Crossroads Asia

Atambayev Returning to Kyrgyzstan After Pulling Russia Into Feud With Jeenbekov

The former president returns confident his palling around with Putin will save him. But will it?

Catherine Putz
Atambayev Returning to Kyrgyzstan After Pulling Russia Into Feud With Jeenbekov

Russian President Vladimir Putin offering measured comments after meeting with embattled former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Service

After a quick jaunt to Moscow, former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev is scheduled to land back at the Russian military base in Kant on July 25. The day trip north layers on new complexity to the deep rift between sitting President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and his predecessor, Atambayev. 

After his meeting with Atambayev, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had discussed the situation in Kyrgyzstan with the former Kyrgyz president. Putin referenced Kyrgyzstan’s “two upheavals” — its 2005 and 2010 revolutions — and said “this should stop, to my mind, for the sake of Kyrgyz people.”

“The country is in need of political stability and everyone should unite around the sitting president and help him in developing the state,” Putin told the media. “We have many plans for cooperation with Kyrgyzstan, and there is no doubt that we will implement these plans as we work with the current leaders.”

Soon after handing over the presidency to his chosen successor in late 2017, Atambayev turned on Jeenbekov with sharp critiques as the new president rooted out his predecessor’s allies from government. That morphed into a crusade — under the banner of anti-corruption — against Atambayev himself, resulting in the stripping by parliament earlier this year of his ex-presidential immunity

Atambayev had a slightly different version of his discussion with Putin. In his statement after their meeting, Atambayev said, “We talked about the situation in Kyrgyzstan and the region, about the need for political stability in the country, that both parties of the conflict should make efforts for this. And we also believe that this is a two-way road.”

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After flying to Russia from a Russian military base on a private Russian jet to meet with the president of Russia — while three summons for questioning in a criminal probe lay on his proverbial doorstep, ignored — Atambayev said: “The Russian Federation reaffirmed that it is a friend and strategic partner of the Kyrgyz Republic, but we will solve our internal problems in the republic by ourselves.”

If this matter was an “internal problem” before, it certainly isn’t now that Atmabayev went running to Putin for support. Russia has long been accused of exerting undue influence in Central Asian politics, and in receiving Atambayev, the Kremlin certainly risks resurrecting those accusations with fresh evidence.

How the Jeenbekov administration handles this will be telling. Will they back off on the charges against Atmabayev, perceiving a Russian preference in that direction? Will they push ahead? Is there a middle road available? What will the next phase of discussions between Jeenbekov and Putin on this matter be like? What was Atambayev thinking?

Erica Marat, an associate professor at the National Defense University, suggested one motivation for Atambayev in comments to The Diplomat: cynical self-preservation.

“Atambayev continues to show how he values his own political agenda and, possibly, freedom above the country’s sovereignty,” Marat said. “Meeting with Putin is an open demonstration of his disregard of the political and judicial process in Kyrgyzstan. Much of the system is corrupt, but not because he himself tried to improve governance as a president.”

Marat pointed out that Jeenbekov visited Moscow earlier in July. Domestic developments, including charges against Atambayev, were likely part of the conversation. I don’t see why would Putin support a former president when he can assure loyalty of the one in power,” Marat said. 

Looking ahead, Marat expects the legal process against Atambayev to not only continue, but escalate. “By visiting Moscow and his many strange statements to date only add to the sense of urgency among regime incumbents to prosecute him,” she told The Diplomat. With charges hanging, and subpoenas left unanswered, Atmabayev will soon find out if his quick trip to Moscow was enough to change the course of what’s to come in his favor.