In weak democracies, leaders relinquish power reluctantly. Confirmation of this aphorism has come recently from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. In these two post-communist countries, presidents approaching the end of their terms in office engineered revisions to the constitution that pushed the center of power from the presidency toward the prime minister’s office as a means of prolonging their political relevance. Yet in both cases, carefully-laid post-presidential plans came unraveled, in one case because of opposition from the streets, and in the other because of resistance within the halls of power.
In Armenia, the departing president, Serzh Sargsian, stepped immediately into the role of prime minister, prompting massive demonstrations and ultimately the resignation of Sargsian and the installation of an opposition leader, Nikol Pashinian, as prime minister. Developments in Kyrgyzstan have followed a less dramatic, but equally unexpected, path. Instead of directly assuming the newly-strengthened office of prime minister, the outgoing president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, sought to wield the reins of power behind the scenes in his role as chair of the country’s largest party, the Social Democrats. To assure his position at the pinnacle of Kyrgyzstani politics after leaving the presidency, Atambaev had appointed an unseasoned technocrat from his own party to the post of prime minister in August 2017, in the waning months of his single, seven-year term. He had also overseen a bruising and ultimately successful campaign to elect his long-time political ally, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, as the country’s new president.
Even in the first days of the Jeenbekov presidency there was evidence that the new head of state was willing to depart from the policies of his predecessor and patron, most notably on matters of foreign policy. For example, President Jeenbekov quickly healed the rift between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan occasioned by inflammatory comments that Atambaev had directed at Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev during the presidential election campaign. The first frontal assault on the Atambaev legacy came only a few weeks later, at the end of February 2018, when the new president accused the security services and law enforcement organs of laxity in their fight against corruption, including in their own ranks. In essence, the new president was now attacking the personnel and policies of the old.
President Jeenbekov followed up this unanticipated assertion of political independence with a series of moves designed to use the diminished but still formidable prerogatives of the presidency to elevate further his personal power and authority—and to distance himself from his patron.1 Because the constitutional revisions introduced under Atambaev did not remove the Kyrgyzstani president’s direct oversight and appointment powers over officials responsible for the criminal justice system, Jeenbekov had available to him potent levers of influence over political and economic elites if he could replace Atambaev loyalists with his own men and women. In March, after removing the chief of staff that he had inherited from Atambaev, Farid Niiazov, President Jeenbekov began pushing out numerous hold-overs from the Atambaev era who occupied key positions in the “power bloc,” including the Procurator-General, the head of the National Security Agency, and several deputy ministers in law enforcement institutions. Predictably for a patronalist system where the maintenance of client networks across the government-business divide depends on the protection of the chief patron, the personnel shakeups in the power ministries—and subsequent criminal investigations involving members of the elite—have put much of the country’s political and economic establishment on edge.
By the end of March 2018, it was clear that former President Atambaev was facing not only a rebellion against his influence by the new president but also by forces within his own party, which he had created and led for a quarter century. Although the Social Democrats elected Atambaev as their chairman at a party conference held in the last days of March, that gathering exposed growing divisions with the party’s ranks, in spite of Atambaev’s best efforts to present an image of a unified party by holding the meetings in secret and banning from the conference several prominent Social Democrats, including a leading parliamentary deputy and former speaker, Asylbek Jeenbekov, who is the brother of President Jeenbekov.
In a combative press conference at the end of the party gathering, former President Atambaev signaled his displeasure with President Jeenbekov and his continued support for the prime minister that he had appointed six months earlier, Sapar Isakov. In Atambaev’s words:
I think that a good prime minister is working today. Energetic and young. He may be mistaken, but this is a person who is doing something.
Less than three weeks later, on April 18, 101 members of the country’s 120-member parliament, including most of the 28 Social Democratic deputies, supported the first no-confidence vote in the country’s history, which ousted Prime Minister Isakov.2 His replacement was a fellow northerner and Social Democrat, Mukhammetkali Abulgaziev.
Whatever the precise involvement of Atambaev and Jeenbekov in the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that led to the no-confidence vote, it is clear that the country is now in the throes of a potentially destabilizing intra-elite struggle. In recent weeks, Jeenbekov has been subject to withering criticism in segments of the press for allegedly showing favoritism along geographic (North-South) or family-clan lines.3 Almost certainly representing interests tied to former President Atambaev or those who have benefitted from his patronage, the current president’s critics have stooped to using the old divisive tropes that had begun to be discarded in recent years, tropes for which Jeenbekov’s behavior in office provides little evidence. Defending himself against his critics, Jeenbekov offered the following comments at his first major press conference.
This is the first time I voice these names today. [Former Presidents] Akayev, Bakiyev — we all remember how they left office. I will not go that way. I want to honestly look into the eyes of my people and not be ashamed.4
If one is searching for another encouraging sign amid the rising tension in the Kyrgyzstani political elite, it is that neither side has yet turned to the traditional weapons of mass mobilization employed in intra-elite struggles: demonstrations, road blockages, or the erection of yurt cities.
Although Kyrgyzstan can claim to have the most open and competitive political system by far in Central Asia, it has still not mastered a central task of mature democracies: the retreat of a former president into a dignified retirement. The first two Kyrgyzstani presidents, Askar Akaev and Kurmanbek Bakiev, were ousted from office in popular rebellions and now live in exile, in Russia and Belarus’, respectively. For his part, as the discussion above illustrates, President Atambaev has reneged on his earlier promise of devoting his retirement to playing the piano, and, at the age of 61, has sought to carve out a role as Kyrgyzstan’s Deng Xiaoping.
If Kyrgyzstan is to join the ranks of stable democracies, future presidents will need to follow the example of Roza Otunbaeva, who has devoted herself to philanthropic and good governance initiatives since leaving the presidency in 2010. There are, to be sure, special circumstances in her case. Appointed as president by the Interim Government that took power following the April Revolution of 2010, Otunbaeva came to the presidency in June of that year through a referendum rather than a competitive election, and she agreed to serve only a single, 18-month transitional term. Nevertheless, in her six years since leaving the presidency, Otunbaeva has found ways to remain publicly engaged while eschewing direct involvement in the political struggle. Of course, if the country should move closer to a traditional parliamentary model of government under its new constitutional arrangements, it may be less appropriate to expect future prime ministers to go gently into that good night.
1 For accounts of the growing tensions between current and former presidents, see “Krakh operazii ‘preemnik’ v Kirgizii,” Delo No., May 4, 2018. http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1523740320; Ulugbek Babakulov, “Atambaev vs Zheenbekov. Zachem byvshii president Kyrgyzstana vozvrashchaetsia v politiku,” Informatsionnoe agentstvo Ferghana, April 2, 2018. http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9879; and Bruce Pannier, “Won’t Fade Away: Former, Current Kyrgyz Presidents On Collision Course,” Qishloq Ovozi, RFE/RL, April 4, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-kyrgyzstan-atambaev-jeenbekov-collision-course/29144713.html
2 The use of a proportional representation voting system in a country divided along regional lines has led to a highly-fragmented parliament, with the Social Democrats representing the largest single voting bloc, with 28 members.
3 Typical of this genre is an article accusing President Jeenbekov’s son-in-law of using his relationship to the president to interfere in personnel decisions and business matters. Arstan Algyrbekov, “Aliiarbek Abzhalieva nuzhno stavit’ na mesto segodnia, inache zavtra prevratitsia v Zhanysha ili Ikrama!,” Aziia News, no. 18, May 10, 2018, p. 3 [reprinted in Gezitter.org, May 10, 2018]. http://www.gezitter.org/society/69847_aliyarbeka_abjalieva_nujno_stavit_na_mesto_segodnya_inache_zavtra_prevratitsya_v_janyisha_ili_ikrama/
4 “President of Kyrgyzstan about family, brothers, their interference in his work,” Informatsionnoe agentstvo 24kg, March 6, 2018. https://24.kg/english/77877_President_of_Kyrgyzstan_about_family_brothers_their_interference_in_his_work/ During an official visit to the northern region of Issyk-Kul’ in early May, President Jeenbekov, a son of the South, admitted that some were trying to raise the North-South question as a way of undermining the unity of the Kyrgyzstani people. “We all see who is spreading these provocative things,” he said, “and we will take measures against those who are imposing on society the North-South question.” Prezident Sooronbai Zheenbekov: Budut priniaty mery k tem, kto naviazyvaet obshchestvu vopros ‘Sever-Iug’,” Kabar, May 3, 2018. http://kabar.kg/news/zheenbekov-budut-priniaty-mery-k-tem-kto-naviazyvaet-obshchestvu-vopros-sever-iug/