Central Asia in Transition: Early Fight for the Jeenbekovs

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard Analysis, Asia, Conflict & Security Leave a Comment

The Kyrgyz Republic is considered to be one of the most democratic states in the region of Central Asia. The Central Asian country has faced no less than two democratic revolutions in a period of five years. Since 2010, the regime has since stabilized and has seen two peaceful transitions of power. However, Almazbek Atambayev, the former president, is engaged in a bitter feud with his former protégé Sooronbay Jeenbekov which might just bring the country into a new period of instability.

Rocky Road to Power

In 2005, the Tulip Revolution toppled the government of Askar Akayev, who had been president since its independence, and replaced him with Kurmanbek Bakiyev. However, in 2010, that same Bakiyev, showing a strong penchant for authoritarian policies and embattled in nepotism scandals, had to face the street himself and got replaced by Roza Otunbayeva.

Since then, the country had seen three presidents – Otunbayeva, Almazbek Atambayev, and Sooronbay Jeenbekov – each from the same party. The elections have been considered as mostly, while not entirely, competitive.

The constitution prohibits presidents of pursuing more than one term in office. Despite this security measure, there is concern that one of them will attempt to promote a puppet successor in order to retain a hold on power after leaving office. During the campaign for the referendum on constitutional reforms which, amongst other things, expanded the power of the prime minister, observers were worried that the president Atambayev was doing just that by giving power to an office he was aiming for after his term ends.

No Master of Puppet

That fear ended in 2017 when his own prime minister and fellow Social-Democratic Party (SDPK) member, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, once considered an “arch-loyalist” to Atambayev, defeated the conservative Ömürbek Babanov in the presidential election. While Almazbek Atambayev did try to retain a grasp on power by becoming the leader of the SDPK, Jeenbekov showed no interest in acting as a puppet of the former president.

It did not take long after Jeenbekov’s inauguration to notice that a conflict was brewing between the two men. Jeenbekov, coming from a powerful political dynasty from the rural south of Kyrgyzstan, he had the support to engage in a fight with his former mentor and close ally. Stuck in the crossfire of the two men was president Jeenbekov’s brother Asylbek. Asylbek Jeenbekov, a former Speaker of the Zhogorku Kengesh who stepped down when Sooronbay became prime minister, was excluded from the party convention at Atambayev’s demand and asked to resign. Rumour has it that the president’s brother intends to form a new party for the next legislative elections, claim that was denied by the Jeenbekov clan.

However, Asylbek running under another banner is still on the table as SDPK MPs still call for opponents to Atambayev to leave the party. Another influential member of the SDPK allegedly opposing Atamabyev is the former faction leader Isa Omurkulov who was stripped of that title only recently after allegedly meeting with a leader of the SDPK without Atambayev movement.

Atambayev’s allies are also under attack. Many of the former president’s allies have been arrested under charges of corruption amongst other things. This touches powerful actors such as former prime ministers Jantörö Satybaldiyev and Sapar Isakov, former first deputy prime minister Askarbek Shadiyev, and former mayors of Bishkek Kubanychbek Kulmatov and Albek Ibraimov. Even Atambayev might now face pressure from the justice system since his immunity is debated in parliament. To replace the indicted Isakov, Jeenbekov named Mukhammedkalyi Abulgaziev prime minister. That same Abulgaziev was elevated first deputy prime minister under Jeenbekov prime ministership. It is logical to assume that he is more loyal to Jeenbekov than Atambayev’s former chief of staff.

An Unstable Future

There is a clear divide that is developing in Kyrgyzstan between members of the ruling party. This division between influential political actors is not new to Kyrgyzstan and has tended to end badly for the ruling president. A Kurultai, or civic congress, was held earlier this year in Bishkek. While it was officially in support of the president, it was not lost on anyone that it was more a warning. More recently, Atambayev has compared Jeenbekov with the former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled in 2010. This accumulation of warning shot fired at Jeenbekov must not make him feel safe.

However, Jeenbekov’s hand might not just be as bad as it seems. Freedom of the press as very slightly improved under him compared to Atambayev’s regime and authoritarian tendencies were one of the reasons for the downfall of his predecessors. It would, however, be a stretch to argue the overall situation has improved significantly. He is also working toward keeping a governing coalition by meeting with powerful political figures and discussing amnesty for potential allies if a crisis was to happen. Furthermore, the figure of the opposition to him is a former president that could be painted as wanting to keep his grasp on power. The possibility that the opposition might choose a jailed ally of Atambayev to be the leader of a hypothetical revolt is, however, possible.

However, the main card in Jeenbekov’s hand is not one of those factors; it is not even a domestic factor, it is Atambayev himself. The former president was not the most liked politician by foreign officials when in office. Kazakhstan, as explored in a previous insight, tried to prevent him from getting his selected successor in office, attempt that Atambayev today might hope had succeeded. The rest of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has no reason to want another regime change in Kyrgyzstan.

Also, the Jeenbekov family have strong diplomatic ties thanks in part to another of the president’s brother Jusupbek Sharipov who was ambassador to multiple countries over the year. This is essential for Sooronbay to keep his grasp on power since foreign intervention was one of the main elements of Bakiyev’s downfall eight years ago with Russia striking back after feeling betrayed by the president’s negotiations to keep the American Manas Air Base open.

There is something brewing in Kyrgyzstan. The country is facing its strongest threat to regime change in eight years. However, this fight might be like no other. This fight is not between two opposing factions, but within a ruling party in a way that does not fail to echo similar intraparty disputes in other countries like Canada or the United States. The thing that separates this case from those other two, amongst other things, is the recent history of Kyrgyzstan. A similar thing happening in another state could hardly bring headlines, but in a country so prone to revolution, this brings serious questions about the future of the Jeenbekov mandate and many outcomes can be imagined.

About the Author

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard

Frédérick Maranda-Bouchard is a Political Analyst for Central Asia and Regime stability at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. He graduated from Concordia University in 2019 with a Bachelor in Arts, Honours in Political Sciences. He currently is doing his Master in European and Russian Affairs at the University of Toronto.

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