Kyrgyzstani Summer: The Final Act of a Presidential Dual?

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

As explored in a previous article,1 Kyrgyzstan has seen its current and former presidents, Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Almazbek Atambayev, engage in political conflict for a significant period of time. Around the same time last year, I stated that a third revolution occurring in Kyrgyzstan would not be the most surprising of outcomes.

Tensions have continued to grow, only to reach their peak this August, when former president Almazbek Atambayev was arrested in a series of police raids that led to one death and left nearly a hundred people injured.2 The death of a police officer during the clashes led to the president being formally charged of murder on top of the charges he was already facing.3 The day after the arrest, Ömurbek Babanov, who came in second in the last presidential election before fleeing the country, returned in the country despite charges against him.4 This led some to speculate what his aspirations were. Overall, the summer was tense in Kyrgyzstan. Now that the dust is settling, it might be time to look back at what happened.

In Brief

What happened? President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and his predecessor Almazbek Atambayev have been going after each other since the former left office in November 2017. Originally thought to be a puppet, Jeenbekov instead found himself at odds with the former president. After months of development, Atambayev was finally arrested last August during a bloody confrontation between the police forces and the former president’s supporters. These altercations were followed by the return of Ömurbek Babanov, an electoral rival of Jeenbekov, to Kyrgyzstan. Despite these clashes, Jeenbekov seems to have defeated his rivals due to international support and the lack of appeal of Atambayev as a revolutionary figure.

Why does it matter? Political stability in Kyrgyzstan in an important factor in the maintaining of diplomatic presence of Russia in Central Asia as they currently hold a military air base in the republic. Instability in the region could also be of concern to China as it wishes to develop new trade routes in the region within the frame of its One Belt, One Road policy. Furthermore, the Kyrgyz Republic borders the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which faces instability problems of its own with the Chinese handling of its Uighur population.

Months of Staring

The burst of instability that the mountainous republic saw this summer was a slow burn. Soon after he took office, Sooronbay Jeenbekov started to purge the appointees of his former ally, which did not fail to displease Atambayev.5 Those arrests became more common as the conflict between the two men grew. This led to the constitutional immunity of Atambayev being debated in parliament.6 The Zhogornu Kenesh, Kyrgyzstan’s national parliament, overwhelmingly voted to lift the immunity in June, 2019.7

A few weeks later, Atambayev was summoned to provide answers on suspected crimes. The former head of state answered within minutes that he refused to do so, arguing that the lifting of immunity was illegal. 8 A few days later, the former president was invited to Russia. Thus increasing fear that Russian support played a substantial role in the 2010 Kyrgyz Revolution.9 The fact that his supporters built a ‘people’s village’ around his house in Koi-Tash did nothing to lessen the tension.

The Events of August

On the third of August, member of parliament Zarylbek Rysaliev was arrested concerning the liberation of Aziz Batukayev, one of the crimes Atambayev was accused of.10 This, at the time, had no reason to be of particular interest. Indeed, arrests of associates of the former president were not rare. However, this arrest of an incumbent politician following weeks of increasing tension could be argued as the first sign that Jeenbekov was ready to move in. In the following days, the incumbent president announced he was taking a leave to the Issyk-Kul lake for a week.11 The timing of this retreat makes it doubtful that he, indeed, left for vacation. This is because two days later, a siege started in Koi-Tash, where the security forces were starting the operations to take the former president under arrest.12

In the first hours of the operation, injuries were reported including journalist Aida Dzhumashova, caused by rubber bullets being fired by the government. The next day, Lieutenant Colonel Usen Niyazbekov died of a gun wound.13 This spilling of first blood could have easily degenerated during the confrontation if both sides had been armed. This was only amplified by Almazbek Atambayev declaring to the security forces besieging him:

“Your leaders may run away somewhere, but it will end very badly for you. I believe in the citizens, in the bright future of Kyrgyzstan. However, we must defend together our future, our country.”14

The former president also called for his supporter to rally from that day forward and that he was the one that fired live bullets at the special forces. However, in a sudden development, Atambayev surrendered to the authorities later that day. He was later accused of several crimes including the murdering of Lt. Col. Niyazbekov.

A Third Contender?

Via Facebook, former president candidate Ömurbek Babanov called for the clashes to stop and compared it to the actions done by Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, both former presidents deposed by a revolution. During the siege, he announced he was returning from exile to ‘save Kyrgyzstan’. It was not the first time that Babanov attempted a return to the mountainous republic. He did so in April of that same year only to cancel his plans. Nevertheless, his return was confirmed when he set foot in Kyrgyzstan for the time in more than a year on August 9, a day after Atambayev’s arrestation.

As a politician seen as more charismatic than Jeenbekov and a runner-up in the last election, his arrival was seen by some as a new challenge to the rule of the president which was seen as weakened by the rift with his mentor. The fact that Babanov was still critical of the legitimacy of the election he lost only fuelled the rumours. He was almost immediately summoned by the State Committee for National Security for questioning. However, he later confirmed he was questioned as a witness and was not personally charged of any crime. Nevertheless, Babanov, who was rumoured to eye the next parliamentary elections, said that he was ready to cede leadership of his party if charges were brought. This could be seen as a statement that he was not willing to challenge Jeenbekov’s authority. He left the country to go back to Moscow soon after.

Taking Back the Party

During his rift with Atambayev, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) had split into two parties, both claiming to be the real SDPK. After seeing the pro-Jeenbekov faction expelled from the legally recognized party last year, the pro-Atambayev faction saw the same thing happen following the events at Koi-Tash. This includes several leaders being arrested. This, not surprisingly, led to the leader of that faction, Irina Karamushkina, to call Jeenbekov a dictator and appeal for the institution of a parliamentary democracy instead of the current presidential system. Her argument that the attacks on the SPDK are a threat to multipartism in Kyrgyzstan can be put into question as the SPDK is the ruling party and the one under which Jeenbekov was elected. This reshuffling in party leadership continues as the leaders of the youth branch were brought for questioning in November, more than two months after the events took place.

What to Make of It?

Soon after the arrest of Atambayev, an analysis was made by Global Risk Insight which isolates two elements for the failure of Atambayev’s supporters to repeat the outcome of 2005 and 2010. Those are the lack of appeal of Atambayev as a revolutionary figure and lack of international support.15 This analysis is one I cannot disagree with as I isolated those two elements last year as the deciding factors for the future of the regime.16

Concerning the support of international actors, Jeenbekov had the advantage of being able to choose the date the arrest will be made. It coincided with a meeting involving the leaders of the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union. This meant that the arrest was followed by the arrival of the leadership of Kyrgyzstan’s main allies. In hindsight, it is possible to pinpoint the moment when hopes of revolution were dashed by Dmitry Medvedev’s declarations while on Kyrgyz soil that the country needed stability.17 Obviously, it is impossible to completely dismiss the possibility of hostilities reemerging in the upcoming months. However, the operation seems to have been an unequivocal victory of the pro-Jeenbekov camp which took over the party and neutralized its main rivals.

About the Author
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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.

Footnotes

  1. Fréderick Maranda-Bouchard, “Central Asia in Transition: Early Fight for the Jeenbekovs” (Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies, November 30th, 2018)
  2. Andrew Roth, “Kyrgyzstan’s former president detained after violent clashes” (The Guardian, August 8th, 2019)
  3. Reuters in Bishkek, “Kyrgyzstan’s ex-president charged with murder after deadly clashes” (The Guardian, August 13th, 2019)
  4. “Kyrgyzstan: With tensions still simmering, exiled big-hitter makes homecoming” (Eurasianet, August 9th, 2019)
  5. Catherine Putz, “Is There a Growing Atambayev-Jeenbekov Rift in Kyrgyzstan?” (The Diplomat, April 10th, 2018)
  6. “Abolishment of ex-president’s immunity – on agenda of Parliament meeting” (24.kg, November 27th, 2018)
  7. Kyrgyzstan strips ex-leader of immunity, paves way for charges” (Al Jazeera, June 27th 2019)
  8. “Sergey Slesarev explains why Almazbek Atambayev not to go for interrogation” (24.kg, July 9th, 2019)
  9. Simon Tisdall, “Kyrgyzstan: a Russian revolution?” (The Guardian, April 8th 2010) and “Former president of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev invited to Russia” (24.kg, July 18th, 2019)
  10. “Aziz Batukaev’s release. Zarylbek Rysaliev placed under house arrest” (24.kg, August 3rd, 2019)
  11. “President Sooronbai Jeenbekov takes short-term leave” (24.kg, August 5th, 2019)
  12. “Special forces come to detain ex-president Almazbek Atambayev” (24.kg, August 7th, 2019)
  13. “Detention of Almazbek Atambayev. Journalist of 24.kg news agency injured” (24.kg, August 7th, 2019) and “Deputy Commander of SCNS Special Forces Alpha dies during storm in Koi-Tash” (24.kg, August 8th, 2019)
  14. “Atambayev: Brutality and cynicism of today’s authorities are simply shocking” (24.kg, August 8th, 2019)
  15. Federica Reccia, “Kyrgyzstan: Risk of a third revolution?” (Global Risk Insights, August 29th, 2019
  16. Fréderick Maranda-Bouchard, “Central Asia in Transition: Early Fight for the Jeenbekovs” (Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies, November 30th, 2018)
  17. “Dmitry Medvedev: Kyrgyzstan has exhausted its revolutions limit” (24.kg, August 9th, 2019)