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First Umida, now Melnikoff

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev talks to President Dmitry Medvedev during a signing ceremony in Moscow, 03Feb2009
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev talks to President Dmitry Medvedev during a signing ceremony in Moscow, 03Feb2009
Taking what seems to be a page from his Uzbek counterpart, Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiev yesterday sacked the chief of the country’s Culture Agency for permitting U.S. photographer Sergei Melnikoff to hold a photo exhibit in Bishkek, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service reports.

The opening of "The Kyrgyz Land" photo exhibit by Melnikoff -- who has been criticial of Russia -- was scheduled for February 11.

Kubanychbek Isabekov, a Kyrgyz parliament member from the ruling Ak Jol (Bright Path) party, said in parliament yesterday that Melnikoff's exhibit cannot be held in Kyrgyzstan because he has criticized Russia and called it "the country of slaves."

Isabekov said "Russia is our major strategic partner, how can we allow such a person to hold his exhibits here in this country [after he makes such

Bakiev responded by firing Sultan Raev, the Culture Agency head, immediately after the parliament session.

Kyrgyz parliamentarian Begaly Nargozuyev told RFE/RL that the decision to sack Raev was unusual. He said Melnikoff has been working in Kyrgyzstan for 10 years but has not made his critical comments about Russia while in Kyrgyzstan.

He added that "This is about art, it has nothing to do with politics."

In another confrontation between art and politics, the Uzbek government arrested prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova in December last year, charging her on the basis of her photographs with defaming the country and damaging its image. The government’s cultural authorities accused her of negativity and self-interest, and criticized her pictures of village life for portraying Uzbeks as “barbarians.” (For an excellent account of the case against her, please see a report from Reporters Without Borders here.)

Melnikoff, 54, was born in Russia as the son of a Soviet military officer. He immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s. He told RFE/RL "I am on my way to [see the U.S.] ambassador now. The [Kyrgyz] Parliament behaved in a very strange way. When it discusses an American artist's exhibition about Kyrgyz nature, it means it is discussing the relations between the United States of America and Kyrgyzstan, not just [relations] between me
and Russia. [What I say about Russia] is my own personal business -- I am a private individual. My attitude toward Russia is my business. That is why it
sounds a bit strange that the Kyrgyz Parliament is discussing relations between Melnikoff and the Russian Federation [during its session], doesn't it?"

Melnikoff has been particularly critical of Russian policies in the North Caucasus and the general human rights situation in Russia.