Crossroads Asia

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev Promises to Return to Politics

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Crossroads Asia

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev Promises to Return to Politics

As Atambayev leaves office, he pledges to return in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev Promises to Return to Politics
Credit: Catherine Putz

In his final press conference, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev set the stage for his eventual return to the political arena.

“After leaving office, I do not want to become parliament speaker or a lawmaker right away,” he said, according to RFE/RL. “But I plan to lead the list of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan in the next parliamentary elections.”

Kyrgyzstan’s next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2020. The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) is the country’s leading party, in the 2015 parliamentary polls the SDPK took 38 seats and with the election in October of Sooronbai Jeenbekov, the party now has two presidents to its name.

Atambayev made clear in his comments that he aims to keep the SDPK on top of Kyrgyz politics. According to, Atambayev said, “And of course, I will prepare the Social Democrats for the next parliamentary elections… The Social Democrats must show what the deputies should be like.”

As Eurasianet reports, much of Atambayev’s final press conference “was devoted to often sharp-tongued and sometimes profanity-peppered assessments of Atambayev’s most recent preoccupations.” Those preoccupations being the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border issue and Jeenbekov’s defeated and now embattled electoral foe Omurbek Babanov.

Atambayev’s announcement that he hopes to return in a few years at the top of the SDPK’s parliamentary list is a reversal from comments made last year that he would exit politics when his term ended.

Last July, RFE/RL reported that Atambayev had pledged to leave politics and his office announced that “the president plans to be engaged in creative activities,” including writing books and music after leaving office.

That summer RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz bureau reported that Atambayev intended to release a 10-track album ahead of his 60th birthday on September 17; incidentally also coinciding with the Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Bishkek. It’s unclear if that album was ever released (if it has been, someone send me that LP!)

Atambayev’s new pledge to return to politics is not surprising. In the last year of his presidency Atambayev pushed through controversial constitutional changes which, in part, aimed to strengthen the parliament and conversely weaken the presidency.

Atambayev has argued that these measures are intended to move Kyrgyzstan closer to a true parliamentary system, rather than the hybrid presidential-parliamentary system it currently has.

The president’s critics, however, saw the seeds of a possible Putinesque gambit in the constitutional changes: Atambayev would leave the presidency for the prime ministership and eventually return to the presidency.

Rather than devoting too much space to the Russian parallel, it’s more important to look at Atambayev’s position within the Kyrgyz political cosmos to explain his behavior. Atambayev is well aware of his legacy: Kyrgyzstan’s first normally elected, full and single term president. But there is no precedent for a peaceful retirement for a Kyrgyz politician.

The country’s two former and ousted presidents — Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev — now live in exile. Even Atambayev’s predecessor, Roza Otunbayeva, who served as interim president between the 2010 revolution and Atambayev’s 2011 election, has faced the harsh reality that her legacy — as the very first Kyrgyz president to peacefully hand over the office — did not protect her from a falling out with Atambayev. At Kyrgyzstan’s 25th independence anniversary last August, Atambayev’s speech strayed from celebrating independence to insulting Otunbayeva. Otunbayeva, in attendance, got up and left while Atambayev was still talking.

Atambayev may feel more secure in that the new president is his protege, but he was once Otunbayeva’s ally and we see how that turned sour. Atambayev’s best bet — if he wants to keep his skeletons in their closets and his enemies at bay — is to not stray too far from Kyrgyz politics for too long.

Jeenbekov will be inaugurated on December 1 and will take on responsibility for the messes Atambayev has left him, especially with regard to Kazakhstan. Nevertheless, we can expect Atambayev to remain a key player in Kyrgyz politics for years to come.