Crossroads Asia

Atambayev Loses Immunity, Supporters Gather to Resist

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Crossroads Asia

Atambayev Loses Immunity, Supporters Gather to Resist

The former president maintains that charges of corruption against him are political.

Atambayev Loses Immunity, Supporters Gather to Resist
Credit: Dan Lundberg/Flickr

As expected, lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan stripped former President Almazbek Atambayev of his ex-presidential immunity on June 27. Of 109 members of parliament present, only six voted against the measure.

Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to tumultuous politics. In 2005 and 2010, the country’s presidents were forced out of office by protests, hounded by accusations of autocracy, kleptocracy, and corruption. Both former presidents, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, eventually had their presidential immunity stripped after fleeing the country. They both reside abroad now, Akayev in Russia and Bakiyev in Belarus.

Atambayev, so far, appears ready to put up a fight rather than flee. 

As Eurasianet’s Nurjamal Djanibekova reported, on June 26 Atambayev supporters began to descend on his home in the village of Koi-Tash, outside Bishkek. Yurts were put up in the yard, preparation for a long stay; a press center was erected to handle journalists there to report on Atambayev’s defiant rejection of the accusations levied against him. Concrete blocks were placed at the entrance, barriers to cars entering the compound, and piles of rocks were delivered. Around midnight, a dozen horsemen showed up. 

Atambayev, who served as president for a constitutionally mandated single term from 2011 to 2017, was the first president to relinquish power in an election (not counting interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who ceded power to Atambauyev after his 2011 election). But his successor, hand-picked from the party Atambayev built — the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) — quickly made clear he was not simply Atambayev’s man. Sooronbay Jeenbekov, formally taking office in November 2017, soon pushed Atambayev allies from key positions. A number have been arrested and are facing charges of corruption.

It’s expected that Atambayev will soon face the same. Parliament submitted six charges to the prosecutor-general last week, who sent back support for five on June 25: the unlawful release of crime boss Aziz Batukayev, corruption, lobbying on behalf of a Chinese company involved in the ill-fated modernization of the Bishkek Power Plant, involvement in supplying coal to the plant, and illegal receipt of a plot of land in Koi-Tash. 

“Prosecution of Atambayev may help Jeenbekov demonstrate his readiness to fight corruption,” Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University, told The Diplomat. “But corruption continues to be rife in his own government and parliament. Some notoriously corrupt officials enjoy informal impunity.”

Atambayev maintains that the charges against him are politically motivated. 

“Jeenbekov’s political goal is to suppress political opposition and alternative strong political voices that Atambayev certainly represents,” Marat says.

Atambayev’s headquarters, at Koi-Tash, issued a set of demands for the government, including that Jeenbekov quit giving direct orders to the legislature and courts. During his tenure, Atambayev was also accused of manipulating the state’s system in his favor.

“Like in most post-Soviet states,” Marat explains, “Kyrgyzstan’s unreformed procuracy serves the needs of the political regime. Criminal charges are brought to prosecute individuals.”

This was true under Atambayev (for example, with the arrest and jailing of opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev) and remains true under Jeenbekov.

“Instead of conducting criminal investigations, post-Soviet procuracies rely on forced confessions,” Marat, who authored a book on the politics of police reform in the former Soviet Union, says. “A number of Atambayev’s former supporters,” such as the former prosecutor general and former interior minister, “were detained to obtain forced confessions against him.”

As his supporters gathered this week, Atambayev had more spicy comments for the media. As reported by Eurasianet, Atambayev said, “If today I submit to this clannish, family mafia, then most of Kyrgyzstan’s people will lose heart. At least one person should show the example – that you have to stand up for your honor until the very end. I believe it is better to die standing than live on your knees.” 

The actions of the Jeenbekov administration, Marat tells The Diplomat, “will help him centralize political control ahead of next parliamentary elections, but will further undermine rule of law in the country.” The result is that Kyrgyzstan “is yet again moving closer to autocratic rule with the leader at the top using government institutions to amplify his own power.”

Meanwhile, Atambayev’s apparent preparations to fight an attempt to arrest him “may escalate tensions between his supporters and law enforcement agencies,” Marat says.

“Atambayev, however, does not enjoy wide support and most of his former political loyalists in the parliament now support Jeenbekov.”

On June 27, the U.S. State Department issued a security alert warning U.S. citizens to avoid Koi-Tash given media reports of crowds gathering at Atambayev’s home and the possibility of formal charges, arrest, and possible “civil unrest” as a result.