15, elections also took place in Osh, the second largest city of Kyrgyzstan. The municipal city council elected the pro-presidential candidate Aitmamat Kadyrbaev as a new mayor. Many had indeed expected the re-election of the former controversial mayor Melis Myrzakmatov, who during his time in power was in direct confrontation with the national authorities and had personally participated in protest rallies supporting the former parliament speaker Akhmatbek Keldibekov, arrested on charges of financial crimes. A few days after these protests, the Kyrgyz Prime Minister issued a decree firing Myrzakmatov. Local experts claim that the central government was eager to replace Myrzakmatov and this was the right timing.

Immediately after the elections, the defeated former mayor Myrzakmatov stated that “the elections were held completely unfairly and unlawfully, in a way that anyone would despise.” The defeated candidate added that “those who cheated the nation are those who cheated your hopes. That will never bring good results. It will never bring anything good. Those in power should have remembered that.” According to local media sources, up to 10,000 of Myrzakmatov's supporters gathered in central Osh protesting the election results and made attempts to storm the regional administration building. The rally in support of Myrzakmatov dispersed peacefully, after he asked his supporters not to succumb to provocations and pledged to begin a nationwide opposition movement. During this rally, the former police chief of Osh, Abdulla Kapparov, brought a portrait of President Atambayev and publicly burned it.

According to political analyst Marat Kazakpaev, Myrzakmatov enjoys widespread support in the South and would have easily won popular elections. This in turn presents a problem for the newly elected mayor Kadyrbaev, who took office with thousands of people protesting the election results. Kadyrbaev must indeed focus on resolving the city’s socio-economic problems to change public attitudes towards him and gain their support. Kyrgyzstan is in the meantime preoccupied with the possibility of more popular mass protests in the South in support of the defeated Myrzakmatov.

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