Kyrgyzstan claimed that Kazakhstan was meddling in its election following a meeting between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and a leading opposition candidate in the upcoming Kyrgyz presidential election. The opposition candidate, Omurbek Babanov, is a former-prime minister and current leader of the Respublika Ata-Zhurt Party; the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDP) views him as the main challenger in the race. Kazakhstan denied the claim and emphasized that its president had also met with the ruling party’s candidate.
The current Kyrgyz president, Almazbek Atambayev, cannot run for a second term under the Constitution, so he and the SDP have backed Sooronbai Jeenbekov. On September 19, Nazarbayev’s office announced that he had met with Babanov. In the meeting, Nazarbayev stated that if “the Kyrgyz people will throw their support behind […] a person like you, then Kazakhstan will also throw its weight behind that person.” Other televised segments of the meeting showed Nazarbayev saying that, “Kyrgyzstan needs a competent, young and experienced man like [Babanov].” The Kyrgyz government accused Kazakhstan of interference and emphasized this particular part of the meeting by insisting that such a statement showed a clear preference for one candidate.
In response to the meeting, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry released a diplomatic note stating that it considers the statements and the wide coverage of the meeting in Kazakh media to be an attempt to influence the people of Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz Central Election Committee also announced that it would “examine” the meeting for any legal violations. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry later released a diplomatic note expressing its surprise at the reaction and stating that meetings between prominent politicians of different countries are normal. Although the Kazakh government stressed that Nazarbayev had also met with Jeenbekov, the meeting occurred when Jeenbekov was the Kyrgyz prime minister during a Eurasian Economic Union meeting, which includes both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as member-states.
Babanov began his business career as the director of a limited liability company in Kazakhstan. Although he moved back to Kyrgyzstan to work as a representative for PetroKazakhstan, he has formed close ties with several Kazakh business moguls. His policy platform expresses his support for Eurasian economic integration and close ties with Kazakhstan, policies that Nazarbayev likely appreciates.
A similar encounter between Babanov and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev occurred in early September, when Mirziyoyev was meeting with all Kyrgyz presidential candidates. The candidates were in a line to shake Mirziyoyev’s hand, and Mirziyoyev stopped to tell Babanov that he had “heard something about [him].” The Uzbek president has taken an interest in the Kyrgyz election, and this statement could reflect his willingness to influence the outcome of the vote in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
The Kyrgyz presidential election will take place on October 15. The candidate field has narrowed from 59 to 11 since August, and remaining candidates are likely to make more political deals with each other. Much of the race’s consolidation process is through political alliances; for example, candidate Kamchybek Tashiev dropped-out and announced his support for Sooronbay Jeenbekov, while the leader of the Onuguu-Progress Party, Bakyt Torobaev, made a deal with Babanov to become the prime minister in the case that Babanov wins the election.
Although Babanov has spent more money campaigning than other candidates, his campaign has accused Jeenbekov of unfair tactics. The Babanov campaign has filed complaints with the Central Election Committee (CEC) over claims that Jeenbekov pressured regional officials and university students to campaign for him. Furthermore, a Kyrgyz news website posted a photograph of a Jeenbekov campaign banner hung at a polling station. The Babanov, Jeenbekov, and Torobaev campaigns have filed complaints with the CEC over news reports in various media outlets that they allege are intended to “smear their images.”
Russia has, in the past, been influential in the developments and outcome of Kyrgyz elections. In 2010, Former-President of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev extended the lease of a U.S. military base and stalled Russia’s attempts to build a second military base. Russia responded by launching an intense anti-Bakiyev campaign, pressuring the country economically and building rapport with opposition candidates until Bakiyev’s government was overthrown. The Kyrgyz political analyst Sergey Masaulov stated
that, in this election, Russia would support any of the leading candidates; their policies align with what Russia desires.