Kyrgyzstan’s One-Term President Positions Himself for the Transition of Power

Outside of Latin America, where one-term limitations on presidencies are relatively common, only the Philippines, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Kyrgyzstan restrict their presidents to a single term.[i]  Kyrgyzstan introduced this restriction in its 2010 Constitution in order to prevent the repetition of “family rule,” which had characterized Kyrgyzstani politics under Presidents Akaev (1991-2005) and Bakiev (2005-2010). As the example of Vladimir Putin illustrates, however, constitutional restrictions do not prevent term-limited presidents from remaining active in politics.[ii]  Kyrgyzstan’s current President, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent months signaled his intention to continue on the political stage after the end of his single, six-year term in November of this year.

The opening gambit in his transition strategy came last year, when Atambaev engineered changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution designed to shift considerable power from the office of the president to that of the prime minister.[iii]  These changes gave rise to speculation that President Atambaev was planning to assume the role of prime minister after he completes his presidential term. However, he has insisted in recent weeks that he will eschew a government post and concentrate instead on strengthening his political party, the Social Democrats (SDPK), which currently has a plurality of seats in the one-chamber parliament.  Atambaev has recently launched a purge of the SDPK’s parliamentary party in order to remove members whose personal reputation or loyalty is suspect.[iv]

In order to ensure that his successor as president is to his liking, President Atambaev has embraced the idea of an internal party primary within the SDPK to select the party’s nominee for the presidency.  In his public pronouncements, Atambaev has insisted that a primary battle within the part will weed out candidates on whom the opposition has kompromat [compromising materials] that could render them vulnerable in the general election.  However, the more likely reason for the president’s support of the party primary is that it would allow him to serve as the king-maker.  Atambaev’s influence over the mass media and his control of the state’s “administrative resources” should allow him to pick his preferred candidate from the SDPK, who could well emerge as the next president.

Not satisfied with influencing political outcomes through the low-cost and relatively benign strategies outlined above, President Atambaev has pursued in recent weeks a more disruptive and dangerous agenda: the destruction of the political careers of prominent opposition politicians who could pose a challenge to his plans for the political transition.   Among a series of arrests of heavyweights from Kyrgyzstan’s ruling class, the most troubling was that of Omurbek Tekebaev, a parliamentary deputy and perennial presidential candidate who, as a member of the country’s Interim Government in 2010, fathered the current constitution.  Agents from the secret police (GKNB) detained Tekebaev at the Bishkek airport in the early morning of February 26 on his return from a trip to Austria and Cyprus, and several days later a court authorized his detention by the GKNB for an additional two months.  Whatever the validity of the fraud charges being brought against him, the timing was suspect.  The alleged fraud had occurred six years earlier and the Russian businessman who accused Tekebaev of wrongdoing only recently came forward with testimony implicating Tekebaev.

Other opposition politicians caught up in what appear to be politically-motivated prosecutions include parliamentary deputies from Tekebaev’s party, Ata-Meken, among whom were Aida Salianova and Almambek Shykmamatov, both former Justice Ministers.  In addition, on March 25, the authorities arrested a former deputy from the Ata-Jurt Party, Sadyr Japarov, who had just returned to Bishkek after three years of self-imposed exile.  The arrest of Japarov, who had recently announced his intention to run for the presidency, prompted 500 of his supporters to gather at the gates of the GKNB. In clashes with police that followed, 68 demonstrators were arrested.[v]

Although all of the politicians arrested have been critics of President Atambaev, Omurbek Tekebaev appears to pose the greatest threat to the sitting president.  The threat does not lie primarily in Tekebaev’s announced candidacy for the November presidential election–he was hardly a favorite for the post–but in the compromising material he had been collecting on President Atambaev.  Media reports allege that Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan with evidence linking President Atambaev to inappropriate business activities in Cyprus.  Moreover, as chair of a parliamentary commission investigating the crash of a cargo aircraft near Bishkek airport in January of this year, Tekebaev was pursuing the possibility that President Atambaev or those in his entourage were involved in a smuggling operation exposed by the plane crash.  Although the aircraft, which stopped in Bishkek on its way from Hong Kong to Istanbul, was not licensed to deliver goods to Kyrgyzstan, investigators found in the  wreckage “charred remnants of iPhones, luxury cigarette lighters, and other electronic gadgets…” with Chinese-produced manuals in the Kyrgyz language.[vi]

Besides disqualifying prominent political opponents and bending the institutional rules to their advantage, it has been traditional in the run up to elections for Kyrgyzstani leaders to attempt to stifle media outlets that are critical of the president, and President Atambaev has remained true to form on all counts.   As part of his early preparations for the November presidential elections and his own repositioning in the Kyrgyzstani political system, President Atambaev instructed the Procurator-General earlier this month to launch civil cases against a local news outlet, Zanoza, as well as the Kyrgyz arm of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Azattyk, for attacking the “honor and dignity” of the President.  The Procurator-General is seeking damages on the President’s behalf of over $86,000 from Zanoza and almost $3 million from Azattyk.  Even though the case has not yet been tried, a judge has frozen the domestic bank accounts of both news organizations.

As Atambaev’s attacks against opposition-oriented politicians and journalists have escalated in recent months, his conduct has become more unpredictable and his rhetoric has grown increasingly intemperate.  At one point he labeled the Ata-Meken Party “putrid” [voniuchii].  Atambaev no longer hesitates to refer to himself in the third person, and he has at times cast diplomatic niceties aside by issuing pointed comments on domestic politics in the presence of foreign dignitaries.[vii]  On March 15th, he chose a formal ceremony accrediting new ambassadors in Bishkek to criticize the purveyors of slander and “fake news” in the country, including Russian journalists working in the country.[viii]  During the visit of Vladimir Putin a few weeks earlier, President Atambaev had used a joint press conference to play down the likelihood of a third revolution in Kyrgyzstan, reminding the assembled journalists and his Russian guest that he, Atambaev, was the real revolutionary, having been instrumental in toppling Presidents Akaev and Bakiev.[ix]

Kyrgyzstan may not be on the eve of its third revolution in the last twelve years, but it is facing its most serious political crisis since the parliamentary election campaign of 2010.  Atambaev’s control of the formal levers of power, most notably state legal institutions, give him an advantage in this latest standoff between government and opposition.  However, his critics have at their disposal new media as well as significant numbers of supporters in the capital–and in the home districts of repressed politicians–that are willing to take to the streets to defend their patrons.  Moreover, in choosing to engage in select prosecution of his enemies and a frontal assault on the independent media, President Atambaev risks overplaying his hand and undermining his own reputation and that of the party on which he plans to build his political future.   The ultimate winners in this conflict may be non-SDPK presidential candidates, such as former prime ministers Temir Sariev and Omurbek Babanov, who have managed thus far to keep their distance from the warring sides.

Notes

[i] The reference here is to presidents in presidential or semi-presidential systems.

[ii] In 2008, having completed the two four-year terms allowed him under the constitution of that era, Vladimir Putin installed one of his clients, Dmitrii Medvedev, as president.  Medvedev served a single term and then made way for Putin’s return in 2012, this time to assume a presidency whose term had been extended to six years.  In the Kyrgyzstani case, the constitution does not allow a president to return to office.

[iii] On the adoption of revisions to the constitution, see Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog, December 15, 2016.  http://presidential-power.com/?cat=193

[iv] One source notes that Atambaev intends to replace two-thirds of current SDPK deputies with more loyal members.  Grigorii Mikhailov, “Boeing s gruzom dlia prezidenta ‘vzorval’ parlament Kirgizii,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, March 7, 2017.  At one point Atambaev came out in favor of the early dissolution of parliament, something supported by at least one critic of the president in the assembly, which presumably would simplify efforts to renew the SDPK’s parliamentary party.  Parliamentary elections are not scheduled to be held until 2020.  See “Zamira Sydykova prezidentu Almazbeku Atambaevu: ty luchshe pokaisia!” Zanoza, March 15, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/354140_zamira_sydykova_prezidenty_almazbeky_atambaevy:_ty_lychshe_pokaysia.html

[v] “Kyrgyz Police Detain 68 at Protests over Jailing of Ex-Law Maker,” RFE/RL, March 25, 2017.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-opposition-japarov-supporters-protesters-arrested/28390782.html

[vi] Catherine Putz, “Plane Crash in Kyrgyzstan May Have Uncovered a Smuggling Scheme,” The Diplomat, February 3, 2017.  http://thediplomat.com/2017/02/plane-crash-in-kyrgyzstan-may-have-uncovered-a-smuggling-scheme/

[vii] Atambaev’s behavior has rekindled rumors about his psychological state, and lawyers from the Ata-Meken Party recently filed a motion with the Procurator-General’s office asking for a psychiatric examination of the president. “Zapakh pravdy: arest Tekebaeva vyzval voinu iskov,” Zanoza, March 9, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/353828_zapah_pravdy:_arest_tekebaeva_vyzval_voyny_iskov.html One Western outlet covering Central Asia observed that Atambaev seemed to be mimicking Donald Trump, and of late had been in “full berserker mode in his comments about the fourth estate.” “Kyrgyzstan: Kremlin-Friendly Reporter Expelled,” Eurasianet.org, March 13, 2017.  http://www.eurasianet.org/node/82801

[viii] A few days earlier the Kyrgyzstani authorities had expelled a Russian journalist, Grigorii Mikhailov, whose articles had often been critical of Atambaev.  “Emu li byt’ v pechati: pochemu prezident Kirgizii tak boitsia kritiki v rossiiskoi presse,” Lenta.ru, March 17, 2017.  At a press conference on March 11, Atambaev attacked “so-called independent journalists, media outlets, and politicians, who de facto demand the right to defame with impunity and spout filth about people they don’t like, in the first rank the popularly-elected president of independent Kyrgyzstan.”  “Zaiavlenie Prezidenta KR A. Atambaeva,” Kabar, March 11, 2017.  For a perceptive account of Atambaev’s assaults on journalists and politicians, see Ulugbek Babakulov, “Vo imia mira i stabil’nosti: Prezident Kyrygzstana initsiiroval raspravu nad SMI i zhurnalistami,” Ferghana, March 13, 2017.  http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9319

[ix] Moscow-based newspapers have speculated that one purpose of Putin’s visit was to look over potential presidential candidates to determine whom the Kremlin should back.  See, for example, Elena Egorova, “Tsentral’naia dlia Rossii Aziia,” Moskovskii komsomolets, February 27, 2017.

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