With only days remaining before his six-year tenure as chief executive ends, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev should count himself lucky. Instead of being excoriated for the political sins he committed, he is mostly being celebrated for those he didn’t.
This is a historic moment — not just for Kyrgyzstan, but for all of Central Asia. Atambayev is set to become the first elected president to make way for another leader chosen by a popular vote. His long-time ally and anointed political heir Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be sworn into office on November 24. Jeenbekov won a contentious election in October, garnering 54 percent of the vote.
Atambayev’s final press conference as president, held November 21, amounted to a victory lap for the irascible 61-year-old. Although the event ought to have been celebratory, the president opted to engage in his trademark combination of scatological insults and literary references. The largely receptive audience of mainly cowed and loyal journalists did little to challenge the proffered narrative about how Atambayev had dragged Kyrgyzstan back from the brink.
This account of history, enthusiastically promulgated by pro-government media, has been widely indulged at home, despite the legacy of stalled reforms, an economy still struggling to attract outside investment and relations with two major international partners — Kazakhstan and Turkey — at their lowest ebb since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991.
Outside the country, Atambayev-watchers appear to be suffering from the “chronic fatigue” with which the Kyrgyz leader recently revealed he had been diagnosed.
When asked how Kyrgyzstan’s most important foreign partners, including top ally Russia, would view the close of the Atambayev era, Moscow-based Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov declined to expand on a two-word e-mailed response: “With relief.”
For the optimists, it is seemingly enough that this presidency did not emulate that of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the notoriously corrupt leader whose venality, brutality and tactical clumsiness created ripe conditions for the popular revolt of 2010.
Under Atambayev, “stability emerged and panic subsided. Businesses stopped getting squeezed and family clan politics disappeared. So too did that animal fear of speaking the truth that existed under Bakiyev,” Anvar Abdrayev, a financier who heads the Union of Banks of Kyrgyzstan, told Eurasianet.org.
It is not, though, as if corruption has noticeably diminished. It has simply evolved, adapted or reverted to age-old customs, abetted by the ruling elite’s unwillingness to address urgently needed reforms. “The current ruling network displays vertical integration, with a portion of street-level bribes paid up the line in return for impunity guaranteed by a notoriously corrupt judicial sector,” wrote Sarah Chayes in a recent presentation for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
For those that sought some consolation in Atambayev’s gradual departure from the scene, there was disappointment this week. At his swan song press conference, he pledged to remain active within the governing Social Democratic Party, or SPDK, which he founded. “I don’t plan to become chairman of parliament or the government, or even a member of parliament, but I will be number one,” Atambayev said, referring to his potential position on the SDPK party list.
Some worry that if Atambayev should contrive to continue playing a central role in running matters behind the scenes, the torpid pace of reforms will remain unchanged. “Many positive changes initiated following Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 political crisis were not only not carried forward — they were actively rolled back [during Atambayev’s rule],” said Dinara Oshurahonova, a long-time civic activist. “Jeenbekov talked during his campaign of continuing the course of Atambayev. But the course of Atambayev means no reforms.”
The last two years have seen Kyrgyzstan slide back into a watered-down version of the authoritarianism that Atambayev himself railed against when he was in opposition. Politicians like Omurbek Tekebayev, an erstwhile ally from the interim government that took over from Bakiyev in 2010, and influential business mogul Kanat Isayev, have in the past few months been jailed for reasons that their supporters contend are politically motivated.
State prosecutors have assiduously acted as proxies for Atambayev, filing one crippling libel lawsuit after another against insufficiently subservient media outlets. And more might be on the way.
At his final press conference, Atambayev menacingly suggested that Kloop, a youth-driven online media outlet widely praised for its efforts to promote objective journalism, could be next on the list. Ever since Kloop published a report last month scrupulously documenting how the Jeenbekov campaign might have accessed and acted on citizens’ personal data stored on government servers, authorities have failed to offer a convincing rebuttal.
Without providing any supporting details or argument, Atambayev simply accused “the comrades from Kloop” of mounting “a provocation.”
“[The security services] are carrying out their investigation. And the leads are pointing not to Sooronbai Jeenbekov, but more in your own direction. You’ll see,” he said ominously.
The populist background music of Atambayev’s presidency has been especially deleterious to Kyrgyzstan’s diplomatic relations.
In 2015, the government tore up a historic bilateral strategic accord with the United States in a pique over the State Department’s decision to bestow an award on a jailed rights activist. That has cost the country dearly in US assistance.
More recently, Atambayev picked a vicious and unseemly fight with Kazakhstan over what he described as his northern neighbor’s meddling in Kyrgyz internal politics — an allusion to Astana’s perceived backing of Jeenbekov’s election rival. Atambayev described Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev as an “aging dictator” running a corruption-riddled government stuffed with officials so servile they would “eat poop by the spoonful” if told do so by their leader. Such grandstanding has enabled Atambayev to cast himself as the upholder of Kyrgyz sovereignty, but only at the cost of a souring of trade relations that have contributed to notable shrinking of his struggling country’s economy.
Atambayev has blithely shrugged off the hardship caused by this turn of events, stating simply: “We’ll survive.”
The irony of this dispute is that it has undermined the one concrete, keynote achievement of the Atambayev administration, namely Kyrgyzstan’s accession in 2015 to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. The potential for the EEU to encourage free trade and boost the Kyrgyz economy have yet to be realized, and the Kazakh-Kyrgyz spat just throws more sand in the ointment.
The wounds were similarly self-inflicted when Turkey began applying pressure on Bishkek to close educational institutions affiliated by the religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara accuses of plotting an unsuccessful coup in 2016. Rather than seek to mollify an important ally, as Kazakhstan did when faced with the same request, Atambayev chided Turkish officials for failing to uncover the coup on time and boasted about reasserting his nation’s independence in yet another potty-mouthed press conference.
Many citizens “fail to make distinctions between real national interests and [Atambayev’s] manipulative jingoism,” despaired Bakyt Beshimov, a one-time member of Atambayev’s party who now lives in the United States, in a Twitter post.
In regional foreign policy, Atambayev benefitted in some cases from changing circumstances, especially in relations with Kyrgzstan’s largest neighbor, Uzbekistan. In the year since former Uzbek leader Islam Karimov died, bilateral ties have enjoyed an impressive renaissance. The two countries have formally reached agreement on delimiting almost all their shared border and the reopening of vital border crossing points promises a resurgence of trade.
The ambivalence about Atambayev is well captured in an op-ed by blogger Azim Azimov that was published last month on Kloop. “You can debate at length about what he has achieved, but you still have give him his due. He carved out a spot in our nation’s history, and he deserves it,” Azimov wrote, before adding hopeful advice for the future. “Dear president, do not be tempted to stay. Do not look for an excuse to return. You have already done what you have to do.”