- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Ryspek Akmatbayev recently set a tone that many worry is the color of politics here, a year after Kyrgyzstan became the third former Soviet republic since 2003 to experience a street revolution.

At a press conference responding to Prime Minister Felix Kulov’s allegation that he is a criminal, Mr. Akmatbayev sat surrounded by leather-jacketed bodyguards and declared: “If he is a man, let him meet me. I’ll beat him up.”

Mr. Akmatbayev, 45, served two prison terms for founding a criminal gang and possessing illegal weapons. He has just been acquitted of three murders and is now an up-and-coming politician making a run for the national legislature in this poor Central Asian nation.

His story is making headlines and heightening fears that criminals are penetrating the corridors of power, exploiting the weaknesses of the government that was swept into power by the March 24 upheaval that drove President Askar Akayev into exile.

Mr. Akayev’s successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, came in on a democracy and anti-corruption ticket. But his first year in office has been marred by a string of high-profile murders, including those of three lawmakers, prison riots and battles for control of lucrative businesses.

The rest of the picture also looks grim.

Reform put off

Mr. Bakiyev has fallen out with several key comrades in the anti-Akayev protests. Having promised sweeping reform, he has since signaled he wants to postpone it until 2009 and strengthen his powers against a rebellious parliament.

GDP slipped 0.6 percent to 2 percent and unemployment went up 0.7 percent to 9.7 percent in 2005, while industrial production fell 12 percent and agricultural output by 4.2 percent.

Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov says the new government has at least maintained overall economic stability, but Mr. Kulov conceded to Kyrgyz press recently that he and Mr. Bakiyev “are in a difficult situation,” blaming the impossibly high expectations generated by the revolution.

On the plus side, prominent journalist Oksana Malevanaya has in the space of one year gone from protesting on the streets to heading NTS, a television station that is the most-watched in Kyrgyzstan and which is free to criticize the government in ways that would not have been tolerated by the old regime.

But press freedom has no guarantees in the new Kyrgyzstan.

In January, the chief prosecutor, Uchkun Karimov, threatened two newspapers with prosecution on charges that they slandered Mr. Bakiyev.

Crime is top concern

The country’s biggest preoccupation is crime, and a feeling that Mr. Bakiyev’s government “has largely lost control over public security,” according to a report on Kyrgyzstan by think tank International Crisis Group.

The past year saw a string of murders. The victims included lawmakers, businessmen, a senior police official and an international wrestler.

Mr. Akmatbayev, the aspiring politician, came out of hiding in July after Azimbek Beknazarov, the country’s chief prosecutor, pledged a fair investigation into the cases of all fugitives. He went on trial for the murder of a police official and two rival gang members and, to the astonishment of the nation of 5 million, was acquitted.

Mr. Beknazarov was fired — for pursuing corruption too zealously, he claims — and is now a legislator.

Mr. Kulov says he shares the public’s fear of inroads by organized crime, and accuses law-enforcement agencies of failing to curb it. He has branded Mr. Akmatbayev a crime boss and termed his acquittal “a strong blow to the country’s international image.”

Mr. Akmatbayev claims Mr. Kulov is suffering from “a hallucination,” that he, too, has criminal links, and that he has blood on his hands. He blames the prime minister for the slaying of his brother, lawmaker Tynychbek Akmatbayev, by a mob of inmates in a prison he was visiting.

Institutions criminalized

Mr. Akmatbayev claims that Mr. Kulov is linked to Aziz Batukayev, reputed to be a criminal boss and a rival to Mr. Akmatbayev. Mr. Batukayev was held in the prison where Mr. Akmatbayev’s brother was killed.

Independent lawmaker Kabai Karabayekov says the criminalization of state institutions has taken on “enormous proportions” under the new administration, and that at least the ousted regime “wasn’t implicated in murders.”

Presidential spokesman Nadyr Momunov said “groundless” allegations are being spread by Mr. Bakiyev’s opponents to make the government look incompetent. In addition to being called weak on crime, Mr. Bakiyev has had trouble getting his appointments approved by parliament.

Roza Otunbayeva, who played a crucial role in organizing the 2005 protests, was appointed foreign minister, only to be rejected by lawmakers. She says the root flaw in the revolution was that the winners had no plan beyond ousting Mr. Akayev.

“We wanted anyone but Akayev,” she said, “and eventually an ‘anyone’ appeared on the scene.”

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