With an arsenal that included the largest party in the country, popular media, and his supporters, Almazbek Atambayev was confident things would turn out the way he wanted. But his successor Sooronbay Jeenbekov chose not to accept the challenge publicly, focusing instead on behind-the-scenes but effective bureaucratic moves.
The transfer of power initiated by Kyrgyzstan’s fourth president, Almazbek Atambayev, arguably began in 2016. It dragged on for three years and ended badly for Atambayev. Ostensibly, Atambayev did everything by the book: He changed the constitution to suit his needs ahead of time, continued to influence public opinion through the media, and placed his people in key government positions, including that of prime minister. Yet the arrangement fell through, and Atambayev now finds himself behind bars, demonstrating that the transfer of power in post-Soviet states is still fraught with risks and unpredictability.
Taking into account the fate of his ousted predecessors, Atambayev stepped down as planned in November 2017, refraining from attempting to remain in power for more than the single term permitted by the constitution. He didn’t plan to leave Kyrgyz politics entirely, however. The constitutional changes he had initiated in 2016 increased the powers of the prime minister and decreased those of the president; Atambayev’s strategically placed people who were supposed to advance his interests after he left the presidency. He just needed to find a reliable successor to make his “strong leader, weak president” scheme work.
For that purpose, Atambayev picked his old friend and fellow Social Democratic Party (SDPK) member Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who had worked with Atambayev since the 1990s. Upon coming to power in 2011, Atambayev had appointed Jeenbekov agricultural minister and later he became prime minister before stepping down to run for the presidency.
The quiet and unambitious Jeenbekov seemed like an ideal successor. During the 2017 presidential campaign, Atambayev actively supported his chosen candidate, and Jeenbekov’s rating shot up from 4 percent to 40 percent in just six months. The election was a success: Administrative resources and Atambayev’s support enabled Jeenbekov to avoid a second round of voting with 54.22 percent of the vote.
At first, everything went as planned: With his first executive order, Jeenbekov conferred the title of hero of the Kyrgyz Republic on Atambayev. But several months later, the new president started growing tired of his predecessor’s didactic tone. Although Atambayev held no official position, he had not disappeared from public life, and was constantly hectoring the new president with phrases such as “don’t make me ashamed” and “work openly and honestly.”
One of the most profound disagreements between the two presidents was over the issue of corruption. While Atambayev was telling everyone about his successful battle against corruption, and newfound public trust in law and justice, Jeenbekov was making statements to the contrary, vowing to launch an anti-corruption campaign and purge the security services. On March 28, 2018, Jeenbekov and Atambayev had a four-hour conversation behind closed doors. It’s not known what they talked about, but that was their last public meeting. After that, Atambayev ignored all the president’s invitations to take part in various events.
Three days later, the closed congress of the ruling SDPK — the largest and best-known party in Kyrgyzstan, founded by Atambayev himself — took place. Atambayev was elected the party chairman and started preparing for the 2020 parliamentary elections, clearly intending to become prime minister, having boosted the powers of that position at the end of his own presidency.
In his attempts to use the ruling party against his successor, Atambayev even declared the SDPK an opposition party — an absurd statement considering that the party holds the majority of parliament seats and counts nearly the entire political elite among its members.
Then Atambayev launched an information war against Jeenbekov, using, among other things, the popular April television channel, which he happens to own. Despite having personally supported Jeenbekov, the former president accused his successor of fraud and buying votes during the presidential campaign, as well as of ties to the oligarch Rayimbek Matraimov. In turn, pro-government media accused Atambayev of inciting and preparing a coup d’état, although Jeenbekov himself made no public statements about the conflict with his predecessor. Instead, he focused on behind-the-scenes but effective bureaucratic moves.
After his fallout with Atambayev, Jeenbekov was able to quickly replace the government, presidential administration, security services, and Security Council staff, getting rid of the former president’s proteges. In this respect, the scandal surrounding the Bishkek thermal electric station lent the new president a huge helping hand.
In 2013, when Atambayev was president, the Export-Import Bank of China had issued a $386 million loan for the plant’s modernization reportedly on the condition that a Chinese company, TBEA, would implement the project. Yet despite the modernization, in January 2018 — the height of winter — the plant suffered an accident that left a large number of Bishkek residents with no heating. When people started showing an interest in paperwork related to the modernization, the authorities were unable to conceal obvious instances of embezzlement (for instance, a set of regular pliers had been purchased for $600).
The investigation resulted in the firing of Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, whom Atambayev had described as his right-hand man. He and the entire government were dismissed by a no-confidence vote. In total, 30 government officials were charged as part of the case. It’s not necessarily difficult to find incriminating material on virtually any government employee in Kyrgyzstan, since corruption permeates almost all stages of the bureaucracy in the country.
At the same time, Jeenbekov dealt a blow to his opponent’s main political asset. He couldn’t allow Atambayev to use his control of popular media and the largest political party to win a parliamentary majority in 2020. To thwart the SDPK, the new president’s supporters created the SDPK Without Atambayev movement — effectively splitting the party.
Jeenbekov offered Atambayev a peaceful resolution to the confrontation. In April, the Kyrgyz parliament amended the law to prohibit former presidents from occupying state positions and participating in the activities of political parties under the threat of losing their presidential immunity and financial support from the state. The changes were aimed exclusively at Atambayev; the only other former president still living in the country, Roza Otunbayeva, is busy with her NGO and has no apparent intentions of returning to politics.
Under this pressure, Atambayev officially left the party, but still tried to control it through his supporters. Atambayev continued to be politically active, organizing rallies against the authorities. In his speeches, he stated repeatedly that he didn’t recognize President Jeenbekov’s legitimacy. He also criticized the parliament.
In response, the parliament stripped Atambayev of his presidential immunity. The former head of the country was accused of involvement in several criminal cases, including one concerning the illegal release of the crime boss Aziz Batukayev.
Then, when legislators went on their summer break, Atambayev convened a “People’s Headquarters” at his residence in Koi-Tash, where he was joined by his relatives, supporters, and some villagers. Atambayev received three subpoenas to report to investigators as a witness, but chose to ignore them.
On the evening of August 7, the Kyrgyz authorities launched a special operation to arrest Atambayev, which lasted for two days. Elite forces stormed the residence, and Atambayev returned fire, as he had threatened — ultimately one officer was killed. After the takeover of the compound and Atambayev’s arrest, the head of the State Committee for National Security Orozbek Opumbayev said that the authorities viewed the former president’s actions as an attempted coup.
Now, in addition to the previous accusations of corruption and aiding a crime boss, Atambayev faces much more serious charges, such as murder, using violence against law enforcement representatives, organizing mass riots, and hostage taking. The list of crimes he is accused of keeps growing.
Atambayev, it seems, had been told repeatedly that it would be best for everyone if he just left the country. But unlike his predecessors, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev — both of whom fled abroad when they were overthrown — he had nowhere to go. It is hard to imagine that Russia would grant him political asylum. Vladimir Putin clearly stated his preferences when Atambayev made a quick trip to Moscow in late July, talking about the importance of consolidating around the current president, Jeenbekov. China doesn’t usually interfere in other country’s domestic affairs, nor would Kyrgyzstan’s Central Asian neighbors risk damaging their relations with the current Kyrgyz regime by supporting the former president.
And Atambayev didn’t want to leave the country. With an arsenal that included the largest party in the country, popular media, and his supporters, he was confident things would turn out the way he wanted. Perhaps he grew even more confident upon meeting Putin shorty before the storming of his residence: Atambayev didn’t expect the Russian president to openly support him, but was buoyed by the fact that Putin sent a plane for him and found time for a face-to-face meeting.
Ultimately, however, Atambayev had accumulated too many foes during his time in office, when a number of the country’s high-ranking political figures — former associates and political opponents alike — fell victim to politically motivated persecution. Atambayev was also at odds with former President Otunbayeva and other influential figures over the 2016 constitutional reform, and had openly pressured the media.
Atambayev was the first popularly elected Kyrgyz president who managed to relinquish power without revolution, yet he ultimately still couldn’t avoid bloodshed. Now he will likely disappear from the country’s political life. His departure will create new opportunities for other political forces: Although Jeenbekov will be able to continue consolidating his power, the opposition will get a chance to prepare for the 2020 parliamentary elections in a less tense atmosphere.
Opposition politician Omurbek Babanov has already returned to the country. He put up a respectable fight against Jeenbekov in the 2017 presidential election, getting 34 percent of the vote, despite having no administrative resources at his disposal. Without pressure from Atambayev, Babanov’s results could be even more impressive next time around. Kyrgyzstan is in no danger of becoming a traditional Central Asian autocracy, and while its political life will remain tumultuous it will also remain competitive.
Temur Umarov is a consultant at Carnegie Moscow Center.