Kyrgyzstan – Ex-Presidents and Democratic Fragility in the Developing World

Former presidents in stable democracies traditionally retreat into a dignified and comfortable retirement that removes them from the political front-lines.  Most leaders of authoritarian regimes also fade from the political scene, but for rather different reasons—a natural or unnatural death or an ignominious exile or imprisonment.  Between the poles of consolidated democracies and personalist dictatorships lies the increasingly expansive terrain of hybrid regimes and struggling democracies, where the afterlives of presidents offer cases worthy of serious political analysis. 

As Roger Southall and others have noted in their work on former presidents in African politics, the recent growth in democratic transitions on that continent has increased “the number of former heads of state who now have to be accommodated by their successors.”[i]  Thus, among the many causes of the fragility of fledgling democracies is the reluctance of former presidents to transfer fully the reins of power, even when they are in the hands of political allies. Such is the case with the former president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, whose single, six-year term ended in October 2017. 

As the accompanying table illustrates, since 1994 none of the countries in post-communist Central Asia—save one—has had living former presidents, which testifies to the dominance of authoritarianism in the region.[ii]  The exception is Kyrgyzstan, a flawed but surprisingly resilient young democracy whose four ex-presidents are still among the living.  The first two Kyrgyzstani presidents to leave office, Askar Akaev (1991-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010), did so involuntarily, overthrown in popular revolts that sent them into exile in Russia and Belarus, where they have remained largely detached from the political struggles in their home country.  The country’s third leader, Roza Otunbaeva (2010-2011), has served as a model ex-president in a democracy.  Although she has on occasion responded testily to provocative statements hurled in her direction by her mercurial successor, Almazbek Atambaev (2011-2017), she has generally worked quietly behind the scenes to advance good governance initiatives and to support her charitable foundation, which seeks to improve conditions for Kyrgyzstan’s children.  

Rather than follow the lead of Otunbaeva, former president Atambaev has chosen to interfere directly in high politics, and in so doing he has produced a crisis of authority in the country.  With the goal of shaping politics from behind the scenes after his departure from the presidency, Atambaev had used the administrative powers of his office as well as a smear campaign against the front-runner in the presidential race, Omurbek Babanov, to ensure the election of his chosen successor and fellow Social Democrat, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.[iii]   At the outset of the election campaign Jeenbekov had been the favorite of only three percent of the population, and as Atambaev himself noted recently, “I dragged him into the presidency” [ia dotashchil do prezidenta strany].  

Leadership Transitions in the Central Asia Region since 1994

Despite—or perhaps because of—the depth of his indebtedness to the former president, President Jeenbekov began to distance himself from his patronwithin weeks of his inauguration.  In Jeenbekov’s words, Atambaev had tried “to make me a front man controlled by third parties, and this does him no honor as a man, an ex-president, or a fellow party member and political ally.”[i]  By the spring of 2018, Jeenbekov had removed Atambaev loyalists in the presidential apparatus, most notably his chief-of-staff, and had engineered—or at a minimum acceded to—the launching of an anti-corruption campaign that targeted current and former high-ranking officials from Atambaev’s circle, including an erstwhile prime minister.  The result was a very public falling out between the two men and the re-sorting of the country’s governing elite into two hostile camps. 

For the next seven months, Atambaev sulked, allowing political confidantes and his network of friendly media outlets to take on the increasingly independent-minded new president.  But in the middle of November, Atambaev launched a frontal assault on his successor after returning from Moscow, where he had led the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) delegation at a conference of Asian political parties. In a lengthy television interview granted to Russian-language journalists, Atambaev accused Jeenbekov—whose relatives occupy several key political posts—of attempting to restore Bakiev-style “family rule,” a reference to a former president whose authoritarian policies had led to the April Revolution of 2010.[ii]  Atambaev also vouched for the authenticity of recently-leaked documents purportedly showing that President Jeenbekov’s presidential campaign had violated electoral laws by spending several times more than it had reported in filings with the Central Election Commission.[iii]  Furthermore, Atambaev insisted in the interview that a former prime minister, Sapar Isakov, was being prosecuted because he had resisted calls by Jeenbekov to protect a high-ranking customs official widely suspected of corruption, Raimbek Matraimov (a/k/a Raim Million).    

The interview illustrated Atambaev’s ability to play defense as well as offense in his deepening struggle with Jeenbekov and his supporters.  In order to deflect growing accusations that he had enriched himself while president at the expense of the nation, Atambaev laid out in unusual detail the domestic and foreign sources of his wealth.  He also exhibited in the interview uncharacteristic compassion and contrition toward some political adversaries who had been jailed on his watch, most notably the perennial presidential candidate and leader of the Ata-Meken Party, Omurbek Tekebaev.  He even lamented his frequent attacks on the press.

Atambaev’s revelations and regrets did little, however, to still mounting calls for his imprisonment on criminal charges.  Because Kyrgyzstan, along with only two other post-Soviet states, grants unlimited immunity to former presidents, some deputies supportive of President Jeenbekov have sought to lift this privilege for all ex-presidents.[iv] Just last week, on December 13, a bill to eliminate presidential immunity passed the country’s parliament in its first reading, 100-2.[v]  Touted as a means of discouraging abuse of office, the policy change would almost certainly have the unintended consequence of discouraging presidents from leaving office, given the widespread use of select prosecution in countries like Kyrgyzstan.   

Former President Atambaev faces serious threats on the political as well as legal fronts.  In order to undermine Atambaev’s position as leader of the SDPK, which has the largest number of deputies (38) in the highly-fragmented 120-person parliament, some party members aligned with President Jeenbekov launched a hostile takeover of the organization.[vi]  At the moment, Atambaev seems likely to retain control of the party, which he founded in the early 1990s and which he hoped would serve as his political base in his post-presidential years.  However, even if he beats back the current intra-party challenge, led by a group styling itself “SDPK without Atambaev,” the former president may find it difficult to prevent further defections in the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary elections.  For his part, President Jeenbekov has the daunting challenge of cobbling together a reliable pro-presidential parliamentary coalition in the absence of a large and overtly loyal pro-presidential party.   

The conflict between president and former president has pushed Kyrgyzstan into an awkward and dangerous impasse, with two powerful patronage networks set against each other.  Of course, as Henry Hale has pointed out in his work on patronal presidentialism,[vii]presidents in struggling democracies like Kyrgyzstan have never been able to forge a single-pyramid patronage system, and so competing pyramids of patron-client networks have long been the norm. However, no out-of-power patronage network has ever been led by a former president, never mind one who can boast of enormous wealth, the chairmanship of the dominant party in parliament, and a web of allies who have occupied key posts in government and the economy. Moreover, the specter of the leader of the country’s northern elite (Atambaev) threatening Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent southern politician (Jeenbekov)—and tying him to a disgraced former southern leader (Bakiev)—threatens to revive regional rivalries in Kyrgyzstani politics, which, to Atambaev’s credit, had diminished during his six years in office.    

Missing from the litany of Atambaev’s attributes above are his almost limitless personal ambition and his refusal to accept the institutionalized uncertainty that is at the core of democratic politics.[viii]   In these he differs fundamentally from former president Roza Otunbaeva. To be sure, Otunbaeva was less well-positioned to insist on a prominent role in politics following her presidency.  First, she was appointed by fellow members of the Interim Government in the wake of the April 2010 revolution, and instead of contesting a presidential election, she won a popular referendum on whether she should be confirmed as president.  Second, she served as an interim president, and her tenure lasted for only eighteen months, though a momentous eighteen months it was.  Finally, she had neither the financial nor organizational resources of Atambaev. Otunbaeva understood, however, the fragility of democracy and the vital role of the individual agent in advancing or impeding democracy’s consolidation.[ix]  

Not so Atambaev.  Reneging on his earlier promises to retire from politics to pursue his favorite pastimes, he has openly challenged the authority and legitimacy of the president he was instrumental in electing.  Atambaev’s presidency may have limited parallels with that of Joseph Kabila, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, Atambaev’s approach to his life as ex-president aligns with that of the Congolese leader, who noted this week, on the eve of his slated departure from office: “The job is not over at all.”[x]


[i]Ekskliuzivnoe interv’iu Sooronbaia Zheenbekova. Chast’ II, 24.kg, November 16, 2018.  https://24.kg/vlast/101374_eksklyuzivnoe_intervyu_sooronbaya_jeenbekova_chastII/

[ii]A full transcript of the interview can be found at https://kaktus.media/doc/382695_intervu_eks_prezidenta_almazbeka_atambaeva._polnaia_versiia.html

[iii]Given that Atambaev’s right-hand man, Ikramzhan Ilmiianov, was in charge of campaign finance for Jeenbekov’s presidential race, the accusation against the current president appears less damning.  “Iurist opublikoval ‘real’nye’ raskhody shtaba Zheenbekova, v apparate prezidenta nazvali ikh feikom,” Radio Azattyk, November 15, 2018. https://rus.azattyk.org/a/29602199.html 

[iv]Viktoriia Panfilova, “V Kirgizii boiatsia vozvrashcheniia v politiku Almazbeka Atambaeva,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, October 2, 2018, p. 5.  In mid-November 2018, the Constitutional Chamber of the Kyrgyzstani Supreme Court ruled that unlimited immunity for ex-presidents was unconstitutional. Sergei Kozhemiakin, “Okhota na eks-prezidenta,” Pravda, November 13, 2018, p. 3.

[v]“100 deputaty progolosovali za otmenu neprikosnovennosti eks-prezidentov,” KaktusMedia, December 13, 2018. https://kaktus.media/doc/383947_100_depytatov_progolosovali_za_otmeny_neprikosnovennosti_eks_prezidentov.html

[vi]Among the SDPK deputies is President Jeenbekov’s brother, Asylbek.

[vii]Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), especially chapters 4 and 9.  

[viii]For a discussion of this concept, see Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Latin America and Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[ix]Curiously, what unites all former presidents of Kyrgyzstan is their relative youth at leaving office—61 years old, which is the current age of President Jeenbekov, a fact that has engendered predictable speculation about his ability to break through this threshold.   

[x]Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, “Stepping Way from Office, Not Power,” New York Times, December 16, 2018, p. A6.



[i]Roger Southall, Neo Simutanyi and John Daniel, “Former Presidents in African Politics,” in Roger Southall and Henning Melber (eds.), Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in African Politics(Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2006). As Southall, Simutanyi, and Daniel argue, the role of the ex-leader is different in presidential and parliamentary models of government.  “[I]n the former, ex-presidents tend to stand down from partisan politics whereas in the latter, ex-prime ministers may remain politically active, often with the objective of regaining power.”  Ibid.

[ii]A minor exception concerns Azerbaijan, whose president, Haidar Aliev, stepped down in his last weeks of life in favor of his son.  Although not usually included in Central Asia, Azerbaijan’s culture and political economy make it a better fit for Central Asia than the Caucasus, the region with which it is usually linked.   

[iii]This strategy mirrors that of former president Bakili Muluzi of Malawi.

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