Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on September 19 caused a stir by meeting with a leading Kyrgyz presidential candidate, Omurbek Babanov, ahead of the Kyrgyz elections scheduled for October 15. Nazarbayev’s press office followed up with a description of the encounter, which gave the impression that it was a meeting between two leaders of equal standing.
The press office’s statement has sparked controversy as the election campaign is now in full swing in Kyrgyzstan. Abdyjapar Bekmatov, a member of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, told RFE/RL that the commission will issue its own assessment of the meeting after it studies whether it was linked to Bababnov’s election campaign. Babanov is representing the Respublika party in the election.
"During the years of Kyrgyzstan's independence I have always tried to fruitfully work with all your presidents," Nazarbayev said after the meeting. "We will be continuing to effectively cooperate with the new president the Kyrgyz nation grants its trust."
Babanov, a former Kyrgyz prime minister, said that Nazarbaev has "always provided us with all possible assistance" and added that "we accept with joy the successful achievement of brotherly Kazakhstan."
The controversy compares to Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s public support expressed for another candidate - the Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) Sooranbai Jeenbekov, another ex-PM.
Atambayev has described Jeenbekov as his “friend” and said that he hoped he “will carry on my affairs and finish what I have undertaken”. Moreover, when criticised for his open support for the SDP candidate, Atambayev warned his critics he would punish anyone who caused "disturbances" in trying to prevent Jeenbekov from winning the upcoming presidential election.
The Kyrgyz president is barred by the constitution from running for a second term.
Atambayev’s constitutional gamble has raised suspicions that he might be planning to essentially stay in power at least behind the scenes beyond his six-year term. While he has repeatedly stated his intention to pursue no further political office, his critics suspect he hopes to appoint his own loyal prime minister and possibly manipulate the election in favour of his own chosen presidential candidate.
Campaigning in Kyrgyzstan's presidential race officially got under way on September 10 with a total of 13 candidates registered for the election. The elections will test Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to democracy as the two previous regimes, excluding Roza Otunbayeva’s interim government in 2010, were toppled via violent revolutions. They brought down the administrations of Askar Akayev in 2005 and Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010.
Atambayev’s recent crackdowns on opposition members and media, including a number of arrests, raise concerns that Kyrgyzstan is moving away from the democratic path set out following the revolutions and may face another violent regime change, which some analysts say could potentially cement the country as a failed state. The ex-Soviet country has already fallen back into the category of consolidated authoritarian regime, according to Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2017 report.
As of now, the other leading candidate of the electoral race apart from Babanov is believed to be the Ak-Shumkar party candidate Temir Sariyev, also an ex-prime minister of Kyrgyzstan.