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Why Has the Former Kyrgyzstan President Been Arrested?
9 August, 2019
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Supporters of ex-president Almazbek Atambayev guard his house in the village of Koy near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, August 7, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/IGOR KOVALENKO

An attempt to arrest Kyrgyzstan’s ex-president brought Central Asia's only democracy to the worst crisis of the decade. While the premieres of the countries of the Eurasian Union (EAEU) flock to Kyrgyzstan for a summit, the streets of metropolitan Bishkek are empty in anticipation of the continuation of the confrontation between the former and current presidents.

What Happened? 

The attempt to arrest former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev at his residence near Bishkek lasted two days. On the first try, on the night of August 7-8, supporters of the ex president managed to recapture him. As a result of the clashes and gunfights with law enforcement officers, more than 80 people were injured and one special forces agent was killed.  The special forces came for the ex-president after he ignored calls for questioning three times. He was supposed to be the key witness in corruption cases and the illegal release of a crime boss. As a result of the second attempt to arrest Atambayev a day later, the security forces managed to detain him.

Kyrgyz authorities blamed the former president for the incident.  “We did not want there to be bloodshed, that’s why we used rubber bullets.  Yesterday we called him (Atambayev) as a witness, but now we will be calling him in for a serious crime,” said the current President of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, at an emergency convocation of parliament. Deputies demanded a state of emergency.

READ MORE:  Kyrgyzstan Troops Detain Ex-President Atambayev

In response, Atambayev recorded a video message in which he called for a “return to the rule of law”, asked the security forces “not to shoot at their own people.” He also called for supporters to rally near the parliament building and the presidential administration in Bishkek.

The bloodshed escalated the political crisis in the country as well as public criticism from both sides of the conflict. The authorities have been criticized for the incompetent actions of law enforcement agencies, while the ex-president has been criticized for the disobeying legitimate demands of the authorities.

A tense atmosphere hung in the capital: many in Bishkek did not go to work. Recalling the looting during the last revolution in 2010, some shopping centers and shops closed earlier than usual and reinforced the windows with protective panels. "National militia" have been gathering around these places to hold back possible looters.  Media has reported clashes between police and participants in spontaneous rallies in support of Atambayev.

Amid the bloodshed near Bishkek, on August 8 and 9, the government summit of the Eurasian Economic Union is taking place in Kyrgyzstan.  It was decided that the meeting would go ahead. It’s currently taking place in a resort on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, more than 250 km from the capital.  Premiers from Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Russia are present at the summit.

What Caused the Crisis?

The political crisis in Kyrgyzstan is the result of a protracted conflict between former and current presidents Atambayev and Jeenbekov.

Atambayev was President of Kyrgyzstan between 2011 and 2017.  In 2017, he was succeeded by Jeenbekov. Atambayev actively supported his friend and party colleague, but as soon as Jeenbekov took office in 2017, the situation began to change. The new president declared a war on corruption and criticized the ineffective measures under the previous government.  The longtime friends began to criticize each other and the conflict escalated into an open confrontation.

In May, Jeenbekov signed a law, which provided a mechanism for stripping the ex-president of immunity.  Referencing this law, parliament took away Atambayev’s immunity in June, and now he faces a life sentence on charges of corruption.  According to the special deputy commission, the ex-president was involved in corruption schemes during the modernization of the Bishkek thermal power station, which led to an accident at the facility in the winter of 2018, the misappropriation of land, and the release of the criminal boss Aziz Batukaev.  The Prosecutor General’s Office supported most of the allegations - corruption, illegal enrichment, land acquisition, release of criminal bosses and other acts of corruption.

Law enforcement authorities called Atambayev in for questioning three times, but he did not appear. It was expected that the ex-president would be detained after being stripped of immunity. However, Atambayev remained at his residence in Koy-Tash for more than a month. An attempt to arrest him there was made only on August 7.

Supporters of ex-president Almazbek Atambayev beat a special forces officer during an operation in Atambayev’s house in the village of Koy near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, August 7, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/IGOR KOVALENKO

Why Is This Important? 

Kyrgyzstan is the only democracy in Central Asia. Unlike its neighbors, power here has switched hands several times already - both peacefully and by revolution. Jeenbekov is the fifth president. The first two were overthrown during the 2005 and 2010 revolutions.  After the last revolution, in order to avoid another attempt at usurpation of power by presidents, a new constitution was adopted in Kyrgyzstan. It increased the powers of parliament, barring presidents from re-election.

But it did not work as expected.  Atambayev, the first president elected under the new constitution, tried to circumvent the ban under the “Putin-Medvedev scheme.” Once his term was over, he planned to become the speaker of the parliament. Coincidently, the majority in parliament were members of his party SDPK (Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan).  A friend and fellow party member of former president Jeenbekov became the successor, partly due to the active support of the state apparatus during the 2017 elections. But the gambit did not work. The conflict with Jeenbekov led the former president to first lose influence in the party and parliament, and then, immunity.

The crisis in Kyrgyzstan is developing against the backdrop of other political upheavals in Central Asia: the transit of power in Kazakhstan, the “perestroika” in Uzbekistan and the uncertainty in Turkmenistan as a result of rumors of the death of a local dictator.  Regional instability is complemented by China’s growing economic influence in Kyrgyzstan (including Bishkek’s growing debt to Beijing), which previously existed in an exclusive orbit of Russian influence. Such intense regional geopolitics is an additional source of pressure the democracy of Kyrgyzstan.

Based on materials from Kloop.kg, Hromadske and Novaya Gazeta

By Svetlana Kozlova, Maxim Eristavi. The Russian Language News Exchange.