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Mistakes and lessons of the “fifth” power transfer in Kyrgyzstan

“If Atambayev weighs the whole course of events leading to an extremely unprofitable situation for him, he can identify for himself a few of his mistakes. For Jeenbekov, these errors by Atambayev can be relevant lessons at an early stage of his presidential term” – notes Emil Juraev, writing specially for CABAR.asia.

Русский Кыргызча

The fifth change of power

Four others preceded the process of presidential transition from Almazbek Atambayev to Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and each case left important lessons – some were learned, some were half-forgotten. This fifth transition should be considered in a comparative manner with the previous ones; that is, as a regular process, the course traced its predecessors in many respects.

The first case was in 1990-1991, when the last Soviet leader of Kyrgyzstan, Absamat Masaliev, resigned, in a rather peculiar combination of circumstances no less, to Askar Akayev, first in parliament and then via popular vote. The second example was in 2005, when Askar Akayev was overthrown in the “Tulip Revolution”, and the government passed under rather ambiguous events to Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The third instance of power transfer was in April 2010. Much like the second iteration, which was also extraordinary, an entire group of people temporarily replaced Bakiyev, who subsequently fled to Belarus. The newly-formed Provisional Government came under the chairmanship of Rosa Otunbayeva. Otunbayeva, later approved as president through a limited-term referendum, handed over power at the end of 2011. Elected in a national vote, the reigns of power were handed over to Almazbek Atambayev, marking a first for Kyrgyzstan and making the fourth case exceptionally unusual for the country.

The fifth case in 2017, following the path of the previous years, was to be, again, peculiar. In this somewhat comical production, one cannot overlook the important point, which is that with each unusual transition of power the person who handed over the chair was left at a loss. Sometimes this took the form of the dramatic, like Akayev and Bakiyev, or perhaps more subdued but nonetheless a loss, like Masaliyev and Otunbayeva. If you do not surrender power, as required by law, then you can approach a dramatic and dangerous scenario. However, if you do hand over power according to the law, you can be placed in a vulnerable political position. How to transfer power by law but not quite hand it over? This is probably a question Almazbek Atambayev should have asked towards the end of his presidential term. The following is presented as a possible logic of developments in the fifth power transfer and is built on a series of real events.

Possibilities and the 2017 election

President Atambayev, who has a keen sense of what people want to hear though this feeling often pushed him to extremes in eloquence, publicly announced how much he had to be at the head of the country immediately upon taking office, and regularly reiterated his diminishing time over the next six years.[1] After two presidents with a flexible attitude toward the law, the people did not trust the new president much. Understanding this, Atambayev basically stressed the limitations of his term and that he remembers it every day. Consequently, what he would like to do after the presidency changed according to the situation and with the end of his term approaching this issue became ever more serious for the president.

Tentatively, Atambayev had three different possibilities on which he could act. The first scenario was one that he could “easily” apply but chose not to according to his repeated admissions: that is to remain in power through certain extralegal manipulations. Of course, this scenario would be more complex and fraught than Atambayev voiced it in fact. In the end, this would put Atambayev on the same level as Akayev and Bakiyev, whose names in Atambayev’s mouth were sullied regularly.

The second scenario was one that Atambayev proudly declared as his preferred option, but which in fact he did not observe. It was to give full freedom to democratic procedures and the people’s will to make their choice.  He would participate in elections to a minimum degree only to ensure the equality and legality of the process for all. The problem with this scenario was that with the victory of an accidental and disloyal candidate there could be serious threats to Atambaeyv and his close associates after his departure. There were many wished ill on him and his associates.  While the institution of the civilized and legitimate status of the “former” did not take shape, Atambayev himself managed to make a contribution to the fact that this did not work out.[2]

There remained the third scenario, which involved leaving but not leaving. This probably looked the most acceptable to Atambayev, but it turned out to be much more difficult to implement than it seemed from the beginning.

Possible “transition plan” of Atambayev

Judging by the well-known course of events, transferring the seat while retaining power consisted of a rather multifaceted scheme, perhaps even created by foreign consultants. The following is proposed as a possible plan, based on obvious events and processes, and is not claimed as concrete truth. If, in fact, there was no plan, it looked as if there was one. The next four and a half steps in this possible transitional plan should be considered by taking into account what was available in the fifth year of Atambayev’s presidency.

The first step was to amend the current constitution to reconsider the division of powers and, in particular, to move away from excessive concentration of power in the hands of the president. As Atambayev admitted, he proved in his experience that such concentration was possible under the current version of the main law. The proposed changes would leave a significant share of power to the president if he cooperated with the prime minister and the parliament but would limit his opportunities in case of confrontation with them. The prime minister became a more important center but was still controlled by the parliament and president if it was required. The parliament, dominated by Atambayev’s Social-Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) was to become even more loyal in the next convocation. It was the parliament that became the cornerstone of the new constitutional framework.

The second step caused and perhaps only intensified a very negative reaction to the publication of a constitutional referendum, which was meant to neutralize all weighty opponents. Atambayev expressly promised to take all of the old guard with him.[3] The main target was a veteran of Kyrgyzstani politics, Omurbek Tekebayev, and the secondary was Omurbek Babanov, who was initially considered the most likely leader in the elections and to whom his final attitude was only formed late. The methods of neutralization were different, but the option of physical elimination was absolutely rejected.

The third component of the possible plan was to place trusted people in important chambers of power. This process was lengthy and only culminated before the elections by the appointment of a new prime minister, Sapar Isakov, the “right arm” of Atambayev with a long-term view. But, regarding the prime minister, this step also included the question of a candidate for the presidency. With notable delay, the choice fell to Sooronbai Jeenbekov in May 2017. There are many possible strategic explanations for this choice but one of them was obvious. Jeenbekov is modest, not very ambitious & power-hungry, and will not seize all power without his partners’ consent.

The fourth step of the plan is to ensure the victory of Atambayev in the elections. This task was implemented through a wide range of activities that are mostly familiar to Kyrgyzstani voters and the political class, but the effectiveness of these efforts can only be evaluated in the future.[4] One thing was obvious though. The main character of this whole scenario, the outgoing president, took an active part in the election process in favor of one candidate and against another. Jeenbekov won the elections in the first round, far ahead of his main competitor, Babanov.

It was noticeable that there was yet another course of action although it was unclear whether this could be part of a possible transitional plan. A series of court cases were prosecuted against critical journalists and civil activists, most often for insulting the honor and dignity of the president. It can be assumed that a more loyal press and the absence of overtly critical journalism would provide a cloudless, complacent post-presidential future.

The transition’s collapse

If something like the plan described above took place then it soon began to unravel.

In a noticeably modest inauguration ceremony in the spirit of “in his circle,” Atambayev did not look so much a departing president who surrenders the post to the new president but rather a host of the ceremony celebrating the results of his work.[5]  This predominantly comprises the difficult work of transferring power to his man. In a rather long speech, he repeatedly appealed to the new president in an affable manner, “friend” and “Soke”, and read out his own parting words to a friend of his own authorship, which sounded like a warning about what not to do rather than a congratulatory speech. Plainly, the entire plan was executed, and only a small number of details remained. For example, the appointment of Atambayev’s closest associate, Farid Niyazov, as head of the presidential staff and getting the title Hero of the Kyrgyz Republic from the hands of a friend.

What in the beginning of December 2017 looked like a solid power transfer for Atambayev was, on the contrary, only the beginning of Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s ascension. Of course, there is no reason to believe that Jeenbekov from the very beginning was going to erase the whole scheme laid out by Atambayev when he entered the White House. But there were soon different prerequisites sufficient to push Jeenbekov to go his own way.

President Jeenbekov, warmly received by Kazakhstan’s President N. Nazarbayev and who managed to quickly improve bilateral relations that Atambayev brought to a toxic state only a few weeks earlier, should continue to show the same triumphant achievements in office. For various reasons that are to be better known in the future, Jeenbekov either could not or did not want to adhere to the status of Atambayev’s “friend” and the scheme that the ex-president had built. For a friend, it was especially difficult being paired with an emphatically independent, if not disregarding Prime Minister, Sapar Isakov. Moreover, whatever plans and schemes there were in the White House, the people gave the presidential mandate to Jeenbekov and expected action from him.

In full view of the public, the disintegration of Atambayev’s plan began with Jeenbekov’s sensational speech at Security Council meeting on February 8, 2018, in which the president sharply criticized anticorruption efforts in recent years. This especially highlighted the unsatisfactory work of the Anticorruption Committee, which is the brainchild of Atambayev. All, including Atambayev, noticed the speech. For the ex-president, perhaps, there could be nothing more insulting than saying that he did not achieve anything in the fight against corruption.

The speech was followed by the dismissal of the head of the Anticorruption Committee, Farid Niyazov. Subsequent events sharply accelerated the process of change. In particular, SDPK convened a party congress and Atambayev’s election as the leader of the party.  He then held a press conference where he with open-heartedness and in a disrespectful tone expressed his grievances to the incumbent president. One after another, the security services leadership and General Prosecutor’s Office was fired. This period ended in a lightning resignation of the prime minister to which the parliament overwhelmingly showed a no-confidence vote including many votes from the SDPK faction.

By the end of April, the whole of the above-described plan for retaining power, if such a plan had taken place, had evaporated. Ex-president Atambayev became the leader of a collapsing party, and, in an openly bad relationship with the sitting president, all his most trusted and necessary personnel were dismissed. He soon launched his own private television channel, which may become his most important asset in the upcoming political upheavals.

 Mistakes and lessons learned

In the traditionally flexible political life of Kyrgyzstan, it is difficult to guess which way events will develop. But whatever it is, if Atambayev weighs the whole course of events leading to an extremely unprofitable situation for him, he can identify for himself a few of his mistakes. For Jeenbekov, these errors by Atambayev can be relevant lessons at an early stage of his presidential term.

Perhaps Atambaev’s most fatal mistake was that he had no particular doubts about parliament and his party’s faction. When Omurbek Tekebayev and many others trumpeted about the usurpation of power by SDPK, with its obviously dominant role in parliament, it is possible that Atambayev and his advisers lost their vigilance and were too sure of their party. The Social Democrats once again confirmed the sad truth about the majority of political parties in Kyrgyzstan. The fact that parties are only clusters of casual and ideologically flexible business politicians whose fidelity to their parties lasts only as long as membership in the party is profitable and safe for them is undeniable. Atambayev, during the six years of his presidency, had a golden opportunity to let the parties “grow up” and become independent but he did not loosen the bridle from his hands. Therefore, the party remained as it had before.

His second error, referring more to the inability to read the human character, was to believe that Jeeanbekov would continue to play the role of a subordinate. Here and in similar cases it is also how Atambayev poses himself and treats others, but this requires a separate study in the future. Perhaps Sapar Isakov’s behavior, which characterized demonstrative distance and autonomy from the president, also played a crucial role. Come what may, President Jeenbekov, however modest or soft in character, soon showed that he did not intend to tolerate such disrespectful treatment.

Another mistake was related to the expectations associated with constitutional changes. Strengthening the position of the prime minister in the constitution did not really make the prime minister’s position more stable. Out of all thirty previous prime ministers, Isakov’s removal was the fastest and only the second case garnering a vote of no confidence. The president then took full control of executive power, as Atambayev did in his day, and the constitutional changes regarding presidential powers that came into effect only after Atambayev left and Jeenbekov took office had no tangible effect.

In view of these recent events, it may turn out that it was a big mistake to prepare this safety scenario altogether and neutralize the weighty political figures, very often by far-fetched deeds and artificially tainted relations. If all of them were still in the game, and the change of power occurred without the prepared scenarios, it is possible that Atambayev’s position as ex-president would be much brighter today.

Since Kyrgyzstan’s independence, the constitution has been amended ten times, the presidents changed five times (each time in an unusual way), prime ministers replaced thirty times, and seven majority coalitions in parliament have collapsed in the last eight years. As a result, almost none of the most important institutions of power has gained permanence or grown stronger. With such an abhorrent record, to believe that it is possible to organize power in such a way and manipulate people so that you may retain power should you leave, it was a big mistake.

For President Jeenbekov, to whom all these errors are obvious, from this story there arises, among many others, one big lesson from two parts. Firstly, do not try to design power arrangement after your term but give the political process itself the freedom to create them. People in politics are fickle, institutions are shaky, a person in power always has more leverage than a person who surrenders power, and illegitimate designs are the easiest to break. Secondly, have the incumbent honestly, openly, and legally serve out their entire term while strengthening, not for themselves, the institutions of power, support critical discussion in society, and pluralism & competitiveness in politics so that at the end of the term there is no need to build a new loyal and secure government.

Author: Emil Juraev, political scientist, American University of Central Asia (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan).


[1] In the language of rational game theory, it can be called an act of “reliable obligation” (“credible commitment”)

[2] One can recall, for example, his attack on Rosa Otunbayeva on Independence Day 2016, from whose hands he was given power in 2011.

[3] Chushtuk, Aisha. “”I Will Try to Take All the Old Guard Politicians with Me” – Atambayev.” Knews. November 4, 2016. Accessed June 6, 2018. http://knews.kg/2016/11/04/ya-postarayus-vsyu-staruyu-gvardiyu-politikov-zabrat-s-soboj-atambaev/.

[4] Kyrgyz Republic Presidential Elections of 15 October 2017: OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report. Report. March 8, 2018. Accessed June 6, 2018. https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/kyrgyzstan/374740?download=true.

[5] The inauguration committee consisted mainly of officials from Atambaev’s team.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of CABAR.asia
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.