Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have exchanged recriminations and notes of diplomatic protest following Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's controversial meeting with a leading Kyrgyz presidential candidate, Omurbek Babanov, ahead of the Kyrgyz election scheduled for October 15. Bishkek called the encounter a form of meddling in Kyrgyzstan’s internal politics.
The row ignited after the Kazakh president’s press office issued a statement which gave the impression that the meeting was one between leaders of equal standing. The dispute grew on September 20, a day after the meeting, when Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry issued an angry statement.
"The Kyrgyz side considers the statements [made at the meeting] and the wide coverage of the meeting by the Kazakh side as an attempt to influence the choice of Kyrgyzstan's people and as an interference in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs," the Kyrgyz ministry said.
“Meetings of the head of state with prominent politicians and leaders of political parties of different countries at their request take place on a regular basis and fully comply with international practice,” the Kazakh Foreign Ministry responded.
The election campaign is currently in full swing in Kyrgyzstan. Abdyjapar Bekmatov, a member of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, told RFE/RL that the commission would issue its own assessment of the meeting after it assessed whether it was actually linked to Babanov’s election campaign. Babanov, an ex-prime minister, is representing the Respublika party in the election.
Blow to Mirziyoyev's regional cooperation efforts
The dispute is taking place amid efforts by the reformist Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to reinvigorate cooperation across Central Asia. If the two sides end up blowing the row out of proportion, his strategy may be undermined.
The controversy over what could be taken by observers to be Nazarbayev expressing his support for Babanov compares to Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s own very public backing for another candidate - the Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) Sooranbai Jeenbekov, another ex-PM.
Atambayev has described Jeenbekov as a “friend” who he hopes “will carry on my affairs and finish what I have undertaken”. Moreover, when criticised for giving such open support to the SDP candidate, Atambayev warned his critics he would punish anyone who caused "disturbances" in trying to prevent Jeenbekov from winning the election.
The Kyrgyz president is barred by the constitution from running for a second term. While Atambayev 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 presidential election in favour of his chosen candidate.
Campaigning for the presidency of the landlocked country of six million 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. The country's two previous regimes, excluding Roza Otunbayeva’s interim government in 2010, were toppled by violent revolutions, bringing 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.
Nonetheless, Atambayev stressed Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to democracy at the United Nations General Assembly on September 20.
"Peace, harmony, and stability - these are our main achievements of the last years. The country is changing before our eyes. Today, the Kyrgyz Republic is the first and the only country in post-Soviet Central Asia with parliamentary democracy,” Atambayev told the assembly.
"I am proud of my freedom-loving people, who have staged two national revolutions against dictatorial regimes over the last 12 years and have proven that the people are the only possible source of power in the Kyrgyz Republic,” he added.