BISHKEK — Having risen up to oust two autocratic leaders in the past dozen years and establishing the first semblance of democracy in an otherwise authoritarian Central Asia, the people of Kyrgyzstan are in no mood to be told which candidate they should vote for.
Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Duishenbek Zilaliev discovered that the hard way on September 19 in the southern Kyrgyz city of Batken.
Zilaliev was meeting with about 100 state employees at Batken’s City Hall when the journalists present were asked to leave so they would have time to cover a later visit by Zilaliev at a local factory.
After it appeared all the journalists had left, Zilaliev — the government official in charge of supervising the organization and holding of the October 15 presidential election — told the civil servants to “support us and our candidate. [The man] who continues the president’s policies is [former Prime Minister] Sooronbay Sharipovich [Jeenbekov].”
He added: “You know better who to vote for. All of you work taking money from this state, this budget. I tell you, don’t spit into the well you drink from.”
A firestorm of protest broke out immediately after Zilaliev’s comments were published.
“From where do we drink our water? Do the authorities pay our salaries from their own pockets? [Our salaries] come from the taxes we pay. On the contrary – officials like you receive the most money and have big bellies because of our work! You shouldn’t spit into that well,” wrote a man named Dastan on the RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service website, Azattyk.org, which broke the story.
Another from Osh wrote on Azattyk.org: “This person has no idea about our laws. Is he saying we will not receive our tiny salaries if we have a different president [than the one he wants]? Does he think our people are stupid? Is the Central Election Commission paying attention? Do we have any laws in our country at all?”
Edil Baisalov, a political activist and former government official, called in a tweet for the government to resign because it could not be trusted to hold fair elections in the mostly Muslim ex-Soviet nation.
The deputy head of the Central Election Commission, Abdyjapar Bekmatov, said there are legal consequences for any civil servant who actively promotes one political candidate over another.
Prime Minister Sapar Isakov said on September 21 that he had spoken to Zilaliev for expressing his “personal opinion” for a candidate and had sacked him from his role as head of the state committee for organizing and holding the presidential election, announcing that Deputy Prime Minister Temir Jumakadirov would take over that role.
Former parliament member Ravshan Jeenbekov (no relation to Sooronbay Jeenbekov) told RFE/RL he thinks Zilaliev’s comments were “dangerous.”
“Conducting closed, secret meetings with civil servants and calling on them to vote for a particular person among the candidates is a negative contribution in the attempt to hold fair elections. For us, this is a very dangerous example,” he said.
Zilaliev’s actions in Batken were also the subject of a debate in parliament on September 20.
Parliament deputy Mirlan Jeenchoroev, from the opposition Respublika-Ata Jurt (Republic-Fatherland) faction, said Zilaliev had “engaged in agitation” in Batken and added that the “Prosecutor-General’s Office should give a legal assessment of his actions and make him accountable. This is not right.”
Kyrgyzstan has strict regulations on officials and other public persons agitating or otherwise promoting political parties or candidates.
According to Article 22 of the constitution — which was written and approved in a national referendum after the 2010 overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev — “employees of state bodies and local self-government bodies, members of election commissions, observers, international observers, judges, representatives of religious organizations, members of charitable organizations … foreign citizens and organizations, and stateless persons are not allowed to campaign, produce and distribute any propaganda materials.”
Since Bakiev’s ousting — which came five years after authoritarian ruler Askar Akaev fled to Moscow amid massive street protests — Kyrgyzstan has had three parliamentary elections and three presidential votes that were deemed free and fair by international monitoring organizations.
There is a high expectation from foreign observers and the Kyrgyz people that the October 15 election will also be free and fair for the 13 candidates in the election.
Such an exercise in democracy is unheard of in regional neighbors such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, where it is always clear well in advance of the election who will win.
Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who has been tapped by President Almazbek Atambaev as his preferred candidate, is seen along with businessman and former Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov as the one of the two leading candidates in the Kyrgyz vote.
Zilaliev, for his part, admitted on September 21 to making the comments but said it was “an informal and small meeting” and he claimed he was speaking “not as an official, but as a human.” He called the experience “regrettable,” adding that it “served as a lesson for me.”
Outgoing President Atambaev, who is barred by the constitution from running for a second term, mentioned the upcoming election while speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 20, saying that “for us, holding a fair and transparent election of a new president is a guarantee of further stability in the country.”
But he raised many eyebrows at home when he made comments aimed at discrediting Babanov for a recent meeting he had in Astana with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, which many people took as an endorsement from the long-serving Kazakh leader.
Kyrgyzstan hosts Russian military bases and its economy relies heavily on remittances from migrant laborers working in Russia, as well as on gold mining.
Although Kazakhstan, a bigger and wealthier Central Asian nation, is also a Russian ally, relations between Bishkek and Astana have been rocky, with tensions over cross-border trade and other issues.