As a bill to strip former presidents of immunity inches forward through the Kyrgyz legislature, the split between the small Central Asian nation’s central political figures is nearly complete. While suggestions of a growing rift between former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and his successor, current President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, were apparent early in 2018, mere months after Jeenebkov’s election, in recent weeks the rhetoric had hit a fever pitch.
Just over a year after his October 2017 election, Jeenbekov accused his predecessor of attempting to turn him into a puppet.
“[Atambayev’s] attempts to turn me into a puppet leader through some third individuals, to direct my actions — discredit him as a person, as an ex-president, as a fellow party member and associate,” Jeenbekov said in an interview with 24.kg that was published on November 16.
Kyrgyzstan has had five presidents since independence in 1991. The country’s first and second presidents — Askar Akayev (1990-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiyev (2005-2010) — were both ousted in popular revolutions. Roza Otunbayeva, the interim president after the second revolution, left office when Atambayev was elected in 2011. After serving the mandated single six-year term, Atambayev supported his fellow Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) compatriot’s run for the top office. But while Atambayev had earlier suggested he’d step out of politics after his presidential term, he instead promised — a month after Jeenbekov’s election — to return to the political arena.
In March 2018, Atamabyev was elected head of the SDPK. The party holds 38 of 120 seats in the country’s parliament, far from a majority but enough to lead the ruling coalition. Once back in a position of some influence, Atamabyev began criticizing Jeenbekov. In turn, Jeenbekov began firing Atambayev’s allies. As The Diplomat has covered extensively, the breakdown of the Bishkek power plant in January 2018 and the ensuing corruption scandals that spilled into the open resulted in several arrests, including of key Atambayev cronies.
A few days after Jeenbekov’s 24.kg interview made explicit his feelings toward Atambayev, Atambayev fired back. Sniping at Jeenbekov from the safety of his own television station, Atambayev gave a 95-minute interview in which he tarred Jeenbekov’s anti-corruption drive (and thus the arrests of Atambayev’s allies) as simply “a show.”
Atambayev said “a frantic campaign of lies and slander against me and members of my family has been unleashed.” He also darkly warned that Jeenbekov could “throw Kyrgyzstan back to the era of Kurmanbek Bakiyev.”
Bakiyev, who led the charge against Akayev in 2005, fell into much of the same autocratic pattern once in office. With a significant degree of corruption and nepotism, Bakiyev was hounded from office and remains heavily vilified in Kyrgyzstan.
Atambayev promised to stay active in “big politics” and pursue reforms to transform Kyrgyzstan into a true parliamentary republic, importantly limiting presidential power.
While Atambayev remains in the top seat of SDPK, the party’s unity is very much at risk. In recent weeks, the Atambayev-Jeenbekov brouhaha has filtered down into the parliamentary ranks of the party to which both ostensibly belong.
In late October, the party expelled the leader of its parliamentary faction, Isa Omurkulov. The move came after Sagynbek Abdrakhmanov, a former SDPK member and according to 24.kg head of the “SDPK Without Atambayev Movement” said he’d met with Omurkulov. Furthermore, he said that Omurkulov was supportive of the movement’s aim to hold an extraordinary SDPK congress to consider expelling Atambayev from the party. The SDPK characterized this as a betrayal. Omurkulov, in turn, said those who expelled him from the party perpetrated the real betrayal.
In the following weeks, parliamentarian and deputy party chairwoman Irina Karamushkina stated the obvious: that the party was approaching a split. “There will be a split. This all will contribute to the party split,” she said, urging party members who don’t want to work with Atambayev “to be honest” and withdraw from the party. Another SDPK deputy, and member of its political council, Muradyl Mademinov, then suggested a purge of the party ranks ahead of the next party congress in April 2019.
An assembly of opposition political parties and public organizations on November 24 accused Atambayev, as reported by 24.kg, of “betraying the ideals of the April revolution and consolidation of power.” The gathering promised to urge the Prosecutor General to investigate Atambayev.
Atambayev had been invited to the gathering, but declined to attend what was inevitably going to be a public tarring.
In sum, the SDPK looks to be facing a split that could seriously damage the party’s prospects in the next elections, set for 2020. Meanwhile, Jeenbekov’s anti-corruption campaign continues to move against Atambayev’s allies and the Kyrgyz parliament may soon be debating the revocation of Atambayev’s immunity, which the Supreme Court already ruled was unconstitutional.