In early August 2019, news and images reached us from Kyrgyzstan that bore closer resemblance to excerpts from a bad film than to events in a country that has been repeatedly praised by Western politicians as a functioning state whose democratic credentials outshine those of its neighbours.
An abortive arrest
On 7 August 2019, an attempt to detain Almazbek Atambayev, the country’s former president, at his estate in Koy-Tash, near the capital, Bishkek, was scuppered by the violent resistance of several hundred of his supporters who had gathered there. The special forces of the State Committee for National Security who had been deployed were no match in number or equipment for the armed backers: six were taken hostage, one was killed, another was seriously injured, and many others were wounded. A day later, 2,000 security forces with helicopters, water cannon, and a sweeping tank moved into Koy-Tash. Eventually Atambayev gave himself up and was remanded into custody. Hundreds of his supporters demonstrated and ran riot the next night in Bishkek.
Atambayev was wanted after refusing three times to answer a summons from the interior ministry, where he was due to be questioned as a witness in the case of the wrongful release of a serious criminal during his time in office. To the original reason for his arrest has now been added a long list of much graver charges: insurrection, civil disorder, hostage taking, incitement to murder, and, of course, corruption. The list is still growing almost by the day, currently standing at fourteen offences. At the same time, close friends and allies of Atambayev have also been arrested and his property seized, while the TV station April that belongs to his media company was closed down.
The incumbent president, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, was on holiday at Issyk-Kul on 7 August. However, the failed arrest, which came just before a heads-of-government meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) countries in Kyrgyzstan, ultimately rests with him, as does the fact that the conflict assumed such proportions.
A failed plan
These events mark the culmination of a conflict that has been brewing for months between Atambayev, president from 2011 to 2017, and the current head of state, Jeenbekov.
In 2017, Atambayev was lauded by many as the first president not just of Kyrgyzstan but in all of Central Asia who relinquished his office to his successor in accordance with the constitution and following elections assessed as overall positive. Yet in his last two years as president, he took a series of steps to ensure he kept the real power for himself. Until the last moment, all important positions of power were filled with his closest confidants, while critical journalists and media were persecuted. Above all, Atambayev chose in Jeenbekov an unpromsing but convenient candidate to succeed him, and successfully supported him in the election campaign with the power of his office.
While the plan may have worked out this far, soon after the transfer of power on 24 November 2017 it became clear that Jeenbekov, despite lacking charisma and backing from the elite, was in no way going to act as a puppet of his predecessor. Rather, he would run an increasingly independent personnel policy to benefit his own backers. He therefore replaced the leadership of the State Committee for National Security and the Prosecutor General’s Office, while former prime minister Sapar Isakov, who had been appointed by Atambayev, ended up in prison.
For Atambayev himself, things started to become difficult after the parliament voted in April 2019 to remove the constitutional immunity of former presidents. The motion passed by an overwhelming majority, including with many votes of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), which Atambayev still led at the time. By this time the former president had already publicly distanced himself on several occasions from his predecessor and regretted having supported him. The trigger for the following sequence of events was pulled by Atambayev himself when at a public rally he described the parliament responsible for the lawful abolition of his immunity as ‘snot’.
Shortly thereafter, the legislature initiated the procedure to formally revoke Atambayev’s immunity; the vote passed on 27 June 2019, again with an overwhelming majority. He then made clear several times that he did not recognise the legality of this decision by the elected legislature, would therefore not answer any summons, and would even resist arrest with armed force. Which, as described, he then did.
An uncertain future
This is the story not only of a problematic interpersonal relationship but also, for the Kyrgyz state, of a development that is alarming yet typical for the political life of the country. The protagonists, like virtually all successful Kyrgyz politicians, act in accordance with strongly neopatrimonial rules that are fixated on personalities and only loosely compatible with democracy. The constitution and its bodies are deployed as instruments in power struggles; the judiciary in particular is obviously not independent. At the basis of all politics are not programmes and fact-based decisions but individuals and personal power, as could be seen in the actions of the SDPK members of parliament.
As things stand, there are only losers in the conflict: Atambayev lost his freedom, Jeenbekov personal authority and trust, and parliament its credibility, while the security forces showed their weakness and incompetence. But the biggest losers are the state and the population. Kyrgyzstan again appeared as an anarchic, unstable, dysfunctional state. Urgent problems were left unsolved, and foreign investors were scared off. But at least Russian president Vladimir Putin signalled that he would not interfere.
The structural problems of Kyrgyzstan’s political system alone mean an enduring peaceful resolution is not to be expected, but the events themselves do not point to a quick stabilisation either. The population at large is tired of the constant conflicts, and even Atambayev’s supporters no longer seem to pose a serious threat to domestic peace. But in the very likely event that Atambayev and his main backers are convicted and dispossessed, there will be increased competition for power and money, and thus disquiet among the elite families—all against the backdrop of the parliamentary election scheduled for 2020.
Beate Eschment is a Central Asia expert and researcher at ZOiS. She is also the editor of Zentralasien-Analysen. Her current research focuses on identity formation and interest representation among national minorities in Kazakhstan.