Kyrgyzstan, once hailed as an “island of democracy” surrounded by autocratic neighbours, is now walking on thin ice as it heads towards its second presidential election since the toppling of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s regime in April 2010.
The Central Asian country’s last parliamentary election in 2015 received commendations from international observers including the OSCE. But a number of recent developments – including restrictions on freedom of assembly, copying Russia’s “foreign agent” law, banning foreign media ownership and blocking “extremist” websites – have stirred fears that the post-Soviet state is straying off its democratic path. No openly undemocratic changes have yet taken place, but President Almazbek Atambayev’s recent conduct has raised more than a few eyebrows lately.
Atambayev even said on March 6 that he “supports” the idea of “parliament’s self-dissolution”. It is unclear whether the grim remark expressed intent or mere frustration, but it demonstrates that his constitutional gamble in December – the referendum which brought about his desired result of weakening the presidency in favour of the prime minister– also turned many of his former allies into his sworn enemies.
To some, the constitutional amendments demonstrated Atambayev’s intention to stay in power by moving to occupy the prime ministerial post, while others saw the referendum as the first step in his plan to rule from the shadows. Freedom House, which ranked the country “partly free” in its latest report, said the Kyrgyz political elite had held the referendum “to serve its own interests”.
Most prominent among Atambayev’s critics was Omurbek Tekebayev, 59, leader of the Ata-Meken party, who formerly held the post of prime minister in the interim government that took over after the revolution of 2010.
Atambayev and Tekebayev were associated with both revolutions in Kyrgyzstan’s short history as an independent republic (the first one ended Askar Akayev’s dictatorial rule in 2005). When Atambayev announced in mid-2016 his intention to meddle with the constitution, Tekebayev quickly emerged as his number one political opponent. The rivalry culminated in the removal of Tekebayev’s Ata-Meken party from the parliamentary majority prior to the constitutional referendum.
After the referendum Tekebayev continued attacking Atambayev, calling for his impeachment, even though his term will run out anyway this year, with the presidential elections scheduled for November. Though Atambayev has on numerous occasions stated officially that he does not intend to pursue further political office, Tekebayev remains sceptical because the president maintains influence over the SDPK party, which holds 38 out of 120 seats of parliament, and effectively controls the ruling coalition. Tekebayev assumes that Atambayev could appoint his own loyal stooges as prime ministers through the SDPK party and, thus, rule the country indirectly.
It was therefore unsurprising that Tekebayev was detained on February 26 on corruption charges, including allegations that he demanded $1mn from Russian businessman Leonid Mayevsky in exchange for a place on the board of Alfa Telecom, during his time as the interim government’s prime minister. His arrest is widely seen as an attempt to discredit Tekebayev and prevent him from running for the presidency in November.
"We planned to hold a party congress within a month and nominate him as candidate [for the presidency]," Kanybek Imanaliyev, a member of parliament who belongs to Ata Meken, said after the party leader’s detention.
Three other politicians have already announced their intention to run for the post. These are the leader of the Respublika-Ata-Jurt party, Omurbek Babanov, ex-Prime Minister Temir Sariyev, and Onuguu-Progress party leader Bakyt Torobayev, who has also opposed Atambayev’s constitutional meddlings.
Kyrgyz political activist Edil Baisalov believes such a conspiratorial interpretation of the arrest is unfounded. “There is no direct connection between Tekebayev’s arrest and the upcoming elections,” Baisalov tells bne IntelliNews. “He has not personally expressed any intention to run for office, and his ratings are significantly low as demonstrated by 2015 parliamentary elections.” Tekebayev’s party had only received 7.8% of the votes, granting them 11 seats - the lowest number of seats won.
The Ata-Meken leader has on more than one occasion indicated that he will not leave Atambayev alone, even after the latter officially steps down, Baisalov says. But he “does not present a [genuine] threat” to the president.
Legacy and necessity
“The conflict is, many ways, is a fight for ownership over the legacy of the last revolution,” Baisalov argues.
Atambayev has demonstrated his desire to be remembered as the face of the revolution more than once. Even shortly after Tekebayev’s arrest, Atambayev made sure to gather a group of relatives of Kyrgyz citizens who died on 7 April 2010 – the day of the revolution. “By rallying the relatives of the April seventh victims, Atambayev claimed to hold the moral high ground, and portrayed Tekebayev as a man who took advantage of the blood spilled on the day of the revolution to enrich himself,” Baisalov says.
“The leader of both revolutions, today I can state [with certainty], was Atambayev,” the Kyrgyz president claimed on February 28, adding that there won’t be a third revolution. “The latest [economic] indicators show that we are on the right path!”
The arrest was, nevertheless, more than a simple question of pride. Russian political analyst Arkady Dubnov told the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL the timing of the opposition leader’s arrest and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit a few days later was not a mere coincidence. “Atambayev [saw it as] necessary to show that he controls the situation in the country and [his] opportunities for control remain high,” Dubnov said.
That is especially important as Russia’s backing for Kyrgyz leaders often determine their grip on power because of Russia’s key economic and political leverage on Kyrgyzstan. Even during the “lame duck” phase, of his presidency, Atambayev’s show of strength could ensure Moscow sees him as capable of representing its interests, even if he continues as Kyrgyzstan’s “paramount leader”.
In a clear reminder of the two past revolutions, Tekebayev’s arrest brought hundreds of protesters to Bishkek’s main square, and protests continued throughout the week. This time, however, the slight disturbance is unlikely to throw up a gravestone for yet another failed regime.
“Unless [an outside force] intervenes into the [current] situation, it is unlikely that a revolution in the name of Tekebayev would take place,” Kyrgyz political analyst Toktugul Kokchekeyev posited to Vesti.kg news agency.
“Revolutions and riots materialise when life quality takes a dive [under a dictatorship] … such an authoritarian regime is not present today [in Kyrgyzstan],” Kyrgyz analyst Zholdoshbek Tokoyev told Gezitter.org.
The regional economic downturn took a toll on the country in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, the Kyrgyz economy unexpectedly grew 3.8% y/y, with remittances, which represent one third of the Kyrgyz economy edging up 21%. Further improvements in 2017 are likely to keep the Kyrgyz population content.