Once again, the small Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan is the stage for political turmoil. After a botched first attempt, the Kyrgyz government detained former President Almazbek Atambayev on August 8 for failing to comply with subpoenas related to the dubious release of crime boss Aziz Batukayev during his presidency.
The deterioration of the outspoken Atambayev’s relationship with his handpicked successor, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, seems to fit the perception of Kyrgyzstan as a state where the rule of law struggles to overcome the whims of bombastic political elites. The current crisis illustrates the fundamental power of holding state positions in Kyrgyzstan, rather than necessarily demonstrating the convulsions of a failing state. Kyrgyz elites engage in a competitive but exclusive environment where multiple economic power bases intertwine with state offices – with the most powerful centered around the presidency.
Protest and civil violence – not the ballot box – determined the country’s first two changes in political leadership. The ruling cliques surrounding the presidencies of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev engaged in rampant corruption. They siphoned illicit wealth offshore via readily available international financial networks, allowing them to flee to lavish lives in exile when widespread mass mobilizations led to the rapid collapses of their respective administrations in 2005 and 2010.
In comparison, the peaceful transfer of power in 2017 between elected Presidents Atambayev and Jeenbekov – a first in Central Asia – was heralded as a sign of improving political stability in Kyrgyzstan.
As president, Atambayev eschewed the obvious rapacity of his predecessors, prioritizing domestic stability and strengthened relations with Russia. He may or may not have engaged in blatantly corrupt behavior, but it is clear he benefited financially from his position. Before becoming president, Atambayev lived in a modest home in Bishkek. He now calls a three-story mansion just outside the capital home.
The massive capital flight generated by Akayev and Bakiyev may dwarf Atambayev’s personal enrichment, but his political behavior in office was decidedly undemocratic. Toward the end of his term, Atambayev’s government grew more repressive of the media and political opponents. He handpicked Jeenbekov to run for president and installed his loyal chief of staff, Sapar Isakov, as prime minister. Further protected by constitutional immunity as the former president, many predicted Atambayev would remain influential in Kyrgyz politics.
Instead, Isakov and other Atambayev loyalists have been jailed on corruption charges and Atambayev’s immunity was stripped by parliament in June, laying the ground for his current detention. Faced with an increasingly precarious position in Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev decided to fight back rather than flee like Akayev and Bakiyev.
The financial and organizational support of disaffected businessmen made the Color Revolutions of 2005 and 2010 so devastatingly effective at deposing Akayev and Bakiyev. As an architect of the opposition to Bakiyev, Atambayev is intimately familiar with the levers of instability in Kyrgyzstan. This time, however, he does not appear to have the allegiance of the economic elites needed to destabilize the incumbent.
One of the country’s wealthiest powerbrokers, Rayimbek Matraimov, publicly attacked Atambayev this spring. During Atambayev’s tenure, Matraimov’s long career as a customs official matured – a sector rife with opportunities for corruption. Perhaps wary of Matraimov’s continued influence over state power, one of Atambayev’s last acts as president was to orchestrate his dismissal by then-Prime Minister Isakov, creating a potent political enemy.
Perceiving his lack of consequential domestic allies, Atambayev flew to Russia on July 24 to seek Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support. Returning to Kyrgyzstan emboldened to continue to his attacks on Jeenbekov, Atambayev clearly miscalculated that his close relationship with Putin would protect him from the Kyrgyz state. Russia, the regional hegemon, has an overriding interest in preserving the political stability of the incumbent administration.
The Jeenbekov-Atambayev conflict highlights the paradoxically immense value of state offices in Kyrgyzstan, widely viewed as a weak state. In a country where state functionality is predicated on the enabling of graft by bureaucrats and politicians – most of whom are also businessmen – participation in corruption is the norm. No influential Kyrgyz politician can remain removed from the machine of systematic corruption.
Kyrgyzstan dresses its political contests in the guise of democratic institutions. Elections are contested and the courts prosecute corruption. Winning elections, though, involves manipulation by state officials and the mobilization of votes by the wealthy. The ubiquity of corruption means that major cases prosecuted in the courts are generally the selective persecution of political opponents, not the impartial application of justice.
As president, Atambayev placed allies in key posts to ensure he would not lose the protection the state affords insiders. Incensed by losing one such valuable state office, Matraimov sought influence within the new Jeenbekov administration to regain insider protection and simultaneously launch reprisals against Atambayev, Isakov, and their allies.
Competition for state positions is so fierce because without them Kyrgyz elites are exposed to substantial risk. Kyrgyzstan lacks the impartial institutions of consolidated democracies, but it is not a disorderly weak state. Far from being a marginalized edifice, the state is the lucrative center of Kyrgyz politics. Power and wealth are generated by and flow through the state. It is the possession or control of state offices that provides Kyrgyz individuals with real power.
Ian J. Lynch recently graduated with a Masters in Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He previously led the development of girls’ education programs in Afghanistan. He tweets at @Ian_J_Lynch.