Kyrgyzstan accuses Kazakhstan of backing opposition presidential candidate

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan accused Kazakhstan on Wednesday of interfering in its Oct. 15 election after Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev met a Kyrgyz opposition presidential candidate, underlining tensions between the Central Asian neighbors.

Nazarbayev’s office said on Tuesday he had met the candidate, Omurbek Babanov, a leader of the Kyrgyz opposition Respublika-Ata Zhurt party, in Kazakhstan, and had expressed readiness to work “with a new president in whom the Kyrgyz people will put their trust”.

The Kyrgyz foreign ministry said it viewed the meeting and Nazarbayev’s comments as an expression of support for Babanov, 47, one of the main challengers to the ruling party’s candidate.

“The Kyrgyz side regards those comments and the wide coverage of this meeting by the Kazakh side as an attempt to influence the choice of the people of Kyrgyzstan and interfere in the domestic affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic,” it said in a note handed to the Kazakh ambassador in Bishkek.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev is barred by the constitution from running for a second term. His Social Democratic party, which leads a majority coalition in parliament, is backing Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who stepped down as prime minister last month in order to run for the presidency.

Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry expressed surprise over Bishkek’s reaction in a note of reply handed to the Kyrgyz charge d’affaires in Astana.

It said Nazarbayev had not expressed support for any particular candidate and had held a similar meeting with Jeenbekov in August.

Kyrgyzstan, a mostly Muslim ex-Soviet nation, is a parliamentary republic where two previous presidents have been toppled by protests.

Kyrgyzstan hosts a Russian military air base and its economy relies heavily on remittances from migrant laborers working in Russia, as well as on gold mining.

Kazakhstan, a bigger and wealthier Central Asian nation, is also a Russian ally, but relations between Bishkek and Astana have been rocky due to tensions over cross-border trade and the sharing of water resources.

Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Gareth Jones