BISHKEK: A man sits in a car near a campaign poster of candidates in the upcoming parliamentary election in Bishkek. - AFP

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan: Security services in Kyrgyzstan said Friday they had arrested 15 people in connection with an alleged coup plot as tensions build ahead of parliamentary elections this weekend. The poor, mountainous nation of 6.5 million people has seen repeated political chaos since gaining independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

On Friday, the state committee for national security said it had detained 15 people who were part of a plan to get "1,000 aggressive young people" to protest the results of the vote. "After the announcement of the results of the upcoming parliamentary elections...this group planned to organise mass protests in (the capital) Bishkek and subsequently to aggravate the situation, provoking clashes with the forces of law and order and further violent seizure of power," a statement said.

Security services "obtained irrefutable evidence of the criminal activity of a group of persons under the leadership of certain destructive political forces, including deputies of the (parliament) and former high-ranking officials." Without naming the detained, the committee also said it had "found and seized firearms, ammunition and drugs" in a raid on the alleged group's office.

Kyrgyzstan, which has seen three presidents overthrown since its independence from the Soviet Union, hopes to avoid further instability after leader Sadyr Japarov rose to power on the back of protests over claims of vote-buying last year. The vote today will see 21 parties and hundreds of district candidates competing for 90 seats in the single-chamber parliament.

Independent candidates excluded

After rising to the presidency from a prison cell during the last post-vote crisis, Japarov pledged to hold free and fair elections. But electoral authorities have already excluded one candidate and fined another, both of whom are regarded as independent voices in the outgoing parliament.

The president was serving a sentence for hostage-taking prior to his release amid the protests over alleged vote-buying by pro-government parties last year. He has insisted that the charges were a punishment for his campaign to nationalise a key gold mine upon which the largely resource-poor economy depends.

The new administration moved in May to seize the Kumtor mine from the Canadian company that controlled it, Centerra Gold, citing environmental violations. Centerra, whose operations at Kumtor accounted for 12.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product in 2020, has denied the claims and is contesting the seizure in an international court.

Japarov's critics have said the head of state is repeating the mistakes of his predecessors by arresting potential rivals after overseeing constitutional changes that strengthened his position. Kyrgyzstan hosts a Russian military base and looks to next-door China for loans and investments.

Experts say it is unclear however how much trust the new government enjoys from Russia, whose leader Vladimir Putin described the street protests and sudden overthrow of then-president Sooronbay Jeenbekov as a "misfortune". Russian ambassador Nikolai Udovichenko said Thursday that draft legislation promoting use of the state language, Kyrgyz, would lead to "a reduction in the scope of application of the Russian language, enshrined in the Constitution as official, and the narrowing of the rights of Russian-speaking citizens". The deputy chairman of Kyrgyzstan's cabinet, Edil Baisalov, tweeted Friday the legislation was not final and that there was "no need to politicise this issue". - AFP