In 2016, when I was in Kyrgyzstan for the country’s 25th independence day celebrations the State History Museum at the center of Bishkek was, sadly, closed for renovations. The closed museum’s facade made a good backdrop for then-President Almazbek Atambayev’s incredibly long speech on a very hot independence day. (During his speech he insulted former President Roza Otunbayeva, causing her to storm off stage; separately a policeman, in dark blue fatigues and a jaunty red beret, fainted from the heat.)
After the independence celebrations on August 31, I made my way to Cholpon-Ata for the World Nomad Games, where the main events — Kok Boru and the various horse races — were played in a shiny brand new hippodrome.
Four years later, not only do mass gatherings like the Nomad Games (which were to be held again in 2020 in Turkey for the first time — postponed to 2021 on account of COVID-19) seem impossible, but the key political players of the time are in jail and look likely to remain there. In addition, those 2016 backdrops — the history museum and the hippodrome — are in the news again.
This August, the Bishkek city court has upheld the rulings of lower courts in two high-profile cases. Atambayev and one of his prime ministers, Sapar Isakov, look liable to remain in jail for at least the next decade.
On August 14, the Bishkek city court upheld the 11-year prison sentence handed down in June to former President Atambayev for the illegal release of a Chechen criminal in 2013. Atambayev is still on trial for, among other things, his involvement in the death of a special forces officer during the botched August 7, 2019 attempt to detain Atambayev at his compound at Koi-Tash outside the capital. The trial has been largely moved online, given the pandemic, but Atambayev reportedly will not testify. Atambayev’s lawyers maintain that the former president is immune from prosecution, given his status as a former president; the Kyrgyz parliament — in which Atambayev’s former party, the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) holds the most seats — stripped him of that immunity in 2019. The safe assumption, given the Kyrgyz political climate and how closely the courts tends to tack to the government’s whims, is that Atambayev will be convicted.
On August 20, the same city court upheld an sentence given earlier this summer to former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov — that was on top of an earlier conviction, a separate case, yielding 15 years — the two sentences combined come to 18 years. Isakov served as prime minister from August 2017 to April 2018 and before that as deputy head of Atambayev’s presidential administration spearheading work on foreign investments.
Isakov was convicted in December 2019 in matters relating to the Bishkek Power Plant fiasco. In brief: The state alleged that Isakov, and others, lobbied on behalf of a Chinese company which performed shoddy work resulting in the devastating failure of the city’s heating and power systems on the coldest day of 2018.
Then in early June, the Birinchi Mai District Court in Bishkek convicted Isakov on corruption charges stemming from the lengthy and expensive renovation of the State History Museum and the hippodrome in Cholpon-Ata. According to a Eurasianet report in 2018, when the investigations were launched, the State History Museum reconstruction budget came in at $22 million and the hippodrome in Cholpon-Ata came with a pricetag of $20 million.
The Kyrgyz government’s present litigiousness emerged from the tensions between current President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and his predecessor, and former ally, Almazbek Atambayev. Jeenbekov served as Atambayev’s prime minister from April 2016 to August 2017, immediately before Isakov (he had also before that, as Isakov had, been deputy head of the presidential administration), but it’s Isakov who is taking the fall for many of corruption sins of the Atambayev regime.