Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Bishkek Mayor Steps Down

Published in Field Reports

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (the 11/12/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Bishkek mayor Isa Omurkulov resigned on December 4, two days after an investigation into alleged abuse of office charges were filed against him by the Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor General.  During the press conference, Omurkulov stated to the public that his decision to step down was unrelated to the probe, but declined to specify the concrete reasons for his resignation.

A member of Kyrgyzstan’s ruling Social Democratic Party, Omurkulov assumed the post of Bishkek mayor in 2010 following the violent overthrow of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev's regime. During his term in office, he was heavily criticized for failing to improve the city's infrastructure and prevent the illegal seizure of land. Perhaps most damaging to his public reputation, however, was a traffic accident involving his son Azamat Omurkulov, who was charged in connection with a mid-August crash near the southern city Tokmok in which his SUV collided with another vehicle, killing its driver and two young passengers. The court later dismissed the case, stating that the victims’ relatives had forgiven the defendant. Despite the controversy surrounding this incident, Omurkulov retained his post as the mayor of Kyrgyzstan’s capital and largest city.

Two days before his resignation, Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor General’s Office issued a public announcement that Omurkulov and several members of his office were suspected of redefining the borders of Bishkek’s Victory Park with the intent to accommodate an illegal construction operation from 2002 to 2010, and to allow for the further construction of new buildings on park grounds. Omurkulov has denied all allegations of wrongdoing and expressed his readiness to cooperate with the Prosecutor’s Office during the investigation. He added that as mayor of Bishkek he did his best to improve the city, which in his words “was an extremely challenging and difficult task.”

The news about Omurkulov’s voluntary resignation has provoked immediate and widespread public discussion. Some argue that this resignation serves as an example of an improving political culture, while others claim that the power holders are simply demonstrating to the public that the fight against corruption is not selective and extends to members of the ruling party as well. However, according to the political analyst Marat Kazakbaev, the case launched against Omurkulov is of a financial nature, giving him plenty of room to escape imprisonment – quite unlike other opposition politicians already serving sentences.

Bakyt Baketaev of the Center against Corruption believes that “through Omurkulov’s resignation, President Atambaev demonstrated his strength in the eyes of the opposition, which has always been using the mayor’s poor performance to criticize the power holders.” But this must be yet proven by electing a new mayor capable of finding solutions to a number of problems facing the largest and economically strongest city of Kyrgyzstan.

A number of influential Kyrgyz parliamentarians have also commented on this resignation. According to Felix Kulov, a leader of the parliamentary faction Ar Namys, Omurkulov’s resignation is a “welcome step and will defuse the current political situation in the country.” The MP went on to state that “there is a need for a thorough investigation to be carried out and until then everyone must refrain from stating that the ex-mayor is guilty of any deeds.

Indeed, the recent developments in Kyrgyzstan demonstrate that Omurkulov is not the sole representative of the ruling party charged with criminal misuse of authority. On November 29, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament created a special parliamentary commission to investigate the activities of the Gradient Company, affiliated with close relatives of Deputy Prime Minister Tairbek Sarpashev from the ruling SDPK party. According to local media, Gradient won a tender to repair some roads and became the sole supplier of fuel and lubricant materials for the Gold Mining Company Kumtor. The MPs suspect that Sarpashev misused his authority and influenced the outcome of the tender in favor of his relatives.

It remains to be seen whether these investigations against members of the ruling party will be taken to court. The outcome of these cases may have significant influence on public perceptions of whether the fight against corruption is being waged in earnest or if it remains “politics as usual.”

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