In mid-October, the Jogorku Kenesh, the Kyrgyz parliament, discovered that the original copy of Kyrgyzstan’s constitution was nowhere to be found. Subsequently it was revealed that no original document had ever existed in the first place beyond a copy published in a local newspaper.
That constitutional shambles is a vivid symbol of the young democracy’s growing pains following the revolutions of 2005 and 2010. These strains are also on view in President Almazbek Atambayev’s plan to hold a national referendum on controversial changes to this constitution.
On November 2 Kyrgyz lawmakers officially approved a proposal pushed by Atambayev and his Social Democratic Party (SDPK) to hold a referendum on December 11 to strengthen the powers of the prime minister against those of the presidency.
Local Akipress news agency reported in January that Atambayev hopes to weaken the presidency for the sake of avoiding “second Bakiyevs”, referring not only to autocratic Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was driven out of power via a revolution in 2010, but also Askar Akayev, whose regime was similarly toppled in 2005.
Atambayev, a businessman turned opposition politician, served as prime minister in the interim government of 2010 following the country’s second revolution. Back then he was among the politicians who helped bring the existing constitution to life. Elected president in 2011, he has since repeatedly promised that he has no intention of pursuing further political office after his term ends in 2017.
Yet some Kyrgyz critics believe the constitutional changes are aimed at getting Atambayev into the prime minister’s post, similar to the example of Vladimir Putin in 2008, or what critics accuse President Serzh Sargsyan of preparing in Armenia.
“If I wanted to stay in power, I would have done it without parliament,” Atambayev said in answer to questions during a press conference. “With the current constitution, the next president could easily become a dragon,” he said, reiterating that he was working against the establishment of future dictatorships in Kyrgyzstan.
Andrei Kazantsev, head of Russia’s MGIMO Institute for International Research, tells bne IntelliNews that Atambayev’s continuing in office as premier is “not a very likely outcome”, adding that “Atambayev’s health was also called into question when he was recently diagnosed with heart problems. Thus, Kazantsev argues, “the current worries are not so much directed at the topic of extending [Atambayev’s] powers under the guise of making him a head of the government, as they are revolving around holding early presidential elections. That is, not all observers are even sure if Atambayev will live to see the end of his term.”
Political activist Edil Baisalov, who briefly served as presidential chief of staff in the 2010 interim cabinet, holds a similar view. “[Atambayev] could’ve just as easily come up with a way to lengthen his first term or allowed himself a second term,” Baisalov says. “It is undeniably clear [Atambayev] will not be trying to become a prime minister.”
“Why undeniably?” Baisalov says. “His endgame - his vision - is to become someone akin to a mix of Deng Xiaoping and [Georgia’s] Bidzina Ivanishvili, or Moldova's Vladimir Plahotniuc. In other words, he wants to lurk in the shadows, but maintain control over the entire situation, whether it be politics, business or law enforcement - a shadow king of sorts. That way he will retain his power and influence, but officially he won’t have any power.”
One of the ways in which Atambayev could become a ‘paramount leader’ of Kyrgyzstan is by successfully enthroning his own puppet president at the upcoming 2017 elections. However, who the Kyrgyz leader backs for president might not be as crucial as who will Moscow support next.
Part of Russia’s leverage on Kyrgyz politics lies in economic factors, such as Kyrgyz labour migration to Russia, which contributes nearly a third of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP via remittances. Moscow also maintains a grip on Kyrgyzstan’s national gas matrix via Gazprom’s stake in state-run Kyrgyzgaz, acquired in 2014, providing it with a chokehold over Kyrgyzstan’s energy security.
Some of the ways in which Moscow exerts pressure directly on Bishkek’s politics include the strong presence of the Russian media and Russian-language media within the country. Russian media influence is further strengthened by the fact that the Kyrgyz population is generally favourably attuned to Russian influence.
While Atambayev, who pushed Kyrgyzstan to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, can be considered a quintessential pro-Russian leader, due to the Central Asian nation’s dependence on Russia any elected Kyrgyz candidate would find himself forced to be loyal to it. Atambayev’s trusted candidate, hence, is not guaranteed to be Russia’s number one choice.
“Atambayev is counting on Russia to support his candidate...but it is likely that Russia will bet on someone else,” Baisalov suggests.
Moscow's next favourite
It is potentially less convenient for Moscow to rely on Atambayev as the proxy ruler – picking a new friend for direct influence might be an easier option.
At least three politicians and one businessman have expressed intentions to participate in the elections: Adakhan Madumarov, head of the Butun-Kyrgyzstan party; AlfaTelecom company head’s advisor, Almazbek Abekov; and ex-parliament members Sadyr Zhaparov and Tursunbay Bakir uulu. Any of these could become the next Moscow favourite.
For Atambayev, more important than the presidency is retaining power over the country’s security services. Strengthening the prime ministerial role might give him a way to do this.
“The point is, a [Kyrgyz] president’s purpose, as of now, is mainly based in carrying out punitive functions,” Baisalov explains.
“[Attambayev’s power lies in] his control over the National Security Committee and General Prosecutor’s Office, his ability to launch criminal proceedings against and imprison those who fall out of his favour,” says Baisalov, and this is where the referendum comes into play. “Thus, Atambayev is concerned, when another president comes in his place, [he] will lose this power.” That, in turn, is prompting the Kyrgyz leader “to make sure that the next Kyrgyz president will have as little power over law enforcement authorities as possible”.
The Kyrgyz president hopes to install his own loyal prime minister, who will answer to him through his party once his term as president ends, and he will count on the SDPK to help him accomplish this goal, according to Baisalov.
“He hopes that the future prime minister will be establishing his coalition government via parliament, while the majority of the proposed constitutional changes are aimed at handing over the president’s current punitive functions to the prime minister,” Baisalov maintains.
Attambayev has already removed one obstacle to changing the constitution. The SDPK’s coalition partners have been ejected after Ata-Meken and Onuguu-Progress opposed the referendum. The SDPK collapsed the coalition at the end of October in order to get rid of the two parties’ presence. SDPK formed a new coalition on November 3, replacing the parties with the Bir Bol party.
“[The move] was a formality,” Baisalov says, arguing that the two parties would not have been able to prevent the country from holding the referendum whether or not they stayed in the coalition.
Prior to that, the president had launched an offensive against his former allies in the post-revolutionary interim government. When these and other representatives of the interim government behind the 2010 revolution signed off on a letter opposing the constitutional changes, pro-government media launched a smear campaign against them, bringing up old scandals.
To top it off, on September 15, Atambayev instructed the Kyrgyz Prosecutor’s Office to investigate a possible connection between the interim government members and the flight of prominent ethnic Uzbek businessman Kadyrzhan Batyrov, who was accused of inciting inter-ethnic violence between ethnic-Uzbeks and ethnic-Kyrgyz following the 2010 revolution.
By instigating an investigation into his former allies, Atambayev demonstrated he perceives them as a potential threat to his future plans. Kazantsev cited the influence of these “forces that once brought him to power” as one of the reasons why Atambayev would be challenged if he would have wanted to formally continue his rule in Kyrgyzstan.
More worrying for Atambayev, however, is the question of how willing Kyrgyz voters are to endorse the amendments. Kyrgyz news and analytical website Vesti.kg doubts whether Kyrgyz citizens are even aware of the specifics of the proposed constitutional changes.
In a poll of its readers, around 50.7% voted “the referendum should not be carried out in the first place”. Another 36% voted in favor of holding a referendum, followed by 5.7% who answered, “no difference, our voices don’t matter anyway”.
A single survey cannot determine the convictions of the entire country, but if the poll does reflect reality, backing for the constitutional changes might be so lukewarm – in the absence of vote-rigging – that it could provoke more instability in Central Asia’s fragile island of democracy.