Crossroads Asia

Atambayev’s Days of Immunity Look Numbered

Former President Almazbek Atambayev is likely to soon face charges of misconduct and abuse of power in earnest.

Catherine Putz
Atambayev’s Days of Immunity Look Numbered
Credit: Press Service and Information Department of the Government of the Russian Federation

Kyrgyzstan’s lawmakers move quickly toward stripping former President Almazbek Atambayev of his ex-presidential immunity, opening the door to prosecution.

On June 24, the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General’s Office returned to the Kyrgyz Parliament its determination with regard to six charges of misconduct and abuse of office submitted last week by a special committee. Prosecutor-General Otkurbek Jamshitov said the next day that, as RFE/RL reported, his office had found grounds to levy charges on five of the counts filed by lawmakers.

As Eurasianet reported last week, a near unanimous block of parliamentarians had signed off on sending the charges to the prosecutor-general. The party Atambayev helped created, the Social Democratic Party (SDPK), holds the most seats (38) in the 120-member parliament.

The special committee decided swiftly to pass along the prosecutor-general’s opinion on to the parliament writ-large. 

The prosecutor-general reportedly found grounds for charges in five of the six cases submitted by parliament, setting aside a charge of political persecution, but sending back the charges relating to the unlawful release of 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.

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It is all but inevitable that Atambayev will lose the ex-presidential immunity that has protected him from the kind of charges — corruption and abuse of office — that have seen a number of his allies fall. 

Atambayev’s downfall is intricately tied into the modernization of the Bishkek Power Plant by a Chinese company, with Chinese loans, and the plant’s subsequent failure one of the coldest days of the year in January 2018. But there’s a curious lack of discussion by Kyrgzystan’s present leadership about the Chinese side of this corruption bonanza. As I wrote last summer, Kyrgyz President Soornbay Jeenbekov has been working hard to walk a tight line: Going after Atambayev and anyone involved in what the authorities have spun out into a massive corruption scandal but shying from ever criticizing China, Chinese companies, or Chinese business practices. That has continued apace and expanded into something worse than silence on the devastating matter of Xinjiang’s “vocational centers” which has swept up a large portion of the region’s Muslim population, including ethnic Kyrgyz.

When Chinese President Xi Jingping landed earlier this month in Bishkek to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, he met with the summit’s host, Jeenbekov. The two leaders exchanged the usual pleasantries and Jeenbekov issued the mandatory platitudes thanking China for its assistance in Kyrgzystan’s development. 

A Xinhua reported it: “The Kyrgyz side firmly adheres to the one-China policy, believes that the affairs of ethnic minorities in China are China’s internal affairs, and supports the policies and measures taken by the Chinese government in this regard.”

The dynamics of so-called internal affairs are not isolated from the pressures of foreign policy, especially for a small state like Kyrgyzstan set beside a behemoth like China. The case of the Bishkek Power Plant and the political purge its failure inspired demonstrate just how intertwined “internal affairs” are with matters of money and bilateral relations. Meanwhile, China’s internal matter — Xinjiang — has had its ripples across the borders into Central Asia.  These two issues are unrelated, save for the China thread, but considered together they paint a picture of the difficulties China, and China’s way of doing business, cause in the region.

But back to domestic Kyrgyz politics: We can expect Atambayev to be stripped of immunity soon, after that charges will be leveled and the real uncertainty sets in. Atambayev came to power after the 2010 revolution. Whether he can muster the kind of support to cause Jeenbekov trouble is unclear (and I’d wager unlikely), but he looks likely to put up a fight.