On August 9, Omurbek Babanov touched down at Manas International Airport on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow. After more than a year and a half in self-imposed exile abroad, the former presidential contender returned with a public splash.
The Kyrgyz political scene was already churning after turbulent week that saw former President Almazbek Atambayev detained in a second raid, the first having been botched by the special forces. In the first night of clashes — August 7 — between the special forces and Atambayev’s supporters at his compound in Koi-Tash, a member of the special forces was killed. More than 80 are said to have been wounded in the fight that went late into the night. On August 8, the security services tried again with greater force and ultimately Atambayev surrendered.
The former president was then, on August 9, charged with corruption connected to the early release of crime boss Aziz Batukayev.
The authorities had sought Atambayev’s detention due to his refusal to obey three subpoenas to appear as a “witness.” However, the state’s vague language and past precedent led many to see the summons as a cover to get him into custody. The violence last week complicates the picture, especially as Atambayev boasted about having weapons at his home and it was a member of the security forces who died of a gunshot wound.
Atambayev’s lawyers have been arguing since parliament stripped the former president of his ex-presidential immunity earlier this summer that that and all subsequent actions are illegal.
Into this turmoil, Babanov returned. On August 8, Babanov’s Respublika party announced he would return to Kyrgyzstan from Russia where he has been since fleeing Kyrgyzstan in November 2017.
In the 2017 presidential election, Babanov topped the list of runners-up, coming in with 33.74 percent of the votes. Babanov fell behind the winner and Atambayev’s personal pick, Sooronbay Jeenbekov (who took 54.81 percent of the vote), but came in far ahead of other candidates. The next highest took only 6.57 percent of the votes.
Shortly after the election, the authorities launched investigations into Babanov’s alleged incitement of ethnic hatred and later a charge of plotting a coup. Babanov gave up his parliament seat and left the country as the heat escalated.
According to local media, the State Committee for National Security says that Babanov remains the subject of two criminal cases. Local media last year reported on the suspension of one case (though not its closure), and little has been said about either in 2019.
Babanov aborted an effort to return in April 2019. As Colleen Wood noted earlier this year, “before he publicly announced his return, Babanov affirmed his readiness to accept the criminal charges against him and said he would respond within the appropriate legal channels.”
Respublika, Babanov’s party, said in its statement announcing his return last week that he hopes to “to solve differences” between Jeenbekov and Atambayev “in a peaceful way.”
Respublika — in partnership still with the Ata-Jurt party, though their merger fell apart — holds the second-highest number of parliamentary seats at 28. The presidential party, the Social Democratic Party (SDPK), holds 38.
With parliamentary elections expected in October 2020 (though they could be held sooner than that), Babanov’s return can certainly be read as positioning for the sure-to-be-hotly-contested parliamentary poll next year, especially given the tumult inside SDPK which looked, earlier this year, to be headed for some kind of split between factions loyal to either Atambayev or Jeenbekov.
With the government pushing hard against Atambayev and his allies, Babanov may hope to slip by on virtue of appearing willing and compliant at this juncture.
Atambayev had hoped to lead SDPK in the next parliamentary election, but the outlook on that plan is poor, given the present circumstances.